It was 10 p.m., just as the blizzard named Nemo was unleashing its fury. A “medical, maternity” call came in from Blatchley Avenue in Fair Haven.
A woman was having contractions two minutes apart. Her first baby was coming. Soon.
Emergency vehicles were getting stuck all over New Haven. Roads were barely passable, if that.
Firefighters at the nearest station, on Lombard Street, could not respond: Their engine was stuck in the snow.
For firefighters at the East Grand Avenue station, it was time to improvise.
Firefighters all over town were improvising to respond to medical emergencies during the storm.
Lt. Gary Cole climbed into the cab of Engine 17. He took the seat beside his driver Raul Ginebra. In the back seat were firefighters Shamika Lloyd and Jose Vargas.
They drove through a “good two feet of snow,” Cole recalled in a subsequent interview.
They drove until two snow plows, stopped solid on Blatchley near Pine, blocked their path.
Cole, Lloyd and Vargas dismounted carrying their medical bags and trudged through the snow toward the pregnant woman’s home, leaving Ginebra with the truck.
Cole said he has delivered two babies before, once in the back of an ambulance in Westville and one in a Norton Street dining room. But this night he did not know what they were going to face on this generic “medical/maternity” call. Walking through waist-deep snow, they lugged the standard three bags of emergency gear, one containing oxygen equipment, the second bag trauma materials like bandages, the third a defibrillator.
The pregnant woman’s husband was shoveling the pathway when the firefighters arrived. He spoke good English; the mother-to-be, a recent immigrant from Mexico, spoke none; she had just emigrated from Mexico.
“We trudged into the first floor,” Cole recalled. “My first impression is his wife is standing there putting shoes and a coat on, preparing to leave in an ambulance.”
Cole knew different: He had learned on the way over via the radio that due to the white-out conditions and marooned emergency vehicles, no ambulance was coming. If the pregnant worker was going to get to the hospital, Engine 17 would have to transport her.
Here was the crux of the first decision to be made: Should they go in the fire truck that might not be able to get through—and deliver in a fire truck in the cold? Or was the safer play to stay home and deliver there?
Before he could make his decision Cole needed to get some maternal information. He learned from the husband that pregnant woman was nine months pregnant and the contractions were two minutes apart. That meant that she was pretty well into labor. Lloyd and Vargas took her vital signs. Cole phoned Acting Battalion Chief Rick Rice. He suggested that since this was the mom’s first birth, there may be time to get her to the hospital.
Rice said he’d call back with a decision. In the meantime, Cole was thinking of those stuck plows. If they started to the hospital, what if the engine got stuck in Fair Haven, far from Yale-New Haven Hospital? With the firefighters limited medical skills, would it be better to try to deliver in the warm apartment, or by the roadside?”
“Put her in the engine and try to get her to the hospital,” Rice said.
Cole took a hamper and filled it with towels, blankets, pillows. “If we do get stuck,” he figured, “we’ll be in the engine with two people and a baby and it’s going to be cold.”
The pregnant woman’s husband found some snow boots for his wife, and they walked together out the apartment. The good news: Ginebra had the engine right in front of the building because the plows had been able to move.
They all piled in. The engine moved slowly up Blatchley toward Lombard. Cole sat in front, Lloyd and Vargas in back with the parents-to-be.
Fair Haven was a ghost town draped in white as Ginebra drove up Blatchley, turned left on Lombard, and headed for State. Three times the engine seemed as if it was going to get stuck, but it chugged on.
“You’ve got to be smart,” Ginebra later recalled thinking. “A lot of engines, everybody got stuck. You either get lucky, or God help you.”
In front of the State and Humphrey Street Dunkin Donuts, another decision loomed: Turn left down State, which was packed with snow? Or continue straight to Whitney and see if it offered a clearer shot?
At that moment Cole looked to his right and spotted “a small plow truck and a big payloader in back of it.” He “hit the air horn” to stop the truck.
“I’m taking your payloader,” Cole recalled announcing as he hopped out.
“For what?” asked the driver, Joe Soucie of O&G Industries.
“I have a woman in back of my fire engine in full labor. I need you to get me to Yale-New Haven Hospital.”
“I’m from Naugatuck. I don’t know where Yale-New Haven Hospital is.”
Not a problem. It was by now 11 p.m. Ginebra followed behind the payloader as Cole rode with the plow truck, offering directions to Yale-New Haven.
A State and Water Streets they got stuck. Soucie had to dig 15 minutes to make the turn.
They made it to the corner of College and Church—only to encounter three cars and two plows stuck at the intersection in front of them.
The engine and plow drivers maneuvered around the stuck cars and headed toward York, traveling the wrong way down a one-way street. The caravan plowed, pushed, and chugged along, crossing South Frontage Road, crossing Howard, and pulled into the space between the ambulance entrance and the Children’s Hospital.
It was now 11:15. Hospital staff was ready to assist the pregnant woman along with ambulance driver.
“We made it! Everyone was waiting for us,” Ginebra said.
The firefighters didn’t see the pregnant woman after she was wheeled in but learned later that she delivered a healthy child. (The child’s name and gender were not available at press time.)
“It was good thinking getting the payloader,” said Fire Chief Mike Grant.
As the firefighters proceeded back into the night for more improvised rescues, the payloader drive accompanied them. Cole pronounced Soucie an honorary New Haven firefighter.