He Did His Job. She Lived
by Paul Bass | Oct 7, 2011 2:11 pm
Without some lucky timing, Capt. Billy Gould and his crew might not have saved Annie Berrios’s life this week. If in fact you can say they saved her life.
Billy Gould didn’t say they “saved” her life.
They “rescued” her, he said. They “removed” her.
She wasn’t leaving that burning building on her own. If they had come any later, Gould said, “she would have been in trouble.” Life-threatening trouble.
But do the words “saving her life” apply? Gould was asked the question. Five different ways. He didn’t feel comfortable answering.
“I have to leave that for somebody else to say,” Gould finally responded.
He did feel comfortable saying this: “I was doing my job.” As were the colleagues at the scene with him. For New Haven firefighters, the job often means rescuing people. Or, to put it another way, saving lives.
This was a week of rescues for New Haven’s firefighters. There was Tuesday afternoon’s three-alarm fire at a wood-frame building on Howard Avenue, where Gould led Annie Berrios to safety from a stairwell between the second and third floors. Thursday afternoon found Gould and his fellow firefighters climbing and pulling and being lowered and raised on ropes on the face of East Rock to rescue a trapped Yale student. Firefighters even helped police Lt. Holly Wasilewski save a kitten trapped in a below-ground pipe below Lamberton Street Wednesday evening.
3 Generations, Going On 4
It is said that someone who saves a life saves a “whole world” —generations of people who could descend from the rescued soul.
Suffice it say that many firefighters have accumulated some worlds in their ledgers. Gould remembers the winter night 17 years or so ago, after a snowstorm dropped 10 inches on New Haven, that he entered a third-story apartment in a burning building to find a baby girl who’d been left behind in a crib. “I remember carrying her right to the outside” to her family on the street, he said. He won’t say whether he saved her life. He remembers five or six years later encountering a woman holding a baby in a room above the old Snack Shop at Humphrey and State. The building was in flames. The woman, overcome by fear, wouldn’t budge. He asked his fellow firefighters to restrain her while Gould took the baby from her and brought the baby outside; then the others coaxed the mother outside.
“Every fire you go to, I don’t care how many years you’ve been on the job,” said Gould, who at 45 has been on the job more than 24 years, “it’s almost like your first fire. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I tell the young guys all the time: When you get to these scenes, you have to control your emotions. You have to keep your head” and let training kick in.
Gould didn’t know if his crew would need to save a life last Tuesday afternoon when they responded to a call from Stevens Street about a person having a seizure.
Gould usually works at the Ellsworth Avenue fire station, where he serves as acting battalion chief. Tuesday was a “swap day”; he was filling in at the Howard Avenue station.
It turned out no one needed saving on Stevens Street. No patient could be found.
Gould and the Engine 11 crew headed back to the Howard Avenue firehouse around 4 p.m. Along the way they saw a crowd gathered outside 541 Howard.
“We noticed a commotion on the sidewalk. People were pointing,” Gould recalled in an interview Thursday in his quarters on Ellsworth—the same quarters his father Thomas occupied as a battalion chief in the 1990s. Goulds have been at the ready to rescue people in New Haven since 1929, when Billy’s grandfather William joined the department. Billy’s 13-year-old son, Terry, has already started hanging around the Dunbar Hill volunteer fire department in Hamden, where Billy got his start at 18. Even Billy’s wife, Cara Gould, is a New Haven firefighter.
There was no mention of a problem on Howard Avenue over the radio. Gould took a look. Black smoke was pouring out of the Howard Avenue building; it was on fire. He quickly called it in. Then he noticed flames shooting out. The fire was already well in progress.
Gould’s crew got right to work as other companies headed over to help. James Sorrentino stretched the hose line; Carlos Alicea was in charge of filling it with water. Damien Wright connected it to a hydrant.
Gould was in charge. “You pull up and you size up what your attack is,” he said. “The objective is [first] search for life and [then] get as close to the seat of the fire as you can.”
“In a building like that”—an older wood-frame three-story house, with a store on the first floor, apartments above—“your window of opportunity to survive starts to close. If somebody is in there trapped, you have no respiratory protection, no heat protection. They’re not going to be able to survive for long.”
Protective masks in place, Gould and Sorrentino walked through the open front door to the second floor, where flames had been spotted.
The second-story apartment’s door was open. The apartment’s occupant or occupants had fled. Black smoke was pouring into the hallway.
“As we were waiting for water to fill our line,” Gould recalled, “we heard a female screaming above our position.” The screaming came for upstairs.
Like A Chimney
“Hello! Hello!” Gould yelled.
“I’m up here! I’m up here!” came the response.
“Stay right here” to start fighting the flames, Gould told Sorrentino. Gould worried the flames would get out into the hall, complicating the path to safety for the woman upstairs.
The stairway he’d ascended originally didn’t go to the third floor. He found a door elsewhere on the landing leading. The door was half opened. The woman was sitting there.
“A stairway is a very dangerous place to be” in a fire, Gould said. “It turns into a chimney.”
Annie Berrios “was panicked,” Gould said. She appeared to be in her 30s. She couldn’t get up and move.
“Is there anyone else upstairs?” he asked.
“No,” Berrios responded. “I’m the only one.”
Berrios “needed persuasion to get going,” Gould said. “She wasn’t leaving on her own. If people are panicking and think they’re trapped, they’re trapped. She opened the door and saw the smoke in the hall. She wasn’t ready to venture out in the hall herself.”
“All right. Let’s go.” With those words Gould took her arm, helped her up, and led her through the smoke-filled hallway and downstairs. He handed her off to Lt. Mike Pozika and firefighter Marc Gianelli, then returned upstairs to help Sorrentino douse the flames. Berrios was taken outside. She had smoke on her face but didn’t request medical treatment.
(Berrios later told the Register’s William Kaempffer that she’d been sleeping when the fire started and was too scared to get herself out. Click here to watch a video in which she’s interviewed at the end.)
It took Gould and Sorrentino five minutes to extinguish the flames in the second-floor apartment. But the fire had spread. Firefighters from a ladder company, Joe Sullivan and Mike Neal, opened up the roof to let out gas and localize the fire, and put it out.
“I don’t want to say I saved a life,” Gould insisted. “I was doing a job. That’s what we get paid for. We love it. There’s nothing like coming in on the first apparatus and getting through that front door. You’re making a difference.
“We measure things in seconds. Thirty seconds to a minute more, she would have been in trouble. If we weren’t there when we were, if we were on that medical call [on Stevens Street], I could say with some certainty she would have been in trouble.
“It was just fate. We were in the right place at the right time.” With the right training. And the right presence of mind.
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The doubting Thomas’s of New Haven and the surrounding area who are use to criticizing the firefighters are getting a first hand look at the actions of these brave men and women. The NHI has been “first in on the scene” many times of the various media reporting the NHFD responses. All the firefighters are well trained and highly motivated and spring into combat ready mode when the bell hits. The old adage “Support your firefighters, the life they save may be yours” holds true day after day. You never know!
Great work by Captain Gould and everyone else at the NHFD. New Haven is blessed to have the men and women of the NHFD protecting their lives and property.
Great job to all involved in the rescue and thanks to Editor Paul Bass for starting firefighter of the week. It is a great way to show the citizens of this great city the impact a trained and skilled fire service. A fire service that is ready to respond at any time.