Author(s): Rita Fahy, Joseph Molis. Published on July 1, 2020.

Selected 2019 On-Duty Firefighter Fatality Incidents

These incident summaries illustrate some of the issues and concerns in firefighter safety and health


Firefighters responded to an early morning report of a fire smoldering in a concrete silo at a corn processing plant. The silo held gluten pellets. Two firefighters were operating on the roof of the silo when an explosion occurred. One firefighter fell nearly 100 feet (30 meters) to the ground, suffering fatal injuries, and the second fell into the silo, suffering serious injuries in the fall.

The fire was discovered by workers who had been working at the site to clear a blockage near the bottom of the silo. The clearing process involved using a high-pressure water head to break up the material blocking the flow of product. When they arrived at work that day, they found that material that had been removed from the silo the previous day was smoldering. They attempted to extinguish the fire themselves until they noticed more burning material falling out of the hopper at the bottom of the silo and called the fire department.

Arriving firefighters focused their initial attack in the pit area near the bottom of the silo. After making several unsuccessful attempts to extinguish the fire over the course of approximately two hours, they decided to change their plan of attack and fight the fire from the roof of the silo. The bucket of the ladder truck could not reach the top of the silo—it was about 10 feet (3 meters) short—so two firefighters carried two 50-foot (15-meter) sections of 3-inch (7.6-centimeter) hose to the roof of the silo. Guided by a plant employee, it took them 15 to 20 minutes, via stairs and an elevator, to reach the catwalk on top of the silos, at which point the employee retreated due to the smoky conditions. Once atop the silo, the firefighters lowered one section of hose down to a firefighter in the bucket, who connected the hose to the discharge in the front of the bucket while the two firefighters dropped the hose into the silo through an access vent and began flowing water into the silo.

About 10 minutes later, an explosion occurred in the silo, and the victim, a 33-year-old career lieutenant, fell from the roof, striking a canopy below before falling to the ground. Resuscitation efforts began immediately, and the firefighter was taken by helicopter to the hospital where he died of traumatic injuries. The firefighter who fell into the silo was removed through an access hatch on a small platform between the burning silo and an adjacent silo. Once extricated, he was flown by helicopter to the hospital where he was treated for traumatic injuries. He returned to firefighting activities several months later. The firefighter in the bucket of the aerial apparatus and another firefighter on the ground suffered bruising and muscular injuries when they were knocked down by the force of the explosion.

The fire was finally extinguished the following afternoon.

Investigators determined that the explosion most likely resulted from the ignition of combustible gas but could not completely rule out a combustible dust explosion. They also determined that the root cause of the explosion was the application of water from the top of the silo. As a result of the state OSHA investigation, the plant operator and cleaning company were cited and fined for several safety violations related to their handling of the incident.


A fire captain died as a result of exposure to intense fire and heat conditions while conducting search operations at a fire in a three-story apartment building.

Just before 11 a.m., an emergency call reported smoke in a three-story apartment building with a person trapped on the third floor. Firefighters arrived at the six-unit building to find heavy fire at the rear of the structure. While one firefighter raised a ladder on the side of the building to a third-floor window where a person was last seen, a 32-year-old captain and a 20-year-old firefighter went up the front stairs to conduct a primary search of the apartment. Leaving the charged hose line in the stairwell, they entered the apartment where they encountered intense heat and zero visibility.

As they proceeded through the apartment, they heard over the radio that the trapped occupant had been rescued from a window. They turned back towards the stairwell to leave the building but encountered extreme fire conditions and were trapped. They called a Mayday but received no response. They began to search for another exit or an area of safe refuge within the apartment. At the rear of the apartment, the captain shielded the other firefighter from the fire conditions with his body.

At about the same time, a crew from a neighboring fire department entered the front stairwell, following the first crew’s handline. They found the hose burned through in the stairwell and transmitted another Mayday call. Ground ladders were raised to windows to assist the trapped firefighters.

Eventually, the trapped firefighter became aware of water knocking down the fire around himself and the captain, and the room began to cool down. As visibility improved, he noticed a window; he tried to alert the captain but realized he was unconscious. Unable to move the captain by himself, he tried to attract the attention of firefighters on the ground but was not seen or heard. He was able to retrieve his radio and reported their location and situation. Firefighters raised a ground ladder to the porch of the apartment and removed the captain, who was unresponsive. EMTs at the scene started CPR on the captain. He was transported to the hospital, where he died.

The captain’s death was due to hyperthermia and/or hypoxia; the other firefighter suffered burn injuries but was not hospitalized. Three other firefighters were also treated at the hospital and released.

The fire started when a discarded cigarette ignited nearby combustibles on the third-floor porch and spread into the apartment.

The fire chief from another department suffered a fatal heart attack while attending the captain’s funeral.


A 37-year-old fire captain was killed, and three others—a captain from another fire department and two firefighters—were injured while operating at a mutual aid structure fire in a neighboring community.

