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What Can We Learn From This Tragedy? Veteran firefighter breaks down what to in a car fire.

Click here for the most recent Blog Post from Dennis Curley.

Here’s a firefighting story. It’s a true story, definitely not for the faint of heart. I’m telling it to you so that you have a better grasp on what to do and what not to do if you find yourself at the scene of a car fire:

I was the driver that day on Engine 3 when the call from dispatch came in, “Vehicle fire, no occupants, 6th street, north of National Avenue.”

As we raced toward the fire, we could see and smell the greasy, black smoke that signifies a serious auto fire from a couple blocks away.

I had to slow the engine down to a crawl as we pulled closer to the scene because panicky people were fleeing across the busy city streets, running away as fast as they could from the burning vehicle.

“Run for your lives, it’s gonna blow,” screamed a wild-eyed young guy as he sprinted into oncoming traffic.

Jake, the senior firefighter on the rig, shook his head and muttered “Hollywood” as I swerved the fire engine around the guy and toward the car engulfed in flames — the crew all knew that in real life cars very rarely explode the way they do in Hollywood movies. We also knew that the Myth of the Exploding Car and the panic this myth could sometimes create problems on the fire scene.

Vehicle fires are actually fairly routine business for firefighters. They happen all the time and our crew had gotten good at putting them out. Although the car was fully engulfed in flames, I felt confident we would put this fire out quickly as we laid out a hose line, donned our breathing apparatus, and sprayed a hard stream of water onto the flaming vehicle.

That’s when my heart skipped a beat.

As soon as the jet of water knocked down the fire enough to see the vehicle, I saw two hands pressed against the driver’s side window. They weren’t moving, it was almost as if they were glued to the window glass.

A couple of us shouted at the same time, “Someone’s in there, somebody’s trapped.

Jake kept a wide spray from the fire hose raining down on the car as I bolted over to the smoldering vehicle. I checked the door handles for heat, and tried to open the door. No go. Through the thick black smoke, I could just make out a woman’s head slumped near the window by her hands. I quickly tried the other doors. No go.

Rick, the new guy on the crew, grabbed a small window-punch tool from his turnout coat pocket and pressed it hard against the window. No go. It clicked against the glass a couple of times, but did not break the window.

Our Lieutenant ran up with a Halligan tool. He wedged the flat blade of the tool between the car frame and the window and wrenched the tool up. The window disintegrated into blunt pieces of glass the size of pea gravel.

We could see the victim now. Her hair and clothes were partially burnt off, but her skin was not yet charred. She might have a chance, I thought, as Rick took a pair of trauma shears and quickly cut off her seat belt. The Lieutenant called for a paramedic ambulance and we extricated the woman through the window as quickly and carefully as possible.

Jake and the Lieutenant worked on extinguishing the fire while Rick and I got the woman on the ground, doused her with water, and checked her ABC’s (airway, breathing, and circulation). No pulse. No breathing. We were starting CPR as the paramedic ambulance pulled up.

The meds told us later that they worked on her a long time in the ER., but she never got her pulse back. She was a 27-year-old legal secretary who had just gotten married. She died of smoke inhalation. The only slight consolation was that the smoke killed her before the burns did — a lot less painful way to go.

It’s a tragic story, one of those that I admit still haunt me, but there are some things to learn from it. Let me break down some of the main points you can take away from this:

  • Explosions: Cars do not blow up like they do in Hollywood movies. If one of the bystanders on the scene had understood this, they might not have become a traffic hazard, might have seen the woman trapped in her car before it became completely engulfed in flames, and could have relayed this crucial information to the 911 dispatcher.
  • The Need for Speed: In fires, seconds save lives; I can’t help but think if we’d gotten the 911 call sooner, didn’t have to slow down the rig, and were told that someone was trapped in the vehicle, we might have gained the precious seconds that often determine if someone lives or someone dies.
  • Breaking Windows: Once again, the Need for Speed plays into this. Car windows are very difficult and time-consuming to break without the right tool for the job.
    • Window punches: Window punches are undependable, which makes them, in my opinion, worse than useless in an emergency.
    • Halligan tool: A firefighting Halligan works well, but it’s a big, heavy and cumbersome tool that requires some expertise to use safely.
    • Lifeline: In my personal vehicle I have a Lifeline rescue tool in a case velcroed near my steering wheel. It’s an inexpensive, all-in-one tool that is designed to instantly break a car window or cut a seatbelt. This is the type of tool I would recommend carrying in your own vehicle.

