The investigation into a house fire that led to the death of a Macon-Bibb County firefighter continues, and there’s no timetable for its completion, Fire Chief Marvin Riggins said Thursday.
At an afternoon news conference, Riggins and Mayor Robert Reichert discussed what happened during the Wednesday fire at 2320 Fairview Drive, just south of Rocky Creek Road, that led to the death of Lt. Randy Parker and injuries to five other firefighters.
Riggins said fire officials got the call at 5:46 p.m. and were at the scene within four or five minutes. By that time, the house was fully engulfed. Firefighters battled the blaze for more than an hour. Then, a code red was called, “which in our world means something has happened or something catastrophically is about to occur,” Riggins said.
The floor of the house had collapsed, and five firefighters fell down into the basement.
Never miss a local story.
Four were evacuated relatively quickly, Riggins said, but Parker was stuck under debris.
“Lt. Parker was apparently one of the first firefighters to fall through from the first level and was pinned in,” Riggins said. “It took us a substantial amount of time to extricate him from his entrapped situation. Unfortunately, by the time we were able to extricate him ... he did not survive this catastrophic event.”
Once the code red was called, Riggins said the firefighters’ attention shifted from putting out the fire to getting out their colleagues.
Neighbors told officials that they heard “explosions” coming from the house, but Riggins said that can often be the case when something like an aerosol can bursts from the heat. While he didn’t think there was any sort of explosive in the house, that’s something investigators will ultimately determine.
The state fire marshal’s office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting with the investigation. It’s standard practice for those agencies to be involved when a firefighter is killed in the line of duty.
Battalion Chief Stephen Stafford, 59, was airlifted to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta. Stafford was being treated for issues related to smoke inhalation and was still heavily sedated Thursday afternoon, Riggins said.
Firefighters Adam Michie, 34, who sustained an injury and burns to his hands, and Ferrell Cromer, 46, were taken by ambulance to the burn center, where they were also treated for smoke inhalation.
Two other firemen -- Matt Couey, 27, and Ben Bollinger, 28 -- were treated and released from the Medical Center, Navicent Health.
A sixth firefighter was checked out at the hospital Thursday, Riggins said.
“I have spoken to the families. The preliminary reports that I have gotten from the families is that they’re all in good condition at this time,” Riggins said.
Mitchie’s family was hopeful that he would be able to leave Augusta on Thursday. Cromer is restless and ready to leave, Riggins said. Stafford’s condition is improving, and his family is positive about his status.
The owners of the house, identified as Don and Kathy Coffey, escaped the home uninjured.
An autopsy on Parker was performed Thursday, but results weren’t immediately available. Riggins said Parker was exposed to heat and gases to his respiratory area for some time while firefighters worked to free him. Riggins said the tanks that firefighters use typically have up to 30 minutes of air, but it took longer than that to free Parker. Riggins said Parker’s equipment functioned normally and wasn’t damaged in the fall.
Riggins said while Parker was trapped, some of the firefighters trying to free him could hear him making noise, but there was no formal communication with Parker. After he was finally freed, Parker was taken to the Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
‘A VERY SAD AND TRAUMATIC DAY’
Reichert praised the department’s “admirable” skill and safety record, noting that a firefighter hadn’t died in the line of duty since 1997, when Capt. Will Rowe was struck by a tree branch during a heavy rainstorm.
At different points while addressing the media, Reichert choked up with emotion, as did fire chaplain Neal Wall.
“Our community had a very sad and traumatic day yesterday,” Reichert said. “With this catastrophic event, at this fire, the loss of life of one of the firefighters and injuries sustained by the others. Obviously, aside from the traumatic injuries sustained by those directly involved, I would have to tell you I think every firefighter at the scene suffered a traumatic injury seeing what happened ... suddenly realizing the reality, the imminence of danger and the possibility of death that’s involved in their day-to-day activities.”
Reichert said it’s important for the community to rally around all firefighters.
“They put their lives in jeopardy every day for us,” he said. “We’re so proud of them. We want to support them. ... We want to bolster the attitude of all members of this department to show they are appreciated, to show they are supported, to provide them with whatever counseling they need to work through these very difficult issues. This is a tough time for our community, this is an especially tough time for this department, but I am convinced that as a community, we will rise to meet this challenge, and together, we will come through it stronger than we were before.”
Riggins said grief counseling has been made available for any member of the department who needs it. He added that he’s gotten calls of support from every fire department in the surrounding area.
Riggins said many volunteers have already stepped forward to help out.
“We have firefighters standing in the gap, ready to carry forth our mission in this community,” Riggins said.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.