County dispatch received a call at 4:15 p.m. reporting the fire at a one-story brick single-family home. The caller said that all occupants were out of the house, but that the homeowner was attempting to re-enter the structure to rescue pets. The dispatcher mistakenly sent a neighboring fire department to the fire and told them that the occupants were out of the house. The sheriff’s office was also dispatched and asked to keep the occupants outside the home.

Within minutes, the fire department requested mutual aid from two other fire departments. Several minutes later, the sheriff’s department confirmed that all occupants were out of the building, but that information was not shared with the responding fire departments.

The first apparatus arrived 12 minutes after the initial call, and reported the house fully involved, with heavy smoke and fire emitting through the roof and windows. Firefighters discovered hoarding conditions after gaining entry to the house.

At 4:34 p.m., 19 minutes after the initial call, the victim’s fire department was dispatched to assist as mutual aid. The captain and two firefighters arrived at 4:46 p.m. By then, a portion of the roof had been consumed by fire, and fire was still burning in the basement.

After conferring with the incident commander, the captain and his two firefighters were assigned to the left-hand side of the structure to gain access to the basement through the garage door. Initially, the captain and one firefighter operated a one-and-three-quarter-inch (4.5 centimeter) handline and a thermal imaging camera through an unlocked door into the garage while the other firefighter, along with a captain and firefighter from another department, attempted to cut through the larger garage door with a saw. Use of the saw on the garage door placed the firefighters directly under the gable. Once they created the opening in the garage door, the captain and the firefighter redeployed to the newly created opening under the gable and operated in the same manner, alternating between identifying hot spots with the thermal camera and spraying water in that area.

Nearly 45 minutes into the fire, the gable wall, which had lost its support when that area of the roof burned away, collapsed onto the firefighters below. The captain was found lying supine with his self-contained breathing apparatus still in place, unconscious with no detectable pulse or respirations. Firefighters immediately started CPR, and the captain was transported via helicopter to an emergency facility where he later succumbed to crushing injuries to his head, neck, and chest. The other firefighters in the collapse zone received varying degrees of injuries and were treated and transported to area hospitals.

Over the course of the fire, six fire departments were involved in suppression activities. A state investigation report on the fire indicated that several command duties outlined in NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System and Command Safety, had not been followed. These included establishing a command post, using an accountability system, and conducting ongoing situation assessments. A unified command was not established. A complete walk around the structure was not conducted until after the collapse occurred.


A 36-year-old firefighter was shot and killed while on an EMS call. The 14-year veteran firefighter responded at approximately 5:30 p.m. to reports of a man having a seizure. The unconscious victim was found on a transit bus, not breathing. Firefighters began treatment while awaiting the arrival of an ambulance and medics. When the medics arrived, firefighters continued to assist with the patient. The patient eventually regained consciousness and spontaneous respirations after administration of the narcotic antagonist, naloxone.

The firefighters, medics, and police officers began transferring the patient to a stretcher when he became unruly and uncooperative. Medics and firefighters attempted to calm the patient by explaining that he needed to be transported to the hospital. He was advised that the beneficial effects of the medicine they had just administered would wear off, rendering him unconscious again. Police eventually had to step in and attempt to control the patient.

While police officers were trying to calm the patient and search for weapons, he pulled a small pistol from his pocket and began firing. As the police officers and firefighters took cover, gunshots hit one firefighter in the back, a police officer in the leg, and a civilian in both the head and leg.

As the police continued to exchange gunfire with the suspect, the other firefighters on scene immediately emerged from cover to retrieve a medical equipment bag and to tend to the injuries of the downed firefighter. The firefighter was ashen and without pulse and respirations. Medics and firefighters were able to restore his pulse and transport him to the hospital where he later succumbed to a single gunshot wound to his back. The suspect was eventually shot and killed by police on scene. The police officer and civilian who were also shot in the incident were both expected to recover.


A firefighter was killed and another was severely injured when aerial shells exploded while they were preparing for a fireworks display.

Twelve firefighters were involved in preparations for the community’s Fourth of July fireworks display in a city-owned storage facility. The building was a windowless concrete block structure with a metal roof, a metal rollup door on one side of the structure, and two sets of double doors. Firefighters moved shells from a storage container outside into the structure where they fused the aerial shells with electric matches. The prepared shells were then stored in the structure.

The firefighters had been working for three hours and were almost finished when a shell one firefighter was holding ignited and exploded. That explosion caused other explosions involving all the shells in the building. The resulting pressure buildup blew out the walls, and burning material ignited the other contents of the building. The two firefighters in the immediate area were severely burned and were airlifted to the trauma unit.

One of them, a 46-year-old firefighter, succumbed to his injuries six weeks later. The 36-year-old firefighter who had been holding the shell that exploded was treated for burns and released after approximately one month in the hospital. The other 10 firefighters received minor injuries and were treated at the scene or in the emergency room and released.

A state fire marshal’s investigation determined the cause to be accidental.