If a passing motorist would have had a Lifeline tool in their vehicle they may have been able to save this woman before fire consumed her vehicle.

  • Cutting Seatbelts: Firefighters routinely cut seatbelts off victims rather than waste precious seconds hunting for a button that may be wedged shut by heat or accident debri. Once again – the right tool for the job comes into play here.
    • Knives: If you’re like me, you probably have a sharp knife on you most of the time. Great. Knives will cut a seatbelt, but it takes some time and you need to be vigilant about not cutting the victim.
    • Trauma shears: They are faster and safer than a knife, but don’t work quite as quickly as a recessed razor tool.
    • Lifeline: Has an excellent recessed razor specifically designed to rapidly and safely cut through a seatbelt. The bonus is that it’s an all-in-one rescue tool that also does a great job breaking windows.
  • Door handles: Car door handles are generally made of steel — and steel is a powerful heat conductor. In a vehicle fire, door handles can get excruciatingly hot. Check them for heat before trying to open the door.

Those are some basics. My goal in telling you this story and then breaking it down is that you expand your skill set and gain some awareness about how common car fires are and about how dangerous vehicle entrapment is. As a firefighter, one way to deal with tragedies like this woman’s death is to learn from them and to share this information with people who can handle it — so these tragedies do not happen to you or to someone else.

I realize I’m just scratching the surface here. There is a lot more to this story — and there are a whole lot of little tips, tricks and techniques to know about car fires and vehicle entrapment that I don’t have the space to share with you here. I’ll be getting more of this information out to you. It’s important to me, and I think it’s important to you and your families.

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67 thoughts on “What Can We Learn From This Tragedy? Veteran firefighter breaks down what to in a car fire.”

  1. Great story and information. I’m wondering what kind of other specialized training/materials firefighters would use to fight a vehicle fire if the vehicle were powered by batteries (Tesla ?) or propane ?

    1. Great question, Mike. Tesla actually has developed a training program so firefighters can learn what to do in the event of an electric vehicle fire. The batteries in these cars are the problem. If the batteries are punctured the chemicals inside them can react with air and combust. The burning batteries get incredibly hot. Firefighting foam cuts off oxygen to the car battery and essentially smothers the fire. But hundreds of gallons of water are generally needed to cool the battery down to the point that it will not rekindle.

  2. The right tool for the job to quickly and safely cut a seat-belt and break a car window ought to be mandatory equipment installed by the manufacturer and retrofitted for each vehicle on the road.

    1. Thanks Dianne,
      That’s a great idea. Something like the Lifeline rescue tool would be inexpensive and easy to install in all new vehicles — a small cost to save lives.

  3. I’m a past police officer, I did a lot of dangerous things, but what you guys face everyday is beyond courageous! I’m very sorry for the young women and her family! I think we can always learn something out of tragedy! Thanks for your input and I wish all first responders well! Thanks to all of you for your service!!!

    1. Hi Jerry. Thanks for your service and thanks for your comments as well. Not sure who has the more dangerous job, though – Police or Firefighters. You guys on the PD face a lot of bad guys and definitely have my respect!

  4. I worked in the fire service for 25 years and never responded to one based on information that was given by the dispatcher . You have to treat all calls as if they they are real . Time is the number one factor in an emergency. I have witnessed many similar incidents in my firefighting experience. Thanks for trying to get awareness out to all people.

