Firefighter Jeff Black was rescued from a fiery pit earlier this year.
St. Paul firefighter Jeff Black took a cautious step into a smoky house earlier this year expecting to descend stairs, but instead fell into a gaping hole in the floor.
He flared out his arms and legs, catching himself, but much of his torso hung into the fiery basement in the 1400 block of St. Albans St. N.
Thick black smoke hid him from his fellow firefighters' view. Then air from an open door rushed in.
"All of a sudden, the flames erupted," Black said.
Firefighters Ian Nash, Mike Lee and Dane Lund, and captains Mike Mills and Art Rodriguez, ran to his aid. With the help of other firefighters who soon arrived on the scene, the five men pulled Black to safety. Because of that rescue, the men of Engine Co. 18 on Thursday received the department's highest recognition, the Meritorious Service Award.
"These guys went above and beyond the call of duty," said Fire Chief Tim Butler. "They made a conscious decision to put themselves in that danger."
Nash was behind Black that Jan. 2 morning. He dove at Black as flames engulfed Black's back and helmet. Nash grabbed onto one of Black's arms and used his other arm to turn on the water hose to extinguish the flames.
"I knew he has a family like I have a family," said Nash, who suffered smoke inhalation when his air mask was dislodged during the rescue.
The men gave Black a nylon strap to wrap around his arm. They grabbed the other end. Firefighters with Engine Co. 22 and Ladder Co. 22 had arrived and were in the basement battling the blaze. They helped push Black from below as the men pulled upstairs.
Splinters of wood dug into Black's body and legs. He snapped them off with one hand as he held onto the strap with the other.
Black suffered burns to his left leg, left wrist and back. He underwent a skin graft on his leg, and returned to work about seven weeks after the incident.
"There's too much to say, and I just hope they know how much I appreciate it," said an emotional Black as he thanked his colleagues for their help.
Nash said it wasn't until the fire was extinguished that they realized how big the hole was. It was about 8 feet across in the living room in front of the front door, where the men had entered.
"It's something you only see in a movie," Nash said. "You don't expect to be in it."
Mills also suffered smoke inhalation during the rescue. The firefighters of Engine Co. 22 and Ladder Co. 22 received a Unit Commendation Award for their part in the rescue.
Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said electrical malfunctions in the ceiling of the basement likely caused the fire. The homeowners were gone at the time.
The house was a total loss.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib