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Pittsburgh fire paramedics describe furious attempt to save children

PITTSBURGH Pittsburgh paramedic Jon Atkinson had no time to finish donning his breathing gear when he heard a firefighter scream that he’d found a stricken child inside the inferno of 6429 Winslow St.

Without thought to his own safety, Mr. Atkinson hurled himself up a ladder, past flames and smoke that swirled from broken windows, and onto the porch roof. He came down again just as fast, clasping in his arms a tiny boy who wasn’t breathing when the firefighter slung him out through the second-floor window.

That child Mr. Atkinson thinks he was about 3 or 4 was the first he would strive to save early yesterday.

He would go up the ladder a second time for two more children. Despite his efforts and those of other city firefighters and police, all three were pronounced dead. Two other children also died in the four-alarm fire that ravaged a row house in Larimer.

“It was pandemonium. Pieces of burning debris were landing [on emergency crews]. But you put your own safety aside,” said Mr. Atkinson, 25, of Brighton Heights.

“You just don’t think. It didn’t enter my mind [about getting hurt],” he said. “There was a kid on the roof.”

Mr. Atkinson, who works at Medic 1 station in Homewood, has been a city paramedic since 2001 and also a volunteer firefighter for the Ross department for nine years. He was working an overtime shift when the fire call was dispatched, summoning him and a horde of other city emergency workers to Winslow Street.

His unit took less than three minutes to reach the house, Mr. Atkinson said, but a police officer already was radioing that children were trapped inside. When their ambulance rolled up at a unit of four row houses, one was in flames and another was beginning to burn, he said.

After radioing their own update to city dispatchers, Mr. Atkinson and his partner, Brian Havaran, quickly slipped on protective gear and carried medical equipment on a stretcher toward the house, dodging firefighters and pulsing fire hoses on the ground.

Mr. Atkinson said he tried to get into the burning house by entering on the side that was not burning, but found it “locked up tighter than Fort Knox.”

Then he heard a firefighter shriek for a medic from the porch roof above him.

“I yelled to [Mr. Havaran] to get our equipment off the stretcher, that I’m going up,” he said. “I go up the ladder to the porch roof and the firefighter hands me out a little boy.”

On the ground, Mr. Atkinson met his partner and police Sgt. Jason Lando and Officer John Killmeyer and laid the boy on the stretcher. The police officers carried the stretcher to the ambulance, stopping for another small boy who also wasn’t breathing and had been carried out of the house by a firefighter.

While Sgt. Lando and Officer Killmeyer performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the children, Mr. Atkinson and Mr. Havaran assessed them and determined that one boy had died. The other was in cardiac arrest, and Mr. Atkinson, Mr. Havaran and paramedics Eric Capets and Anthony Weinmann worked desperately to revive him, Mr. Atkinson said.

While they were treating those children, firefighters found and carried out a little girl. Mr. Havaran and other paramedics accompanied that girl and the boy in cardiac arrest to the hospital while Mr. Atkinson returned to the fire.

At least two children remained somewhere in the burning house, he was told. He and Mr. Capets went up the ladder to the porch roof, where firefighters passed out the bodies of another boy and another girl.

“Everyone tried. They were gone,” he said. “We pronounced them on the roof.”

While firefighters quelled the blaze and searched for a baby sitter they’d been told was inside but was not found, Mr. Atkinson said he sat across the street with other paramedics and tried to talk about fishing, about anything but what they’d just done.

“The initial shock of it, it wasn’t really real to me,” he said. “When you go to [treat] an old person in cardiac arrest, if we can’t do something for them, at least we know we did the best we could for a person who lived a whole life. When it’s a small child, that’s not the case.”

Mr. Atkinson returned to work last night, when he planned to attend a session for first responders with a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team made up of trained peers.

During those sessions, a group debriefing on the incident itself is held first What happened? How could things have been handled differently? before team members meet with individual emergency workers to ensure they’re handling the tragedy as well as possible.

“I know we did the best we could have done, everyone who was there. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much we could have done,” Mr. Atkinson said. ” I have to take comfort in that.”

So must more than 60 other firefighters and emergency workers who responded to the four-alarm fire, Pittsburgh Fire Fighters Union President Joe King said. Among the firefighters were some of the 151 men and women who came on the job since September 2005.

Undoubtedly for many of them, yesterday’s fire in Larimer was their first with a fatality, Mr. King said, and five children at that.

“It’s something unimaginable unless you’ve been there,” he said. “It’s tragic when you lose any life in a fire, but it’s extremely tragic when you deal with children.”

Over the years, Mr. King recalled, his nieces asked him to buy them a baby doll for Christmas. He couldn’t ever bring himself to do so.

“I’ve bought them bikes, motorized cars but never a baby doll,” Mr. King said.

That’s because, in the mid-1990s, Mr. King and other firefighters were desperately searching a burning building on Brighton Place for a trapped small child. Spotting what appeared to be a body under a bed, he snatched it and scrambled outside.

To his horror, he discovered that what he had in his hands was a lifelike baby doll. The girl’s body was later discovered behind a closet door.

Mr. King said that from what he’s learned, there was nothing more emergency workers could have done yesterday to save the children. Response was quick, actions were textbook.

Still, thoughts linger.

“You do your best to move on,” Mr. King said, “but the memories are never erased. They never are.”