ST. LOUIS — Dennis Jenkerson remembers the moment he thought he was going to lose two firefighters like it happened an hour ago.
“When I say trapped, I mean they had nowhere to go,” Jenkerson said. “They were hanging out the window and the fire was blowing out the window above them.”
That was 19 years ago. Jenkerson is now St. Louis Fire Chief Jenkerson. And those two firefighters are now Captain Mario Montero and Captain Steve Fritsch.
The men jumped out of the third-story window to survive – Jenkerson broke Fritsch’s fall.
“It was a very, very close call,” Jenkerson said, tears welling in his eyes. “It was a very tough day.”
The three-story home where it all happened in the 4100 block of Penrose Avenue is now gone.
But the memories and the lessons for all of the men involved remain – and are now part of the uniform for all of St. Louis’s firefighters.
Every one of them now has a piece of equipment attached to their breathing apparatus known as a bail out system – and the department upgraded it this year.
“After that call, when I made chief, it was like, ‘We’ve got to do something different,’” Jenkerson said.
And the men tasked with training others how to use it are Montero and Fritsch.
One recent July day, the men got to teach Jenkerson how to use it.
“There was some concern, some question, because it is it's physically a little bit of a demanding type exercise,” Jenkerson said. “So it's hard for me to say, ‘You will take this training,’ if I don't do it.
“That's why I participated in the training.”
Watch the 2003 "News Channel Five" report about the fire.
Surviving the fall
On Jan. 24, 2003, temperatures were well below freezing.
“We had ice everywhere,” Jenkerson recalled.
He was working the ladder when Montero and Fritsch headed to the third floor to vent the fire by opening some windows inside.
Suddenly, and unexpectedly, conditions changed.
Somehow, some trapped fire in the walls began to rage around them.
“I got on the radio and I called command and said, ‘Hey, we need a hand line, a fire hose to the third floor immediately,’” Montero recalled. “And then right after that I said, ‘We need a ground ladder to the window on the third floor.’
“And then it was ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday’ right after that. Conditions changed that fast.”
Montero and Fritsch huddled next to a window, all the while looking at the stairwell they had just come up.
“It's kind of a hard decision to make,” Fritsch recalled. “When the fire showed itself and the conditions got really bad, either you have to make a push and go try to make it to that stairwell that we came up, or jump.
“It's pretty tough leaving an exit that you have open that's right there next to you.”
“It was a small window,” he said. “I was in front, Steve was directly behind me and Steve was saying a few choice words, but basically he was letting me know, ‘Hey, I'm burning up. I am on fire.’
“And I kept trying to reassure him that, ‘Hey, they're coming for us.’ And conditions got worse and worse.”
Jenkerson and the rest of the crew were on the other side of the building.
“Mario was doing all he could with the radio calling, so I knew that me calling on the radio would just be stepping on him,” Fritsch said. “So the best thing I could do was, I took my mask off and I took my helmet off and I threw my helmet down the gangway.
“And I was hoping that someone would see that helmet in the front yard and know that ain't right, that that's a fireman's helmet laying there. And I started yelling for help.”
The move that could have proved fatal for Fritsch, turned out to be what Montero and Fritsch believe saved them.
“You don't want to take your safety equipment off in a situation like that,” Fritsch explained. “We're trained not to. But I kind of felt that was the only thing I could do to help the situation. That's why I did it.”
Jenkerson said he and the others heard the yelling and screaming.
“I remember the chief coming around the building and looking up and seeing me, and I'll never forget the look on his face, it was like, ‘Uh oh,’” Fritsch recalled.
Jenkerson remembers it, too.
“So we move this ladder around the side of the building to try and get it to reach the window that they were calling for assistance from, and the ladder was about 8-to 10-foot short of reaching a window,” Jenkerson said.
Fritsch went first.
“I kind of ducked down into that window, and Steve went over the top of my head,” Montero said.
And straight for Jenkerson.
“He bounced off the ladder and I softened his blow, so to speak,” Jenkerson said.
Then, it was Montero’s turn.
“Part of it was like, ‘I'm not going to do what he did, so what I tried to do is I actually tried to reach the ladder, I tried to hang out more on the window, but I remember the fire burning my hands and I felt the heat from the fire on my fire gloves and I just let go,” Montero said.
He said he felt like he was in a cartoon, falling in slow motion.
“I remember coming down between the buildings and I remember seeing the course of bricks on the house next door,” he said. “And I kept telling myself all the way down, ‘It's not going to hurt. It's not going to hurt.’ And then when I hit the ground, I said a few choice words and I said, ‘That hurt.’”
Fritsch’s ankle joint “exploded.” He had several surgeries to put it back together. He broke several fingers and fractured his spine.
Montero broke his spine in two places and sprained his ankle. It took six months for Montero to return to duty.
A year for Fritsch.
Bail out equipment
Four years after that close call, Jenkerson became Chief.
He called Montero and Fritsch into his office.
“We tossed a bunch of things around and came up with this system that's attached to our self-contained breathing apparatus,” he said. “All firefighters have their own when they go in a building. It's got to be with you. It's got to be on.”
And for the last 10 years, Montero and Fritsch have been teaching their fellow firefighters how to use it.
“The biggest thing that we teach during this bailout class is situational awareness: Pay attention to your environment that you're in constantly because it changes,” Montero said.
It’s not an easy training exercise. Firefighters have been injured while practicing it, Jenkerson said.
"You don’t train until you get it right, you train so you never, ever get it wrong whether it's in the dark, it's cold, it's hot, you can't see, you're in the middle of a room, it's on fire, you can't think about what you're doing," Jenkerson said. "It's just the right way or just the right way. It's got to be automatic.”
Montero said he understands the hesitation.
“It's not natural for me to tell you, ‘You're going to go out into this window head first and rely on this piece of webbing to hold your weight,” Montero said. “It just buys us time. If we can't make it all the way down to the ground, we have time to hang there until they can bring us a ladder and it can save lives, a fireman’s life.”
Fritsch said firefighters have doubted whether the system would have helped him in the situation he survived all those years ago.
“Everyone always asks me, ‘Do you really think you would have had time to use that?’” he said. “In our situation, we did.
"There's probably other situations out there that you might not have time to use that, you may have to get out of there a little quicker. But in our situation, it would have worked.”
The seriousness among the men turns to smiles whenever they see each other around headquarters.
“Every time I see him I say, ‘Oh, Fritsch you're killing me,’” Jenkerson said, grabbing the shoulder that broke Fritsch's fall, saving him from a direct descent.
And Fritsch can say the chief broke his fall.
“He works out, but he's still softer than pavement,” Fritsch quipped.
Behind Jenkerson’s smile is the thought that he didn’t lose two firefighters that day.
And that they’re doing all they can to make sure it doesn't happen again.