For a nine-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, receiving a call to respond to a structure fire at 4 o’clock in the morning is basically about as routine as it gets. While most normal, sane, well-adjusted members of civilian life aren’t typically being blasted awake in the dead of the night to run face-first into a towering wall of flame at great personal risk, FDNY firefighters face their own mortality on such a regular basis that their resumes list “being completely set on fire and almost dying of smoke inhalation” as like the fourth bullet-point under “Other Skills and Abilities” at the bottom of page three.
It was August 30th, 2010, towards the end of a blazing-hot New York summer, and the report had come in that a four-story brownstone apartment building in Brooklyn had burst into flames, that multiple people were still trapped in the blaze, and that those people would really prefer not to be flambéed in their sleep in the middle of the night. With sirens blaring throughout the fire house, 30 year-old Firefighter Peter Demontreux of FDNY Ladder 132 slid down the badass Batman fire pole into the ready room and then proceeded to strap 70 pounds of fire-proof armor onto his body like something out of an awesome 1980s action-movie style rock music pump-up montage. Already sweating balls from the 85-degree temperatures in the city that night, Demontreux threw on his Kevlar bunker gear, boots, helmet, gloves, oxygen tank, gas mask, thermal camera, radio, box light, halligan bar, axe, and hopped into the truck carrying so much gear it was like giving a piggyback ride to a fourth grader.
The New York City Fire Department has an average response time of four minutes and ten seconds from the time you make the 911 call to the time they steamroll a truck up your driveway and a half-dozen dudes jump out onto your lawn with their axes and hoses at the ready. Think about how insanely impressive this is for a second – I think it honestly takes my mom four minutes and eleven seconds to go through her whole “do I have everything I need?” routine and actually get out of the friggin’ car after she’s put it in park in the parking lot of a grocery store. These guys are leaping out of bed, strapping themselves into bulky sci-fi battle armor, loading into a truck, and power-driving to their destination in less time than it takes to microwave a Hungry Man.
Despite their speed in getting to the call, things were looking real bad when Ladder 132 rolled up on the scene at 4:25am on the 30th. House fires and apartment fires are pretty common for Brooklyn, especially in the summer, but it was pretty clear very early on that this blaze wasn’t going to be like the others – it had already spread quite a bit, and in addition to the deadly black smoke pouring out of the windows, fires and flames were also clearly visible, reaching out into the night sky and lighting up the entire block with a creepy orange glow.
As a Ladder Company firefighter, Peter Demontreux’s job was to, well, get up there on a ladder and start pulling people out of smoke-filled, flaming windows before they were barbecued in their own living rooms. So as the Fire Rescue guys kicked in the front door and began clearing the lower floors of the apartment building, Demontreux climbed into the aerial ladder and began raising it straight up towards the flames, calling out for people inside who might need help.
It wasn’t long before he heard a response. From one of the burning windows on the top floor, a 60 year-old man pushed the door open and leaned out, gasping and coughing for breath against a noxious black cloud of murderous ash and smoke. Using the controls at the tope of the ladder, Demontreux positioned the ladder towards the window, reached in, grabbed the man, and pulled him out to safety.
I don’t think I can stress enough that this is these peoples’ job.
I guess some guys sell popcorn at movie theaters,
and some guys pull terrified people out of burning buildings.
Demontreux asked the man if he was ok, and if he needed help, and the man was like no, but my buddy is still trapped in the apartment somewhere. Apparently he’d been in a different room when the flames entered their unit, and a horrible wall of white-hot burning flames separated the two men. In the smoke and fire he lost sight of his buddy, but the guy was still in there somewhere.
Firefighter Peter Demontreux took one look into the burning window, saw nothing but orange flames and black-gray smoke, felt the oppressive heat of the flames even through all of his fire-proof armor, and did the heroic job that all firefighters everywhere in the world have volunteered to do.
He climbed in to find the guy.
