The two of them dragged a hose into the alley that night.
Firefighter John Mesh from Pumper 10 was in front, aiming the nozzle into the burning building some 5 to 10 feet away. Dan Werner from Pumper 23 was 3 feet behind Mesh, supporting the hose, when suddenly there was a loud cracking.
Werner turned, looked up and saw a wall of bricks tumbling toward him.
“It was the first time in my career that I thought I might die,” Werner told The Star in his first interview since the collapse of a three-story building in the Old Northeast area nearly two months ago.
Mesh did die that night, as did ladder truck driver Larry Leggio, who was using a pike pole known as a “lad hook” to clear a fan from the window so Mesh would have a clearer shot at the flames.
“It still seems surreal,” Werner said.
One minute, the wall showed no sign of failing. Then in a split second, “I was buried up to my back with brick.”
Investigators have yet to answer the question of why up to half dozen firefighters were in that alley in the 2600 block of Independence Boulevard on Oct. 12. Not even Werner can answer that.
“I’m just a firefighter, doing as we’re told,” he said Friday morning at a coffee shop in Brookside.
Nor does he question that decision, saying he has complete faith in the men and women who issue orders at the many fire scenes he has worked since joining the department more than 12 years ago.
But Werner does remember vividly what happened in that alley as he and the others worked to keep the fire from spreading to the supermarket next door from the three-story building that authorities say was set on fire intentionally.
Mesh’s pumper, No. 10, had been the first on the scene, pulling up and through the alley to the back side of the building. The rig Werner was on, Pumper 23, followed but couldn’t make it all the way through the alley.
Werner attached a hose to a hydrant and the two companies of four firefighters each began searching inside the building for the source of the thick black smoke as other companies began to arrive.
By the time someone found the fire in the nail salon below two floors of apartments, the blaze had gotten so hot that the commander on the scene determined the building would likely become a total loss. So, assured that all occupants were out of the building, the commander ordered all firefighters to evacuate.
“Shortly after we came out, it lit up on the second floor in the apartments,” Werner said.
He doesn’t know what was happening in the front of the building, on the south. But in the back, the north side, where he and Mesh were, firefighters were spraying water through open windows with handlines.
Then someone noticed flames in two windows on the east side, which was concerning because a mere 30 feet away from those windows, across the alley, was a supermarket. If the fire got much worse, then Snyder’s grocery was in danger too.
“So at that point, we took one of the handlines down the alley and started throwing water through the window,” Werner said.
He saw Leggio and maybe a couple other firefighters in the alley too.
Werner figures that he and Mesh were in the alley two or three minutes. A captain had gone down there with them and left to consult with other officers on the scene as the pair tried to quell the flames.
Before or after they entered that alley — it’s still not clear which because the department has yet to make public a real-time recording of radio transmissions that night — the commander on the scene had designated a collapse zone around the building. That meant the building could collapse at any time and all personnel within that zone were to get out.
Werner said he never heard the collapse zone announcement or the tones that accompanied it.
The alley was well within the zone, and as close as they were to the building, there was no time to get away. He said it sounded like bowling pins crashing to the lane hardwood, only thousands of times louder, when the wall gave way.
“All I saw was a wall of bricks,” he said. “There was no escaping it.”
He said he owes his life to Pumper 23. If it had been parked out back, as it should have been, it wouldn’t have been there to protect him from the worst of the falling bricks.
He turned his back to the wall, and the force of the collapse pushed him partway under the truck. His helmet protected his head, and the breathing apparatus on his back acted as a shield.
He wound up sitting on his haunches, debris up to his waist.
“I knew John was standing next to me and I didn’t know where he was,” Werner said. “I couldn’t even see him.”
He remembers telling himself not to panic.
“The guys are going to be here,” he knew.
Dozens of firefighters did run in before the cloud of dust and smoke had cleared. At the hospital, Werner called home to tell his wife and kids that he was safe.
Meanwhile, the families of his two lost colleagues got the kind of news that the loved ones of every firefighter hope never to hear.
“I have two daughters, 9 and 12, who were scared senseless,” Werner said.
To know that Mesh’s four daughters would never see their father again breaks his heart, he said.
Werner is still on sick leave. He walks with crutches, owing to the five fractures his legs suffered. He’s had surgery on his left ankle and may need surgery on both knees. Another firefighter’s injuries were less severe.
He’s been wrestling with himself about his future. But now he’s sure he wants to return to the job whenever his doctor says he’s ready.
“I have no question that’s what I want to do,” he said. “I trust the guys I work with. I trust the leadership. That gives me faith in my job.”