AUSTIN (KXAN) — The death of a San Antonio firefighter killed Thursday night battling a four alarm strip mall fire hits all too close to home for the Austin Fire Department.
For some, the tragedy for SAFD is a reminder of what could have been for fire crews responding to a three-alarm fire in October 2015 that ripped through the Dry Creek West Condominiums in northwest Austin. That fire sent three firefighters to the hospital after the second floor collapsed, and trapped the men inside.
One of those men spoke exclusively to KXAN Thursday for the first time since that near-death experience.
“It was just fairly typical going through the motions — somewhat mechanical at the beginning stages,” explained William Cook, who was a 16-year veteran of the Austin Fire Department at the time.
Cook says the call came in like any other that Sunday morning. But conditions quickly changed when he realized a wall inside the building was about to come down. He ran toward danger.
“I ran as fast as I could and shoved him and pushed him out of the way as much as I could,” said Cook. “I yelled at him and asked if he was okay. I felt the wall fall on top of me. I felt a bunch of bricks hit me. I felt a bunch of weight. Then, the next thing I remember I felt the floor bounce. The floor bounced and then I saw the floor open up in a big hole underneath me.”
Trapped, Cook said his first thought was, “I’m not going to see my kids again. It wasn’t more than a half second, I guess, I kind of made peace with that.”
Shortly thereafter, his instincts and hope for survival set in.
“I said the hell with this, I’m not going to sit here. I’m not going out like this,” said Cook. “That’s when I saw my daughter’s face and with everything I could I pushed the second floor up.”
Cook, along with two other AFD firefighters, survived.
He says he cannot imagine what the San Antonio Fire Department is going through.
“We didn’t lose anybody. There’s a fine line between making it and not making it sometimes,” said Cook. “I’ve gone through something, but I haven’t gone through that.”
Officials with the Austin Fire Department tell KXAN News they hope to support and assist SAFD however they may need in the coming days and weeks, as they prepare for Scott Deem’s funeral. At this point, we’re told, it’s not clear how they will offer that support.
“We’re all there for each other. San Antonio was there for us. They were definitely there for us, and we’ll be there for them,” he said. “It’s a family. Not just at home, but the whole department. Every department. We’re all related.”
The Austin Firefighters Outreach Fund is collecting donations for San Antonio firefighters and their families impacted by Thursday night’s tragedy. If you’re interested in supporting the cause, click here to donate.
Travis County Fire Rescue responds to SAFD tragedy
Firefighters at Travis County Fire Rescue say they have connections with the San Antonio Fire Department, and news of the fatal fire Thursday night that claimed one of their own.
“We spend one-third of our lives together. So, when somebody gets hurt or they get killed, that’s trying times for everybody even if you didn’t personally know them,” said Chief Ken Bailey, Emergency Services District 11. “We didn’t know Scott, but we know firefighters that have been killed.”
Chief Bailey says all firefighters are brothers by profession.
“They’re family. We know them. We have a relationship, a common purpose,” he said.
Fire crews at ESD 11 were emotional Friday, watching the aftershock play out in San Antonio, while waiting for their next call for service in Travis County.
“We’ve gone through the academy with guys that have gotten on there. Those names pop in your head as far as ‘OK, were they there at that fire?'” said Wesley Porter, Firefighter, ESD 11. “You think every day that we come to work, is this possibly the day that something could happen?’ In the instance of Scott Deem that did die, he was called on to make the ultimate sacrifice, and we all look up to those guys as heroes.”
The firefighters have added black stripes to their badges, in mourning and respect.
“You don’t really want to put it on but it’s something that unfortunately happens. So this is our sign for him,” added Porter.
Their focus now, they say, turns to their surviving comrades at SAFD and honoring the fallen.
“I’m sure that Scott thought he was going to go home tomorrow, and so that’s the risk these men and women take every day and it shouldn’t be taken lightly,” said Chief Bailey.
Representatives with both Travis County and Austin fire departments say they’re planning to offer services and support to the San Antonio firefighters, depending on their requests and needs during any memorials planned for Deem, knowing that many in their ranks will want to attend. What that support will look like — it’s too soon to know. Travis County says they may send a fire truck to participate in the funeral procession.
Travis County Fire Rescue says they haven’t had a combat-related death in the last 30 years. The county’s fire alarms are measured differently than they are in cities. There are several multiple alarm fires in the county every year. However, Chief Bailey says the last large event was in 2011 when the county responded to wildfires.
The last multi-alarm fire the Austin Fire Department had that was four alarms or greater was on December 13, 1996 at the Centennial Condominiums; it was six alarms. The department’s most recent line-of-duty death happened in 1977.