Voices heard in the heat of a moment
One caller sounds sleepy.
One caller sounds angry.
A flurry of telephone calls went out to Manatee County’s Emergency Communications Center early April 17 to report the fire that destroyed a waterfront home in Holmes Beach.
The calls reveal a range of emotions from people jolted from their beds by the smell of smoke and the sounds of screams in the cul-de-sac at the end of 58th Street, where the home owned by Kent and Pa Davis was consumed by fire.
Deputy Fire Marshal Kurt Lathrop ruled the fire accidental after determining the blaze began in a trash can in the garage, where a rag soaked with linseed oil was discarded the night before.
Manatee County ECC logged the first call, about three minutes long, to 911 at 2:19:16 a.m., April 17. An operator answered the call with a standard “911 emergency” and asked for the address of the emergency.
“I think there’s a fire down the street here on 58th Street, Holmes Beach,” a man replied, according to a cassette tape provided to The Islander from ECC. The tape was edited to delete specific addresses and telephone numbers. The callers are not identified.
Listening last week to the calls, Pa and Kent Davis tried to identify the voices, sometimes thinking they recognized their neighbors, sometimes hearing strangers.
“We’re grateful for everything,” Kent Davis said of the help that morning. He said he and Pa hoped to soon move into Holmes Beach duplex they built but need a certificate of occupancy for, and they are getting their lives back in order. “We’re grateful for being alive.”
On the first call, the operator said, “OK, what’s the exact address of the emergency?”
The man responded, “I uh, I think there’s a fire down the street here. I don’t know. There’s a lot of smoke and I can here people down on the street. I don’t know if I ever …”
“How many houses down from you, sir?” the operator asked.
“Oh,” the man said, “it’d be right down the end, at the end of the canal.”
“At the end towards the water?” the operator asked.
“Yeah,” the caller said. “Right at the water. That’s what it sounds like. I hear somebody hollering down there. I hadn’t heard any fire trucks, but there’s a lot of smoke in the air.”
The call progressed.
“You just see smoke?” the operator asked at 2:20 a.m.
“There’s a lot of smoke in the air,” said the caller at 2:20:20 a.m., “and I can say I don’t here any fire trucks or anything, but I can hear some people hollering down there and some banging going on down there. There’s something going on down there.”
“OK,” the operator said, asking the man to answer a “couple of questions while the fire department is on the way.”
“I can’t see any fire but there’s a lot of smoke in the air,” the man said, he described the smoke as like “a heavy fog.”
At 2:21:20 a.m., the operator asked the man to stay safe, to provide the fire department with any information he might have and that other people also were calling to report the fire. “I’m going to let you go now,” she said. “Help is on the way.”
Other voices, other calls
As one operator was handling the 2:19 a.m. call, other ECC operators picked up additional calls.
“What’s the nature of the emergency,” a female operator said, answering another 911 call.
“We can hear yelling outside,” a woman said in a second four-minute call.
“OK,” answered the operator. “Are you at home? Exactly what happened?”
Screams awakened the caller and her husband. They went to their window and saw flames and smoke.
“We could just see these huge flames right on the cul-de-sac,” the woman said at 2:20:40 a.m.
“Does it look like it’s the house?” the operator asked.
“Oh yeah,” said the caller.
“OK, are you safe and out of danger,” the operator inquired.
With a nervous laugh, the caller answered, “I don’t know.” She said her husband was going outside and the operator urged caution. The time was 2:21 a.m.
The woman watched the fire from a window. “Oh my God,” she said at 2:21:20 a.m. “It’s really bad. Oh my God. It’s really bad. Oh my God. I don’t know if it’s her house or the house next to her, but it’s.… Holy crap, there’s, there’s…”
“OK,” the operator said. “I have help on the way already, but any information you can get me will be helpful to the fire department while they’re responding. OK?”
“Like what?” the caller asked. Before the operator could reply, the woman added, “I smell major smoke. While we’re talking I’m getting dressed, because it’s really not that far from us.”
“OK,” the operator said at about 2:22 a.m.. “Well, I need to know if someone is in the house. If your husband found that out, but like I said, tell him not to put himself in any danger and also don’t anyone try to extinguish the fire.”
“Oh,” the caller said, “it’s far from that. It looks like it’s, you know, yeah. I can’t even explain how it, it’s huge. It’s out of control.”
“OK,” the operator said.
“It’s not a little fire,” the caller continued. “It looks like it’s already probably two to three stories high.”
“The flames look that high?”
“Yeah,” the caller said. “Are they on their way?”
“Oh yeah, they said they are on their way already,” the operator said.
At 2:23 a.m., the caller’s husband returns to his house and his wife asks whether the occupants escaped from the fire. A man can be heard in the distance answering yes.
“Send them fast,” the woman said. “It could spread.”
The call ended at 2:24:20 a.m.
The other 911 calls were made at about the same time, with an operator answering each with, “911, what’s the address of the emergency?”
“There’s a fire,” said a male caller in a 26-second call.
“Are you safe and out of danger?”
“Yes, we’re on the other side of the canal.”
“Can you see what’s on fire?”
“It seems to be the house,” the caller said.
“OK,” replied the operator, “we do have other calls and we have help on the way. OK?”
In another 29-second call, a woman reported, “Fire.”
The operator asked if the caller was safe and then, “Can you see what’s on fire?”
