Courage Under Fire

It’s memorial weekend and some friends had been over earlier for a girls’ night. Two girls are now sleeping in their bed upstairs and one starts to dream of a barbecue. Maybe it’s the smell that influences the dream or maybe it’s just a subconscious feeling. Either way it was enough to wake her up and see heavy smoke leaking through the bottom of their bedroom door.

Around two in the morning on May 30, 2000, Paramedic Ronald Gamble was sleeping in his room at the Newport Fire Department in Southern California. The phones go off and the dispatch is calling in a fire in a two-story townhome.

There are two women, Sarah Weeks and Kristine Arnolds, trapped in their upstairs bedroom on the phone with the Metro Net dispatcher.

Gamble and the other firemen race to the fire engine and send the alarms blaring through the streets. Gamble had been on many calls such as this. House fires are extremely common due to the many fire hazards in homes. After being a paramedic for ten years he had seen just about everything; people going into cardiac arrest, car accidents, brush fires and so much more. Performing medical services on call was his normal day. However, this fire was about to be different than any other call he had been on.

While Gamble is riding in the fire engine with his fellow firemen, the dispatcher is kept in contact with the girls. He is able to instruct them on how to lessen their smoke inhalation and buy them some time before the firemen could arrive. The girls put a towel under their door to prevent any more smoke entering, stayed low and waited in the bathroom to be rescued. They needed to be kept calm so that they were able to breathe good air and not hyperventilate.

But as soon as the firemen arrived the contact with the girls was lost. Gamble started to fear they had not made it in time, as all the firemen took in the scene of the roaring fire and ongoing smoke. The fire was intense; the flames consumed much of the house and the smoke was thick and black, rising up high in the sky. Although the girls were in their upstairs bathroom which was the farthest they could get away from the fire, the smoke was too heavy to fight through. “Almost all the time people die from smoke inhalation before the fire actually gets to them,” Gamble says.

In a hurry to try to rescue the girls, two firemen raced into the house and up the stairs while Gamble and his partner Mike Mullen protected the stairway from crashing down. Gamble and Mullen knocked down almost half of the fire with their hoses around the staircase while the men upstairs struggled to search through the heavy smoke.

The fire was forceful, causing the smoke to consume the men as if they were simply shadows moving behind a gray screen. It wasn’t only an effect of the eyes but a loss of breathable air.

The firemen upstairs were using a lot of air quickly moving the debris and calling out for the girls. Unlike Gamble and Mullen who were saving their air while standing at the bottom of the stairs, the other men were moving through clean air quickly. Soon their Self Contained Breathing Apparatus alarms went off and they knew they only had a couple more minutes upstairs to find the girls.

With no luck and the need to return to fresher air, the firemen returned downstairs and it was time for Gamble and his partner to attempt in finding Sarah and Kristine. Gamble carried the hose upstairs and they both crawled on the floor around the ruined furniture. Unable to see anything in front of their faces through the dark smoke, they completely relied on their hearing and touch. They continued yelling “Fire Department!”, hoping to receive any response from the girls. For some time, all that could be sensed was the glow of a static cloud radiating off of what was a T.V.

Gamble and Mullen started to feel a sense of hopelessness in the house that was quickly deteriorating. Even if they did find the girls there was no indication of movement or sounds and they did not know what their condition would be. However, the men pushed forward, continuing to search for them.

Then there was a barely audible sound. “We’re here!”

The girls continued to cry out miraculously loud enough despite the smoke inhalation. Gamble and Mullen followed the cries, crawling along the floor.

When Gamble arrived to the source of the sound he attempted to hit the door and it completely disintegrated. He then saw a small hand reaching out of the smoke just slightly in front of his mask.

Gamble hurried to grab the girl and carry her out of the crumbling house while still holding the hose line. His partner Mullen took hold of the other girl and they were on their way out. The girls were rushed to the ambulance and immediately taken to the hospital.

“It was an intense, intense fire,” community relations officer, John Blauer said. “Had it gone another five minutes, the girls might not be here, and other structures could have been threatened too.”

After talking with the girls, all of the pieces of the puzzle fell together. After their friends had left that night, Sarah and Kristine fell asleep shortly after. Their windows had been left open causing the drapes to blow into still lit candles. The fire escalated from engulfed drapes. Additionally, the batteries in the house’s smoke detector were dead so there was no alarm to go off alerting the girls to the fire as soon as the smoke was detected. And the fire had burned through the telephone line during the time it took for the fire department to arrive, causing the connection to dispatch to be lost.

In the end, it was a miracle within devastating conditions.

Despite smoke inhalation and a minor burn on one of the girl’s feet, Sarah and Kristine were on their way to recovery at the Hoag Memorial Hospital. It was a successful morning and the sun was just starting to rise. Everyone was so thankful that the girls were going to be alright despite the destruction of the house. The firemen finished cleaning up the scene at around 4:30 am and made pancakes there to celebrate.

Celebration followed after that day in rejoice of the outcome with an ice cream social. All the firemen and their family, city officials and Sarah and Kristine commemorated how successful the rescue was. Gamble could not be more happy about the turnout and that he was able to save those girls’ lives. A fire that started with the worst conditions was a disaster but not a tragedy.

Gamble was later presented with the “Courage Under Fire” award by the California State Senate and recognized for his brave actions. Having worked at the Newport Fire Department for thirty years now, Gamble had been in his last year of ten as a paramedic. Before moving up to the captain position at the department, he was able to take part in this memorable call.

“In this work there’s a lot of death and destruction but there’s a lot of times saving people. And that’s what I’m thankful to be doing.”