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The Fatal Middletown Fire: A Fireman’s Take on Tragedy

Deputy Fire Chief Andy Spears speaks from personal experience

People pass through our lives for different, sometimes random, reasons. Sometimes there’s a connection and they stay around for a while. Sometimes they flit in and out through business or acquaintance, and their faces and names become nothing more than familiar or forgotten altogether. Sometimes, too, strangers are in and out of our lives at a moment’s notice and we never forget them.

The latter was the case for Middletown Fire Department Deputy Chief Andy Spears and his volunteer firefighter colleagues. And it was the same for several other people touched by the situation through virtual strangers they’ll now never forget — the four victims of the fatal fire on Statesir Place.  

They were: Sheridan (Sheri) Banovich, her daughter Deidre, Deidre’s boyfriend, Anthony Cadalzo, and Sherry’s sister, Denise Dusold. For Spears, and fellow firefighters, the connection that was made in that one day on April 19 to those people, who they only knew by name, became a lifetime one.

Spears shared his perspective.

He headed out to a structure fire in the early morning hours of April 19, knowing people were entrapped in a blaze at 135 Statesir Place. He knew, from dispatch, that the fire had fully engulfed the home. He also knew that he, as deputy chief, would have to make critical decisions upon arrival that would probably forever affect both victims and his crew.

He didn’t know the people who were trapped inside. But he and the other firefighters would soon never forget the strangers they couldn’t save this time.

To hear Spears describe it is to know that fear of the unknown becomes the most staggeringly consumptive factor when getting set to do battle with the true bully that a blaze can be. Last Tuesday’s fire was no exception. It was one of the worst emergency situations, if not the worst in Middletown, that Spears would have to confront in his 20-year volunteer career.

The ride would prove a very rough one.

“The scariest part of that fire, for myself, was the drive there — getting little bits of information over the radio and not knowing what I was going to see and the decisions I was going to have to make immediately,” Spears said. “It’s the same story for all us firefighters. You basically get to the scene just in time to go right to work. All I (and the others) knew was that at 3:03 a.m., I was dispatched to Statesir for a fire that came in as one with possible entrapment. While en route, dispatch confirmed that there was, in fact, entrapment.”

Spears arrived on the scene, he said, within a response time of seven to nine minutes of the original dispatch. The first truck arrived one minute later, he said. Within no time, roughly 60 to 70 firefighters, in all, ended up on the scene as well. His task: to stand before the fire, assess it within seconds, along with other fire department leaders, and tell firefighters where to go and what to do next.  

“When I got there, there was fire emanating from the first and second floor windows on the front of the house — flames shooting from floor to ceiling,” he said. “The first fire engine arrived; and we went into defensive attack mode right away.”

Knowing the magnitude of the fire and the fact that there were people trapped inside forced Spears and other chiefs to make the most difficult decision firefighters are forced to make in such situations — try to save the victims or stop the fire. There was no “both” option in this instance.

Given the conditions — fire blazing at full force, lapping furiously from bottom to top, and temperatures so high that getting anywhere close to it posed a serious threat — Spears knew immediately that his crew couldn’t enter the house.

He also knew there were people perishing inside and “there was just nothing we could do about it, considering the amount of fire,” he said. “It’s a horrible situation to be in. Unfortunately, as a chief, I have to determine whether or not to put my firefighters in harm’s way. There’s a risk/benefit analysis you have to do immediately. For instance, if you see someone hanging out a window or there’s otherwise some way you see them and know you can somehow get to them and make a quick entrance and exit to get them out, you do it. You always do everything possible within your power to save lives, but sometimes, like this, you know there’s just nothing you can do. There was so much fire … We had no choice but to just get it extinguished first.”

It’s called fighting fire from the outside in, or defensive mode, as Spears explained it. It means “protecting other exposures and our firefighters when there is no other option,” he added.

It was the worst Spears said he had seen. “Picture a room in your house where everything in the room is on fire and you’re in the middle of it — No escape. Just horrible,” he said. “That’s how severe this was.”

After the fire was “darkened down” enough, so that there was some smoldering in spots, but it was basically out, the firefighters had the grim task of locating the deceased, as investigators joined them to start determining a cause. This, he said, is called “offensive mode.”

Why there was so much fire and it escalated so quickly, Spears said is something that weighs on his and other’s minds, but is for investigators to figure out and not for him or anyone else to speculate. The answers, he said, will come. In the meantime, firefighters have to deal with the horror of what they saw and deal with what they knew they couldn’t fix this time.

While this time Spears was not one of those who had to locate the victims inside the house, he said he would never forget a time when he did. Having fought three fatal fires in his time, one about 13 years ago, he said, is emblazoned forever in his mind.

“It was in Atlantic Highlands on Bay Avenue,” he said. “I found someone — a deceased victim. It’s a very difficult thing to deal with. You just never forget that person, even though you may not have known them at all. That moment, that person just stays with you forever.”

Knowing the ramifications of dealing with such a tragedy that turned out to be a recovery, not the rescue always hoped for, Spears said that the fire department has a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team on hand to help emergency responders to deal with what they’ve seen and had to live through.

The team is a volunteer organization comprised of people from police, fire, EMS affiliations who have gone through training that has equipped them to enable them “to open up about what you saw and understand what to expect now that you’ve seen that,” Spears said.

“Not everyone deals with in the same way,” he added. “Some shut down, some get depressed, some become hypersensitive and get angry easily. In the aftermath of something like this, we have to make sure our guys have their mental health straight. This just isn’t something anyone deals with on a regular basis. One death under normal circumstances is hard enough to deal with for anyone — compound that by four under unusually horrific circumstances.”

By later Wednesday afternoon of last week, much was cleaned up at the scene of the fire. Remnants of the inside of the home were strewn in spots on the lawn. The acrid odor of ashen remnants clung in the air.  Little activity stirred on the street. Neighbors shied away. Someone pointed to lone survivor, Stephen Banovich, the homeowner and family patriarch, as he quietly made his way across the street and quickly ducked inside a home.

“We think about him and his family,” Spears said. “I think we’ll always think about them, even though we never knew them. They have become a part of our lives, probably a lot of strangers' lives … forever.”

The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office is not offering any further information on the fire. No one in the office of The Monmouth County Fire Marshal returned calls requesting information. The fire is still under investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office, Middletown Police Department and the Fire Marshal.

Linda DeNicola April 26, 2011 at 11:46 AM
Wonderful insight into what it is like to be a firefighter at the scene of a catastrophic fire. My grandfather was a fireman, a brave man with a huge heart.

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