“No, I can’t,” the caller said. “It’s a lot of smoke and a lot of fire.”
“OK,” said the operator.
“I can hear someone else calling for 911 now.… It’s really bad,” the caller said. The time recorded was 2:22:40 a.m.
“OK, we do have help on the way. OK?” the operator said.
“I’m wondering,” said another female caller, “if anyone has reported a house fire.…”
“Yes,” the operator said. “We have help on the way. Are you in the house ma’am?”
“Yes,” the woman answered quickly, then said, “No, I’m not in the house. I am a neighbor.”
“OK, do you know if anyone is inside? Are you safe and out of danger?”
“Yes, and the house is just going up. It’s just terrible,” the woman replied at 2:22:20 a.m. “No one’s out here yet.”
“OK,” the operator said. “We do have help on the way. We just started receiving calls on it. We do have the fire department on the way.”
The call continued for several more seconds. Then the operator said, “OK, we do have help on the way, but if anything changes, please call us back immediately. OK?
“Thank you very much for your attention,” the woman said.
“Thank you, ma’am,” replied the operator.
In another call that began at 2:24:17 a.m., a woman, noting that the fire station is blocks away, began, “I know you’ve gotten calls, but why isn’t there sirens yet?”
“OK, they’re coming as fast as they can. OK?” the operator said.
“We’re down the street, not even a block,” the caller said. The fire took place at the end of 58th Street, .4 miles from the station. “This is huge. They should be able to see it from their window.”
“OK, are you safe and out of danger?” the operator asked.
“Yes, but I’m not sure the neighbors are. My God, it looks like it’s going from house to house,” the woman said at 2:24:40 a.m.. The fire was contained to the Davis home, but firefighters did spray water on neighboring properties as a precaution.
The last 911 call provided to The Islander was the briefest at 18 seconds. The operator asked the address of the emergency.
“I don’t know the actual physical address,” said a female caller. “It’s the end of Holmes Beach at the end of the cul-de-sac. There’s a fire.”
“Yes,” said the operator. “We do have help on the way. OK, ma’am?”
“OK, thank you,” the caller said.
“OK, thank you,” replied the operator.
“OK, bye-bye,” the woman said.
Missing from the collection of emergency calls was the 911 call placed by Pa Davis on her cell phone as her homed burned. That call, according to a review of records from that morning, went to an emergency call center in the Ft. Lauderdale/Miami area. (See separate story.)
Dispatched to the scene
Based on the 911 calls alerting ECC to the fire, a record was sent to an ECC dispatcher at 2:22:25 a.m. The dispatcher then took the information and notified the fire district.
“There’s a processing time,” said WMFR Capt. Tom Sousa said.
WMFR Chief Andy Price said locally emergency services use a “priority dispatch system” in which an operator gathers information to determine the appropriate responder, then sends the information to be dispatched.
A 911 caller, he said, provides information to an operator. Once the operator can identify the location of the incident and provide some details to get responders started, the information gets relayed to a dispatcher.
Sousa listened to the 911 calls and noted that the earliest an approximate physical address was available was about 2:22 a.m.
“All they knew at first was 58th Street,” said Sousa, referring to the operators handling the calls. “They had to zero that down and then created a record.”
“Once they get that,” Price said, “they send the information to fire dispatch and appropriate units get assigned. And when that happens, all the alerts go off.”
The dispatch to the first district sends off alerts into stations, as well as sends signals to mobiles and radios.
“There are multiple ways of getting the call,” Price said.
WMFR reported receiving a dispatch notice at Station No. 1, 6001 Marina Drive, at 2:23:57 a.m. The emergency services computer-aided dispatch record indicates the first firefighters were on truck No. E-111 and leaving the station at 2:24:52 a.m. and they arrived on the scene at 2:26:50 a.m. Three other WMFR fire trucks, including the ladder truck, followed, as well as a truck from the Longboat Key Fire Department.
The second engine, E-141 coming from WMFR’s station in west Bradenton, was dispatched at 2:23:57 a.m., enroute at 2:25:09 a.m. and on the scene at 2:34:51 a.m.
A third truck, WMFR’s E-142, was enroute at 2:25:13 a.m. and arrived at 2:35:09 a.m. from the mainland and the district’s ladder truck arrived at 2:35:43 a.m.
A truck established a water supply to the Davis home at 2:39:56 a.m.
The initial water on the fire came from a truck with a 750-gallon tank parked near the home. Four hose lines were pulled from the truck to the back of the Davis home.
A hydrant, located on 59th Street near Catchers Marina, was used to provide about 850 gallons of water per minute through a line stretched about 1,300 feet.
In addition to dispatching WMFR to the fire, ECC notified the Holmes Beach Police Department of the fire, according to HBPD Lt. Dale Stephenson.
But HBPD was already aware of the emergency, with an officer on the way. The dispatcher on duty at the police station - a block from the fire - had smelled smoke and notified an officer, who arrived at 2:26 a.m., seconds before the fire department. Additional law enforcement officers arrived, helping to wake neighbors and later with the investigation.
Soon after arriving on scene, emergency officials decided to fight the fire in a “defense mode,” which means firefighters remained outside the house.
“It was in the trusses” and a collapse seemed eminent, said Sousa, adding that nationwide about 20 percent of firefighter deaths result from collapses in buildings.