Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad Chief Ned Sherburne awoke around 6 a.m. at the squad station, where he had spent the night, as he often does. He knew it would be a busy day. Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, was the Taste of Bethesda, and the station would be welcoming the public for its annual Rescue Day open house. Kids would be checking out the shiny fire trucks, dousing cardboard cutout houses with a fire hose and watching as members of the station’s crew rip apart a car to show what a real rescue looks like.
Sherburne busied himself getting the station ready for the event. He cleaned up, moved the trucks out to the parking lot, then jumped into the chief’s car, a Chevy Tahoe stocked with communication radios and incident command equipment, to drive home, change clothes and come back to the station to greet visitors when they began showing up at 11 a.m.
He made it only a few blocks. At 10:17 a.m., a call came over his radio from dispatch: There was an unconscious man in the basement of a Bethesda apartment building. It sounded like a routine call—perhaps a mild heart attack or diabetic episode—not the sort of call a chief would typically respond to. But something seemed odd to Sherburne. It was serious enough for dispatchers to call for two paramedics, plus a rescue squad truck for extra manpower. And the location was the Middlebrooke Apartments, a 10-story building that stood almost directly across Battery Lane from the rescue squad station.
Sherburne, who had been a paramedic before becoming chief about 20 years ago, spun around and headed back. He pulled up to the apartment building just as paramedics Jason Gill and Alex Baden arrived in an ambulance from across the street.
In the back of the building, a maintenance worker was lying on the sidewalk, unconscious. A co-worker was with him, and he told the paramedics that at some point—he wasn’t sure when—the building’s backup generator, which is powered by natural gas, had kicked on unexpectedly in the basement. The maintenance man went to check it out, but never came back, never answered his cellphone. When the co-worker went to check on him, he found the man unconscious and dragged him outside.
The medics speculated that it could have been electrocution. Sherburne didn’t think so. He’d seen this scenario before.
Moments later, the rescue squad truck arrived. It’s a 50,000-pound 10-wheeler outfitted with equipment to respond to everything from building fires to car crashes. Lt. Aaron Webster led the crew, which included four more men: Keith Stakes, Brian Starin, Robert Dinkelspiel, and Capt. Jed Kurry.
Webster had joined the squad as an 18-year-old volunteer in 1983. He says nothing in all the years since compared with what he was about to see.
As Webster’s team pulled up in the truck, Sherburne radioed to them with an order: Don oxygen masks and fire suits and check the air quality inside.
When Webster and his team took a few steps inside the basement door, the alarm started sounding on their handheld air-quality meter, registering elevated levels of carbon monoxide. A few more steps and its high alarm went off.
The meter was reading up to 800 parts per million of carbon monoxide, enough to knock a person unconscious after an hour and be deadly after a prolonged exposure, and 16 times what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considers safe. The rescuers quickly concluded that the generator’s flue wasn’t venting properly, and its exhaust was filling the building.
This was a 10-story building with 98 units, including some in the basement. It was home to about 150 residents, many of them elderly. It was Saturday morning, a time when occupants were likely to be home—many still asleep—as spreading carbon monoxide turned the building into a potential death trap. If they were asleep as the gas entered their apartments, Sherburne feared, they might never wake up.
Carbon monoxide is a subtle killer. It can’t be seen. It can’t be smelled. In small doses, it can be all around you and you’d never notice any effects. In very large doses, it can be lethal. In between, it’s sneaky. Prolonged exposure brings on flulike symptoms such as a headache, nausea, vomiting and blurred vision. They’re familiar symptoms that are easy to brush off.
Eventually the symptoms become more severe—from drowsiness and lethargy to dizziness, difficulty thinking clearly and eventually unconsciousness and convulsions. How long had the gas been pouring into the Middlebrooke Apartments? How many had been exposed? How many were dead? Sherburne didn’t know, but he started running the scenarios through his mind. This wasn’t about one unconscious man anymore. This was about scores of people at risk.
“I’m no longer a medic here,” Sherburne told Gill and Baden as he switched roles to become incident commander at what would be one of the biggest rescue operations his mostly-volunteer squad had ever faced. Required only in large emergencies, an incident commander acts as a general, handling strategy and delegating manpower. He retreated to his chief’s car to draw up plans and call in resources from throughout the county.
Until they arrived, the five-man rescue team was on its own to pull residents to safety and into the hands of just two paramedics.
As soon as he saw the readings on the air meter, Webster pulled the fire alarm. Not a single door in the basement apartments opened around him.
An eerie feeling filled Stakes, the firefighter alongside him. Stakes was 24 years old, but he had started as a junior member at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad the day he turned 16. His love is fighting fires. At night he volunteers with the rescue squad. In his day job, he’s a fire protection engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, studying the best ways to put out fires.
This call was becoming surreal. It was like a fire without smoke or flames, Stakes thought.
Seconds after Webster pulled the alarm, rescuers fanned out, going door to door, floor to floor. They pounded on doors, breaking some in with axes and Halligan bars, metal tools tipped with claws and wedges. In the half-dozen or so basement apartments, they found residents passed out and carried them to safety.
On the first floor, the scene was only slightly better. Some were unconscious, some just barely holding on. In one apartment they found a resident in a wheelchair who was unable to escape and carried him outside with the others.
Webster says the scene unfolding reminded him of a vampire movie, with victims falling to the ground all around them. As apartment doors opened, occupants collapsed into the rescuers’ arms.
One woman approached Stakes in the hallway and told him that her daughter had passed out in the stairwell as they were trying to flee. As she spoke, she faded into unconsciousness herself. Stakes pulled her to safety, then went upstairs and found the daughter, unconscious in the stairwell. He dragged her into the elevator and sent her down to fresh air outside. This was a carbon monoxide emergency, not a fire, and the elevator still worked.
That’s what seemed so strange to Stakes. This was an emergency as severe as a building blaze, but nothing about it looked dangerous. Although the air showed no visible sign of the poison, carbon monoxide molecules invaded the bloodstream of residents as they breathed. Hemoglobin, the molecule that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, carries carbon monoxide much more easily than it carries oxygen. (Its bond with carbon monoxide is 230 times stronger than its bond with oxygen.) As carbon monoxide levels increased in the residents’ bloodstreams, their organs became deprived of oxygen, as if they were slowly suffocating.
How close were these residents to death? “A razor,” Webster says. He figures that many were probably within minutes of succumbing. The maintenance worker may have had mere seconds left before his colleague pulled him to safety.?Webster’s team was running out of air, too. Usually a rescuer is so physically depleted by the time an oxygen tank runs out that rest time is needed before a return to action. This time, there was no chance to rest. Until reinforcements arrived, they were on their own. The men swapped out their spent oxygen tanks for new ones on the truck and went back to work.
As they climbed to higher and higher floors, the carbon monoxide levels decreased. While residents in the basement were near death, most on the upper floors had no idea there was a problem.