  5. I chuckle along with Jake, Hollywood. As a trained first responder it’s a good thing to have one of those oven gloves( good up to 500 degrees) as well. You need to protect yourself to be able to help others.

    1. Hi Scott. Yeah, Hollywood sure has convinced people that cars explode all the time. Good point about the gloves, if I had the space I might have gone into more detail about firefighting Nomex gloves and about checking for heat with the back of your hand, etc.

  6. Wow… this is a powerful story. I definitely will be getting a LifeLine. Thank you for your service. I hope you’re planning on writing more blogs.

    1. Hi James. Glad to hear it. Be sure to watch the instructional video that I’m pretty sure comes free with your Lifeline tool. Yep, stayed tuned, I’ll be writing more blogs about tips, techniques, and tools to use in various types of emergencies.

  7. As a retired Phoenix Firefighter of 32+ years, I quite concur with the writer and his need to get this info out to the public. Well done !!!!

  8. Great suggestion re carrying the right tool. I carry the 5N1 TRS survival pocket knife; this has the recessed seat belt razor and the window smashing hard point.

    1. Hi Jonah. Nice! I have the 5N1 survival pocket knife, too. Excellent tool! I also have the Lifeline velcro-ed on the left side of my steering column. It has a little more heft than the 5N1 for breaking windows (though the 5N1 is easier to carry around in a pocket).

  9. My dad had a 1978 Dodge Tradesman passenger van. He bought several of those tools and some velcro and mounted them by every window.

    1. Great idea! That’s one of things I really like about the Lifeline tool — it comes with a pouch and velcro strips so you can velcro it right by the steering column.

  10. I am so thankful for all the invaluable information I learn reading this blog! Even if you think you can’t afford to buy the survival products here, the information is priceless!!! I’ve bought several items over the past few years from Fast Fight, SOS, and Patriot Alliance Provisions. All are survival related. Currently waiting on my Bug Out Bag to arrive so I can fill it with all the life saving gear I’ve bought. All for that VERY possible day when the shit hits the fan. Thank you sooo much for this and all the other stories you’ve shared that have educated me and thousands of others!!! Lord knows if even one life can be saved from sharing this knowledge then it’s more than worth the time it took to read this blog!!!! THANK YOU AGAIN!!!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Heather, and great to hear how you are prepared to both survive and to help others if and when the SHTF.

  11. …you just can never know when an accident will happen..only is we can prepare for it…having the correct mindset,a most-predictable-to-use tool in every place we are in..and an adequate training on urban survival and basic life support…having this is having a greater chance of surviving an accident…or saving somebody..

    1. Well said, Dario. I totally agree — the proper mindset, tools, and training are the key to both survival and rescue. So many people think it won’t happen to them and are not in the least prepared when an accident happens.

  12. AS an experienced LEO and Volunteer Fire Fighter, this information is 100% CORRECT and ACCURATE! PLEASE read adn HEED all the information and advice! Thank you for writing this, Sir!

  13. I understand how you must have felt in that situation I am also a firefighter (retired chief after 45 yrs) I still carry my rescue knife just like my wallet an will continue to you never no when you will ever need it. 45 yrs ago we didn’t have tools like they have now. I had an incident when I was a cadet where i was driving a fire dept pick-up hauling hose to a station an heard a call for a car fire 2 blks away. I headed to the seen to assist but I was the first one there. The car was totally involved with 2 passengers that were still alive and burning. I received first and second degree burns to my hands and face, still have some scars.i had only been a cadet for 2 weeks and had not received my turnout gear yet the reason for the burns. They did not make it and would never have servived the burns they suffered. To this day I have a rescue knife in each vehicle I own and carry one in my back pocket. everybody needs to have one and learn how to use it.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Chief. I get where you’re coming from — after seeing what we’ve seen in the field we’ve learned the hard way to always be prepared with the right tools and know-how. My hope is that we can pass some of that knowledge on to others and make it stick.

  14. I appreciate you sharing this true story and I plan to share with others in my sphere. It is a shame that people think what they see on tv and in the movies is real when it is all make believe. I should know I spent 5 yrs doing a tv show where I live. I have seen how a lot of things in movies and TV are done. It is very sad no one in story you have shared noticed the found women trapped in the. My prayers are with her family.
    God Bless you for the job u do and for sharing stories like this teach those of us u real care what and how to go about being more prepared to help others and even our selves if needs be.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and prayers. If people become more educated and more prepared, tragedies such as this poor woman dying in a car fire could hopefully be averted.

  15. Thank you for the information. We have the punch type tools to break windows, but with no way to practice using them, they will be next to useless. People don’t realize that even fire extinguishers can be tricky if you have never used one before. But at least it is relatively easy to practice with those. No so much with breaking car windows.

    1. Hi Jeannette. I couldn’t agree more about window punches. Since people usually don’t have any car windows they can break to test a window punch, there’s really no way to tell if the punch will work or not work until they really need it. Good point too about fire extinguishers, I’ll be talking about those a little in my next blog.

  16. As a Navy veteran, I can tell you that fire is the number one dreaded hazard at sea. As a survivor of the fire on the USS Enterprise CVA(N)65 in January of 1969, I know about the importance of checking metal door handles (and doors) for heat from a fire. I can also testify to the importance of the proper equipment in good condition for approaching and fighting a fire, especially in enclosed spaces. Having witnessed several shipmates being brought to sickbay after being terribly burned, I know the horror of viewing the results of an out of control fire and explosions of bombs. As briefly (in your words) as you have described the accident above, I can attest to most of what you say and can say that is an experience I never wish to repeat. Thank you for your service, and for endorsing am important tool.

    1. Thanks for your service! And thanks sharing your experiences with shipboard fires — very helpful insights that raise awareness about how dangerous fires can get and how about how important it is to be prepared for them.

  17. My husband is a firefighter & he has a lifeline !!!!my husband frank has used his tool many many times while were out & about cane upon a Accident and cut the seatbelt or close off of the Passenger f necessary!!! I highly recommend that tool for not just firefighters but civilians

    1. Hi Jane. Yes, I agree. the Lifeline is a very handy all-in-one rescue tool. It’s compact (easily fits in a jacket pocket) and does a great job of cutting seatbelts and breaking windows.

  18. Thank you for the valuable information, I drive every day on a two lane highway that’s known for high speed crashes your information can help thank you!

  19. thanks for this advise . at what stage do a car explode i’ve came across an accident with people inside car on the roof and the fire was verocious, i really felt helpless as i was scared of the vehicle exploding, the fibregate were about 60 minutes drive away and ofcourse to many bystanders on the scene. all this happened out in th country.

    1. Hey Anton. Sounds you witnessed like a really horrendous car fire. I understand what you mean about how bad that helpless feeling can be if you’re the kind of guy who wants to help. Here’s the thing about car fires. They spread really fast, bad ones look dramatic, but cars very rarely explode. These fires are still very dangerous though. As a would-be rescuer approaching a bigger car fire you would, at the least, need gloves, a jacket, and tools to break the window and cut the seatbelt. You did the right thing by being careful.

  20. I carry a carbide tipped tactical pen with me at all times. I also keep my pocket knives sharp. A machete and hammer are also in my truck.

  21. I’m very glad your alright . I’m sorry you have to see the things you do. More sorry for the young lady. Thank you for the thought of this tool to all drivers. And more thanks to Fightfast. Stay Safe and Sound. Merry Christmas.

  22. Appreciate you taking the time to tell this story and the advice given with it as well. About 8 years ago I was driving down the road with a friend of mine when my truck caught ablaze. Fortunately we noticed thw fire under the dash and got pulled off road and we both escaped unharmed. To watch the truck burn was a shocking realization at how fast they actually do burn, had we not been so vigilant the outcome could have been much worse. I got to go home to my family and I am still grateful for that to do this day. I will be taking your advice on the Lifeline tool and probably going to purchase a couple of them, one for my vehicle, one for my kids mother’s vehicle. Thanks again for your expert advice and sharing this experience. Opened my eyes to other options other than what is normally offered to general public. God bless you for putting your life on the line for the good of others

  23. I wish that more people would understand that what HOLLYWOOD does is for EFFECT and not real life. The lady would most likely have survived if a bystander had just tried breaking a window. Yes. Police and Firefighters are trained to help in any situation. Please don’t get down on yourself.

  24. Very instructive. The danger is that panic may make one forget some of the lesson. It is also necessary to now make the effort to go jand buy the items of equipment that are advised.
    Thank you.

  25. I’m am very sadden to here she die. Dam tragedie. We all try our absolute best to keep everyone safe and save people in those tragedies.😐,,RIP

  26. Mr. Dennis I’m a Firefighter of 50+ I I know from experience that car fires don’t blow up. Although we as firefighters it’s hard to know if anyone is in a car that’s on fire. Although you got the young lady out and started CPR you did all you could. You are still hero’s in my book. Just keep up the good. May God Bless You and Your Crew Amen

  27. Been there done that in my 33 years on the FD. Another thing to tell folks is to watch out for exploding tires and number shocks.

  28. Hey Dennis, John here from New Hamp”shuh.”
    Many thanx for your real “life in the present moment” story.
    I’m an ole combat, and 1st responder guy, so my gut is feeling what yours felt like- goin in and coming out – each second U gotta be living in that “present moment” to keep your instincts automatic..only comes from constant training and experience..then the brain’s muscle memory becomes instinctive.
    Again, many thanx. My only question is how come your engine didn’t have the “jaws” on board to pry open that entire driver’s door? The outcome, I know, probably would have been the same, but those “jaws” always were being checked for their presence in their engine locker at our firehouse.
    Looking fwd to reading some more of your good “stuff”


  30. Everyone has made excellent points. I am a LEO in MD with 16 yrs service.. Let us remember a very important point. Watch the training videos. Practice the techniques explained. We have to develop that neuro pathway to know what to do. Can you reach for your tool upside down or without being able to see it? Can we locate the tool under stress and use it? Real daily life scenarios are quite dynamic and change rapidly. Be well all and God Bless.

  31. Got one of those multi-purpose solar powered flashlights with window breaker, seat belt cutter, red flasher in addition to the flashlight. I use the flashlight all the time, and hope I never have to use the emergency tools.

  32. Thanks for your service and advice. I have practiced braking windows on junk cars yes it’s hard and unpredictable how they will brake. The life line seams like a great tool to have i think I will order one. I look forward to your next blog. Maybe some time you can talk about being prepared for hotel fires. Most of us will stay in one at some time.

  33. I was a fire fighter as well I was a volunteer fire fighter in Riverton Wyoming and we had more vehicle wrecks then structural fires we had a semi hauling two semi’s piggy back the last truck came undone some how and ended up going over a little car like a smart car and it ended up crushing the lady that was driving the car some how she was still alive I reached my arm in and held her hand as the rest of the crew was cutting on the car and I held her hand until she departed she didn’t make it but I never let go of her hand

  34. I was a fire fighter as well I was a volunteer fire fighter in Riverton Wyoming and we had more vehicle wrecks then structural fires we had a semi hauling two semi’s piggy back the last truck came undone some how and ended up going over a little car like a smart car and it ended up crushing the lady that was driving the car some how she was still alive I reached my arm in and held her hand as the rest of the crew was cutting on the car and I held her hand until she departed she didn’t make it but I never let go of her hand and fires suck May 6th of last year I lost everything to a house fire 3 pets 4 vehicles camp trailer all I had left was the clothes on my back I was a ranch manger at the time and I lived so far out the fire department don’t respond and where I was a firefighter it bothered me the car crashes and the structure fires but when you see your own place burn to the ground it really hits home I still wake my self up at night running stuff over and over in my mind