‘He never gave up’ | Firefighter has close call as flames engulf tanker in Sevier Co.
On March 30, the Sevier County Volunteer Fire Department dispatched a tanker and a Wildland Unit to a fire that would soon be known as the Hatcher Mountain Fire.
SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. (WVLT) - Many people in the community were thankful to have their loved ones alive after a close call with the Hatcher Mountain Fire Wednesday. For the hundreds of first responders battling the Sevier County wildfires, bravery was essential; however, when a crew became trapped in the face of an uncontrolled fire, their training and courage were put to the test.
On Wednesday, March 30, the Sevier County Volunteer Fire Department dispatched a tanker and a Wildland Unit to a fire that would soon be known as the Hatcher Mountain Fire. Once there, crews started to work hard in difficult fire conditions that were threatening multiple structures.
SCVFD Assistant Chief Stephanie Specht didn’t have her radio at her “real job” on the day the department needed to respond to the brush fire. Once she received notification of the fire, she was busy and unable to leave.
Around 1:02 p.m., the assistant chief received a message that firefighters were trapped in the fire. She said her heart sank, and within a minute, she learned that several fire vehicles and personnel were trapped along with SCVFD Maintenance Chief Jim Carr and their only tanker.
At the top of Hatcher Mountain Carr and the rest of Tanker 111 was in the middle of the chaos, along with several other fire vehicles and personnel. Officials said the fire had become “extremely erratic” during the battle due to low humidity and high winds.
“Absolute hell that opened up trying to get us,” Carr said.
Carr’s wife and Asst. Chief Specht were working together, so she walked up to her desk while containing her emotions and calmly asked if she had heard from her husband.
“She said it had been just a little bit and I asked her to call him,” Specht said. “She asked why and I said they were trying to reach him on the phone and he wasn’t answering,” without letting her know the real reason that he was trapped.
The chief answered the third time his wife tried to call him and what she heard on the other line panicked them both.
“The third time she tried, he answered, and it was the most haunting thing anyone would ever hear,” the assistant chief said. “The first thing he said was he was trapped!”
Once Specht took over the phone call, Chief Carr advised that he couldn’t see his hand in front of him when asked if he could find an area already burnt to head towards. At that point, officials said that Tanker 111 was blocked in, with no way out.
The assistant chief said the thought of the Thermal Imaging Camera that was added to that tanker in the last year randomly popped into her head. Officials said the device was primarily used on structure fires. It worked by cutting through the smoke to find a path he could follow.
The 23-year emergency services veteran found the device, abandoned the truck, and used it to safely crawl his way to a cool spot away from the flames.
Once it was over, Carr told the story of the day he will likely never forget.
He said that he called for a mayday once the flames became more than what the crew could handle. Afterward, he searched in and around other trucks to ensure other firefighters were not trapped or in danger before going back to the tanker to plan his next move.
“Any more than what I did at this point, I would have been carried out in a black bag,” Chief Carr said to CBS affiliate WJHL.
After calling for a mayday and retreating to the tanker, Carr said he realized he could not get out as the flames were chaotic, almost losing all hope before receiving the call from his wife and assistant chief.
“I made my end-of-life video for my friends and family,” Carr said.
Specht said the courage that Carr demonstrated to search the trucks for firefighters and then crawl to safety was incredible.
“There are no words to describe other than that this is what Firefighters do, look out for each other and put themselves last,” the assistant chief posted to Facebook. “His training kicked in, and he NEVER GAVE UP!”
The only thing left unburned on Tanker 111 was the TIC device that helped save Carr’s life. On the front, he wrote the word “saved” and his first name and last initial. The date “3-30-2022,” and words such as “Hatcher Mtn.” and “TK-111″ can be seen written on the back.
While Chief Carr’s gear was believed to be lost in the fire, one of his valuable possessions, his helmet, was found and returned to him on Saturday. Even though it sustained heavy damage, he said he would always keep it to help cope with the memories of the Hatcher Mountain wildfire.
The other firefighters were also hailed as heroes because they did what they were trained to do while risking their lives to save others. Although it was a situation that no responder wanted to experience, the assistant chief said that by the grace of God, Carr and the other firefighters on the mountain were alive to see their friends and family.
Unfortunately, SCVFD’s only tanker apparatus, Tanker 111, was destroyed during the “erratic push by the fire.” The department said it was a big hit to its fleet but could be replaced.
“The more important part was that our member returned home to us unharmed,” officials said. “Trucks are replaceable; people are not.”
Those who wish to donate to the SCVFD to assist in replacing lost equipment and gear can do so here.
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