Hot chunks of ceiling rained down on Alan Dugan.
The sheet metal and plaster pinned the Grandview Fire Department captain inside a burning apartment.
He felt his body baking. Like he was locked in an oven growing hotter and hotter.
He attempted to yell “Mayday!” into his lapel-mounted microphone, positioned near his left clavicle. But the universal distress signal of firefighters came out of his mouth more like a gasp. His body was bent in an awkward crouching position that constricted his airway.
Smoke surrounded him. Even if he could free himself, he wasn’t sure which way was out. He couldn’t see a door or a window. Before the ceiling fell, the buddy who’d entered the second-floor apartment with Dugan had retreated back outside to unkink their fire hose.
No other firefighters were nearby.
As he looks back today on 2 minutes and 30 seconds of being trapped, Dugan realizes he has much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.
Dugan — a husband, 55-year-old father of three grown children and a 26-year veteran of the Grandview Fire Department — could have died while he and colleagues battled the Oct. 5 fire.
Mayday calls too often turn out that way, even for firefighters who, like Dugan, are admired for their dedication to safety and for staying physically fit.
Dugan’s wife, Linda, remembers “all the elements that were against getting him out of there” that morning despite the combined years of training and firefighting experience among Grandview Fire Department colleagues and those from four other fire districts called in to help battle the blaze.
All assisted in a drama that ended with Dugan being loaded into an ambulance and, moments later, planting an unlikely kiss on the cheek of a colleague.
“It goes to show how you just never know,” Linda Dugan said.
The alarm came in at 9:53 a.m.
On the way to the scene, Dugan and his colleagues learned that four people were trapped in the building’s second-floor apartments.
The firefighters knew the two-story brick building at 822 Main St., one of Grandview’s oldest. Some had taken promotional exams that had presented the structure as a tactical scenario assessment problem. The first floor contained several businesses, the second floor several apartments.
The potential danger scared one assistant fire chief. This could be a real risk of life, Rob Stottlemyre thought as he headed to the scene. Plus, the fire had a head start. Roiling clouds of whitish smoke already billowed down Main Street.
After arriving on a Grandview pumper truck, Dugan entered the building through its south entrance. He and firefighter Jeremy Grimmett dragged a fire hose with them.
In a second-floor hallway leading to apartments, they encountered “free burn,” or fire so hot that there is no smoke. Dugan figured it meant there was an open door on the building’s north side feeding the flames.
He and Grimmett trained the fire hose on the flames.
As they moved into an apartment on the building’s southeast corner, the hose snagged. Dugan told Grimmett to go back down and untangle the line.
As Dugan faced east, crouching with the fire hose between his knees, part of the ceiling collapsed.
The debris pushed Dugan into an awkward posture, with his legs splayed out before him and his head tucked down and to the left, apparently impeding the flow from the tank of condensed air that was part of his SCBA, or self-contained breathing apparatus.
“Whatever has hit me has bent my helmet in several different places,” Dugan later recalled. “I don’t know if I am dizzy from the hit or from the lack of air. I’m sort of on autopilot.”
His first “Mayday!” yell came out like a gasp.
He told himself he needed to conserve air.
Outside, Stottlemyre, an assistant chief, heard what sounded like a mayday call as he stood near the building’s east facade. But it was faint.
“Who is the mayday and where are you?” Stottlemyre asked over his radio.
“Alan Dugan,” came the response. “I am in the apartment with the fire.”
Dugan pulled off his right glove so he could reposition his microphone. Taking the biggest breath he could, he bellowed, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” while concentrating on sounding out each syllable.
His voice sounded angry.
He thrashed around, trying to make a pocket inside this “thing” that had him trapped.
“I am pushing up off the floor, like I’m doing a bench press or push-up,” he recalled later. “I am trying to get where I can just sit up. I am pushing this weight on top of me up and back. I don’t have a glove on my right hand.”
Finally, he cleared enough space to sit up.
Smoke billowed everywhere. He couldn’t see a thing.
Growing up wanting to be a firefighter, Dugan said, “had been one of those childhood things.”
He once had worked as a union carpenter.
“You would get hired, and then laid off, and get hired again,” he said.
One day, while on his way to his union hall looking for work, he came upon an apartment fire in Merriam.
For 30 minutes, he watched the firefighters suppress the blaze.
“I thought, ‘I could do that,’ ” Dugan said.
He started the training process and signed on with the Grandview department in April 1989.
Over the years he acquired a nickname: “The Bull.”
The name references his physique that, honed by years of lifting free weights in his basement, gave him Popeye arms and a barrel chest. Stottlemyre sometimes says Dugan has a “couple of rump roasts” attached to that chest.
Ladder truck engineer Sean D’Agostino heard the first, faint mayday call from his post outside the burning building.
He already had positioned the truck’s ladder just below a second-floor window, in case somebody might need to climb out that way.
He was not wearing a helmet, breathing apparatus or firefighter’s coat. But when he heard the mayday, he scrambled onto the truck’s ladder.
He yelled to Stottlemyre for a pike pole — a pole with a hooked end on it.