At approximately 8:40 a.m., an engine crew consisting of an officer and two firefighters began a training hike as part of a daily fitness routine. All three firefighters, dressed in full wildland personal protective equipment and carrying hand tools, began the approximately 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) hike through terrain consisting of gravel and loose boulders. The trail included flat areas as well as slopes and substantial elevations. The weather was sunny with a temperature of 78 degrees F (26 degrees C) and a relative humidity of 63 percent. The expected time to complete the hike was 30 minutes.

During the hike, the officer and one firefighter had to wait for the second firefighter to catch up on more than one occasion. After completing the hike in approximately 40 minutes, the officer determined they did not meet the 30-minute time requirement, and after a 20-minute break to rehydrate they would repeat the hike.

At approximately 9:40 a.m., the crew began the second hike. One firefighter noticed that the other firefighter didn’t seem to fully recover from the first hike. During the second hike, the firefighter needed to take numerous breaks. After climbing over one of the elevated ridges, he fell forward and sat down. The officer and the second firefighter took measures to cool him, removing his helmet, jacket, and shirt and pouring water over his head, but his mental status declined. A medical response, including an airlift, was initiated, but due to the location and difficult terrain it was almost two hours before the patient reached the hospital. The firefighter was unresponsive but breathing during transport. He succumbed to his injuries early the next morning.

An autopsy determined that the 28-year-old firefighter had died from heat exposure with a body temperature that had reached 107 degrees F (42 degrees C). The death was ruled as accidental.


A 45-year-old volunteer firefighter was killed in a mid-afternoon crash while responding alone to a reported brush fire.

The firefighter, who had been a member of the fire department for only a few months, was driving westbound in a water tanker carrying 1,900 gallons of water when the vehicle went onto the shoulder. The firefighter overcorrected, causing the truck to cross the centerline of the two-lane road, strike a rock embankment on the opposite side, and overturn. The truck came to rest in the westbound lane, facing east, with the tank separating from the truck. The victim, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected and pronounced dead at the scene

The weather was clear and the road was straight and dry. Speed may have been a factor, as the vehicle was traveling at 60 mph (100 kph) in a 30 mph (50 kph) zone.

The fire turned out to be a controlled burn.


While responding to a medical call at 3:30 p.m., two firefighters came upon a two-vehicle crash along a two-lane highway and pulled over to assist the vehicles’ occupants. One firefighter, who was wearing a traffic safety vest, was at the driver’s side window of one of the vehicles assessing the driver when he was struck in the head by the side mirror of a passing semi-truck. The firefighter was pinned between the semi and the vehicle he had been standing at.

The victim, a 46-year-old career fire engineer with 22 years of service, was treated at the scene and transported to the hospital, where he died of multiple blunt-force injuries.


An assistant chief became entangled in brush and suffered fatal burns while attempting to outrun a fast-spreading grass fire.

Firefighters from the state’s wildland management agency and the local fire district were called to respond to a fast-moving grass and brush fire just before 4 p.m. Fire danger was at its highest level, with the temperature near 90 degrees F (32 degrees C), humidity at 19 percent, and wind at 15 mph (24 kph) and gusting to 25 mph (40 kph).

The fire was first reported to be about the size of a basketball court and spreading to a nearby home. A subsequent call at 4:06 p.m. reported the fire to be the size of a football field. At 4:09 p.m., the first-arriving firefighters found that the fire already covered five to 10 acres (two to four hectares), with 9- to 15-foot (3- to 5-meter) flames.

Because the local firefighters knew that structures were threatened, they donned structural firefighting gear. An assistant chief left the station with another firefighter in a brush truck, wearing turnout pants, with his jacket stowed between the cab of the truck and the rear-mounted storage compartment. They arrived at the fire at 4:15 p.m. and initially focused on protecting a recreational vehicle and a bulldozer. When a second brush truck arrived at their location, they headed further north to protect a cluster of structures up the road.

The assistant chief drove to the site along a trail while the firefighter rode on the outside of the vehicle, operating a hose line on the flames, in an attempt to keep the fire from spreading toward the structures. At a bend in the trail, the assistant chief stopped the truck on the grass as the firefighter got off the truck and extended the hose line toward the fire.

The wind suddenly shifted, and the fire began spreading toward them. The assistant chief yelled to the firefighter to drop the hose and run to the truck. The fire was moving too fast, however, and the firefighter was unable to get in the passenger-side door. Running to the other side of the truck, he climbed onto the outside of the vehicle as the assistant chief tried to drive away. After traveling only a few feet, the truck became stuck and was engulfed by flames. Both men ran from the truck, heading toward the trail along slightly different paths. The assistant chief apparently became entangled in debris hidden in the vegetation and was overrun by fire. The firefighter reached the trail just as the fire, now out of fuel, died down.

He immediately headed back to find the assistant chief and located him about 150 feet (45 meters) from the truck. The firefighter called a Mayday at 4:26 p.m. Medical assistance headed immediately to the site, including a local EMT who had heard the radio traffic reporting the fire and self-dispatched to the scene, anticipating that medical assistance might be needed.

Top photograph: AP/WIDE WORLD