When Raytown firefighter David Andrews arrived at a burning home early Saturday, the roof was already gone.
Flames lapped at the broken front window and leaped 20 feet into the air.
“Everything was on fire,” Andrews said.
Yet Andrews, 29, and another firefighter charged into the inferno, using their fire hose to clear a path, looking for anyone who might be trapped inside. They rescued an unconscious woman from an upstairs bedroom.
The firefighters went back into the house two more times looking for the woman’s two children, an adult and a pre-teen, who as it turned out were not home overnight.
Neighbors identified the woman as Lisa Smallwood, 42. She suffered third-degree burns on 30 percent of her body and remained in critical condition Saturday night.
A passer-by noticed flames coming out of the house in the 6800 block of Vermont Avenue and called firefighters about 3:20 a.m.
The alarm awakened Andrews and Darren Summers, who donned their bunker gear and hopped in their fire engine. As they neared the neighborhood, they could already smell the smoke.
When they arrived, they didn’t see any residents outside, which caused immediate concern.
“What you want to see is people standing in the front yard,” said Battalion Chief Mike Hunley. “Especially at that time of night when you would expect someone to be home.”
As the engine rolled to a stop, Andrews pulled a 150-foot “hose line” from the engine and ran toward the front door. Summers arranged the line in a large S shape so it wouldn’t kink when it filled with water.
Because of the extent of the fire, Andrews thinks they had narrowly missed a “flashover” in which virtually everything, heated to 1,000 degrees, burst into flames.
Firefighters sprayed water into the broken front window so they could get inside. They kicked open the front door and doused the flames to clear a path upstairs.
Usually, burning homes are filled with heavy smoke. But because the roof of this home was gone, the billowing smoke escaped.
Andrews said he and Summers could actually look around the house for victims instead of using their hands to feel their way in blinding smoke. They trudged down the hallway with the heavy hose and found Smallwood in the first bedroom they checked.
She was lying on a burning mattress inside a room that was two-thirds on fire. Summers grabbed her feet, but her burnt skin peeled off and he lost his grip. They struggled to get her up, then Andrews put his arms under hers and started backing down the hall as Summers sprayed them and the walls to keep the flames at bay.
By the time he was backing down the stairs, another team of firefighters had arrived. They helped to steady Andrews so he didn’t topple over on the stairs. He dragged Smallwood outside and collapsed. She fell on top of him.
“I was completely exhausted,” Andrews said.
Other firefighters loaded Smallwood into an ambulance and she was taken to a hospital. She was later transferred to a burn center.
Andrews and Summers took about a minute to compose themselves, then charged back inside and methodically dug through burned clutter, looking for any other possible victims, until they ran out of air.
They donned new air tanks and went back inside a third time but could not find anyone. Meanwhile, other firefighters worked to knock down the blaze.
Andrews said he and Summers were taught not to rush while looking for victims because that’s when they might miss something.
“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast” is their mantra, said Andrews, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq.
Firefighters worked at the scene until about 6:30 a.m.
Afterward, Andrews reflected on the rescue.
“Everything just worked out really well,” he said. “From the time we were on the scene to when we got her out was seven minutes. That’s pretty good.”
Firefighters don’t yet know the cause of the fire. Damage and loss were estimated to be $116,000.
Smallwood, a single mother, works for an insurance company, but neighbors know her more as active in the Robinson Elementary School PTA. She is also a regional director of the Missouri PTA.
“She’s all about taking care of the kids and helping the community,” said Traci Holman, a neighbor and fellow PTA member.
Smallwood has been critical to organizing children in the neighborhood in community service projects, Holman said, and worked with a barber to get kids haircuts before the start of school.
“Thank God somebody was passing by and saw the fire,” Holman said. “We’re hoping the best for Lisa. She’s just such a neat lady.”