About halfway up the ladder, D’Agostino heard the emergency signal of a firefighter’s breathing apparatus. The equipment contains a mercury switch that triggers a piercing alarm if its wearer remains stationary for a certain amount of time, such as 30 seconds.
D’Agostino stuck the pike pole through the window and pushed against something concealed by the smoke, trying to clear an escape path. Smoke billowed past his face.
Down on the street, Stottlemyre turned to two firefighters working with a hand-held extension ladder. He pointed to the second-floor window. The firefighters dropped the ladder and hustled to the truck to climb up behind D’Agostino.
Inside the apartment, Dugan remained stuck in a sitting position. A little bit of light, about the size of a basketball, appeared. And then it vanished.
But now Dugan knew the window’s location. And from that direction, he heard a voice.
“I can see you,” D’Agostino yelled. “Come to my voice.”
Dugan dropped his shoulder straps and let his air pack fall back. It stayed around his waist as he leaned forward and looked toward the window.
“Grab the pike pole!” D’Agostino yelled.
But Dugan couldn’t see it.
“The first thing I see is the tip of the ladder,” he recalled later.
As D’Agostino saw Dugan through the smoke, he realized his pike pole was too short to reach him. He should have brought a longer one up the ladder, he chided himself.
Then the smoke shifted, obscuring Dugan again.
“Talk to me!” yelled D’Agostino, by now so worried that he considered climbing through the window despite not wearing safety gear.
Dugan suddenly tumbled onto a smoking piece of furniture, a bed or couch, just in front of the window.
“I got him, I got him!” D’Agostino yelled.
Dugan climbed out the window and crouched on the ladder’s top rungs. Exhaustion overcame him.
“I’m done, I’m done,” he said.
He followed D’Agostino and other firefighters down the ladder. At one point, he stood, took a breath and looked back at the window.
Down on the street, two firefighters helped him remove his boots and pants. Another approached with a fire hose and — ever so gently — doused his legs and feet.
“I think my wits are coming back to me then, as I am realizing that I had almost died or had come very close to dying,” Dugan later recalled.
He spotted D’Agostino, who had climbed back on the ladder truck to resume his work.
About the same time, D’Agostino looked at Dugan. He hopped off the truck to give Dugan a hug as the captain was being loaded into an ambulance.
He got more than that in return.
“I give him a big kiss on the cheek,” Dugan said.
Ultimately 15 firefighters from Grandview and four other fire districts battled the flames, which were declared under control at 11:32 a.m.
They rescued three apartment tenants. After Dugan’s escape, Stottlemyre ordered crews into a defensive firefighting mode. Later, they recovered the body of one tenant from the unit where Dugan had gotten trapped.
Dugan does not remember seeing or encountering the tenant who died.
Investigators estimated the blaze caused $1 million in damage to the building and $500,000 to its contents.
The next day, a fire investigation team announced that no cause could be determined. Although an electrical cause could not be ruled out, the fire was not arson. It likely began in the southeast attic.
Neither Dugan nor D’Agostino had ever rescued anyone in such dire circumstances in 43 years of combined firefighting experience.
Dugan’s physical condition and years of experience made a difference in his escape, Stottlemyre said.
“That played a huge role,” he said. “I’m convinced that if it had been one of our younger firefighters, we would have lost him.”
Dugan credits D’Agostino.
“If Sean wasn’t there yelling at me the whole time, I don’t know if I would have had the motivation to get over there, I was so completely worn out.”
Doctors at the Grossman Burn Center at Research Medical Center treated first- and second-degree burns on the inside of Dugan’s legs, a spot of third-degree burn on his right hand, and third-degree burns on a foot and shin.
The night after the fire, Stottlemyre visited Dugan. Both cried.
Stottlemyre also began bleeding. His blood pressure was so high, he said, that his nose bled.
“It was hilarious,” Stottlemyre said. “Everybody thinks we are such hardened people.”
Doctors allowed Dugan to leave the facility Oct. 8 for his wedding anniversary. He returned the next morning for surgery, and he underwent another procedure three days after that.
He stayed 10 days. That’s where he was on Oct. 12, when two Kansas City firefighters died battling a fire on Independence Boulevard.
“I felt so much sorrow for their families having to go through that,” Dugan said. “I suppose I got a little selfish that, thankfully, that wasn’t me a week before, putting my family through that.”
Dugan’s wife, Linda, credits her husband’s physical fitness, as well as his department’s training.
“Sean didn’t delay at all in getting that ladder to the window,” she said.
The Dugans plan to spend Thanksgiving with her family in Blue Springs.
Dugan will mark 27 years with the department next April. Before then, he needs to clean up his helmet, which still bears scars from Oct. 5. The front brim is bent down on one side. An ornamental eagle along the crown is askew. The entire helmet is a dull, ashy gray.
But it’s a special helmet, customized. Although Dugan made captain in 2007, he waited until two years ago to buy the helmet as a present to himself. A family crest is mounted at the front.
And just above the front brim, the words “Na Tarbh” appear.
Dugan found the words online. He believes them to be Gaelic or Celtic.
They translate as “The Bull.”
The Star used recollections from firefighters, videos from the fire scene and a Grandview Fire Department report to re-create events and dialogue from the Oct. 5 fire in Grandview.