On Thursday, May 26 in Belleville, NJ, a fire at the five-story Tudor Arms apartments resulted in the dramatic rescue of a 65-year-old woman, who was overcome by smoke and burns.
Belleville Fire Prevention Specialist Ralph Castellano happened to be near the five-story, 50-unit apartment building around 3:30 p.m. when the fire dispatch received a call from the burning building. Castellano immediately entered the building, and with the aid of Belleville police, alerted and evacuated the tenants.
Castellano encountered heavy smoke on the third floor, and without any protective gear or a breathing mask, made his way to the third-floor apartment where the fire was. He found the woman lying on the floor near the doorway.
He dragged her into the hallway and to the stairwell, where Belleville firefighters then carried her to the street. The rescue happened before firefighters made it to the third floor with their hoses, making the rescue even more heroic.
The fire was extinguished quickly, and was contained to the one apartment, which suffered heavy fire damage. The apartment above received some smoke damage, and the unit below some water damage. Those neighbors had to seek other accommodations for Wednesday night.
Belleville's Fire Investigation Bureau has not determined a definite cause of the fire, although a preliminary investigation points to "accidental causes."
Fire officials credit the immediate and courageous actions of firefighter Castellano as the key factor for the best chance of survival of the injured woman.
This is both a tragic story and one that is uplifting, given the heroics of Firefighter Castellano. However, there is an important lesson to be learned from this as well:
Any time you are in a building that is higher than one story, you must know exactly where all the fire exits are on the floor you are occupying. The reason: Smoke and heat rise quickly, so when there is a fire, the people on the floors above the fire are in danger of being overcome in seconds by smoke inhalation, and also of getting seared by the intense heat of the fire below them even though they are not near the fire. Knowing where the fire exits are means that you will be able to find a staircase that can bring you below the fire quickly and safely.
Too many people live and work in multi-story buildings but do not take just a minute to find the fire exits. This can be a deadly mistake. Do it yourself, and make sure the others who share that space with you also know where ALL the escape staircases are, in case one is blocked by fire, smoke, or debris.