Peter Demontreux was a Ladder Company firefighter, not a Fire Rescue guy, but the Fire Rescue team was radioing in that they were jammed up on the second floor and couldn’t go higher because of the flames and smoke and Demontreux knew he was the only person in a position to help this trapped man. Acting completely alone, he climbed in through the window and began a one-man Vent-Enter-Search operation, single-handedly taking on one of the most high-risk operations a firefighter can face.
Crawling on his hands and knees to minimize the smoke, Demontreux army crawled through black smoke so thick he couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face. Calling out as best he could, Demontreux blindly felt his way around an unfamiliar apartment, crawling through the living room that had basically just been morphed into a human-sized brick pizza oven.
After an agonizing few minutes groping around in the blackness, Demontreux heard a man’s voice cry out for help. It was far away – almost on the direct other side of the two-bedroom apartment from where the firefighter was searching. The heat was unbearable, and the smoke made the entire operation a living hellscape nightmare, so before trying to get the guy Demontreux turned back to the window and called out to one of his fellow firemen to start smashing windows in the apartment to vent the smoke and the heat out a little. One of the other guys from his crew acknowledged and started busting windows with his halligan bar. Demontreux steeled himself, turned back, and disappeared back into the black smoke.
Crawling through the smoke in 75 pounds of gear, battling through through a burning kitchen and living room engulfed with flames, Firefighter Peter Demontreux of FDNY Ladder 132 fought his way towards the back of the apartment until he saw the man who had called out. There, leaning out the back window of the apartment, was a 51 year old man hacking and choking from the smoke. The guy did the right thing by getting to the window, but this place was going up in a hurry and there wasn’t time to bring the ladder around to the back of the building – Demontreux was going to have to go back the same way he’d come in, and he was going to have to bring this guy with him.
After identifying himself to the freaked-out dude, Demontreux grabbed him and started heading back towards the ladder.
When the two men reached the living room, disaster struck. The flames reached something in the kitchen I guess must have been particularly flammable.
Demontreux describes it this way – one minute, everything was black, and then it was “like someone turned the lights on.”
An explosion, a whoosh of flames, and suddenly Demontreux was completely surrounded by a towering wall of fire that reach up to the ceiling in every direction. Flames ignited all around him, literally catching both him and the man he was carrying on fire. The emergency warning label on his bunker coat popped red, indicating that he was being subjected to temperatures of over one thousand (one thousand!) degrees Fahrenheit. The man stumbled, and fell to the ground. Black ash covered his face. He was in rough shape.
Outside, the other firefighter on the ladder saw the fireball and immediately radioed a mayday distress call to the truck. He was convinced both men had been incinerated on the spot.
Peter Demontreux had four kids at home, all under the age of 5. He’d seen enough fires to know that this place was going to be a fireball in seconds, then it would collapse, and if he didn’t get out of there in a hurry then he was going to go down with the structure. He could have run for it. Left that guy for dead and saved himself.
He didn’t. He grabbed that dude on his back and literally jumped through a wall of fire as he bolted for the ladder.
The firefighter raced through the living room and kitchen, and threw the man out onto the ladder before leaping out of the window himself, escaping just before another rush of flame set the entire fourth floor ablaze in an impenetrable sea of flame. As the building collapsed and burned behind him, Demontreux began lowering the ladder down to safety. His men, on the ground below, shot him with the fire hose as he began descending, because he was literally still on fire as he was doing all of this.
Peter Demontreux suffered burns on his back and face, and most of his gear was melted in the blaze. The man he saved suffered pretty severe burns and was hospitalized for over a week, but survived and made a recovery.
Demontreux and the man immediately after the rescue.
Check out how badly his gear is melted.
Nine people were injured in the fire on August 30th, but thanks to the actions of Demontreux and the heroic crews of Fire Rescue Two and Ladder 132, there were no fatalities.
For his actions, going above and beyond the call of duty and putting his own life on the line to save someone else, Firefighter Peter Demontreux received the Medal of Valor, the highest award available for civil service in the United States.
In true firefighter badass fashion, he said that he was just doing his job.
(Which I guess is technically true.)
Medal of Valor Citation
NY Daily News
Firefighter Close Calls