On March 17, 1999, in an old brick firehouse on the north side of LaCrosse, Engine Company Four was settling in for the night. The day had been uneventful, but that changed quickly when a house fire was announced over the speaker. The home on George Street was only three blocks from the station. The four firefighters on the engine were Captain James Hotvedt, Engineer Greg Olson, and Firefighters Tim Oland and Craig Snyder.
Grayish smoke was billowing from an upstairs window, and as they pulled a line to the house, the firefighters were told that two children were still inside the burning home. Captain Hotvedt immediately notified the other fire companies of the situation and then decided to attempt a rescue before having any back-up in place.
Having been told the victims were upstairs, Captain Hotvedt’s crew did not search any first floor rooms. The crew located the stairway and proceeded up with an attack line. At the top of the stairs, they found a bedroom and did a right hand search. The beds were checked with no results. About this time, another incoming crew located the seat of the fire. Captain Hotvedt’s attack line was then moved to the fire assuming that it was likely to be the other bedroom where the victims would possibly be found. As the attack line was being moved, radio traffic indicated that one victim had been found downstairs.
Captain Hotvedt’s attack line was being used elsewhere, yet by himself he decided to do one more search of the bedroom. During this search, he did the same right hand sweep, but this time he located the feet of a small child. He scooped him up and brought him down to an awaiting ambulance.
As the men were changing their air tanks, it was discovered that yet another child was unaccounted for. After completing the air change, they entered the building again to attack the fire and continue the search. After exhaustive work, Firefighter Snyder found the third victim. Captain Hotvedt’s low-air alarm bell sounded, but he stayed to help bring the boy out of the building.
The first two children survived the fire, but sadly the third child died of smoke inhalation. If it weren’t for Captain Hotvedt’s leadership abilities, decision-making, and focus on finding the trapped victims, it is certain there would have been more than one fatality.
On April 29, 2000, just after 3:00pm, the Milwaukee Fire Department was called to the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center on Lake Michigan for a car that had been intentionally driven into the water. Witnesses reported that an adult and a baby were in the car.
Upon arrival of the Dive Rescue Team, Firefighter Tim Newman put on his diving gear and met with Firefighter Dennis Curley in the water to attempt to remove the victims from the submerged car. Firefighter Newman dove under and assessed the vehicle. He found that neither door could be opened and that he would have to break a window to get in. Firefighter Curley was using a window punch tool at this time, so Firefighter Newman tried using his dive knife to pop a window. These efforts did not work.
Firefighter Curley became nauseated and was unable to continue, leaving Firefighter Newman alone to continue with the rescue efforts. This time he took a fire axe down with him and used it successfully to gain entry into the car.
During his search of the interior of the car, Firefighter Newman found and removed a small child from the car and brought her to the surface. Again Firefighter Newman descended into the cold, dark water and found the adult victim only to realize the man was entangled in his seat belt, which would need to be cut in order to remove him. While getting a cutting tool, Firefighter Newman saw that he had only two minutes of air left in his tank but decided to descend again to try and remove the victim.
With the visibility at zero, Firefighter Newman was able to cut the seat belt and free the man, but at this time he ran out of air and was unable to breathe or inflate his buoyancy compensator. Although he could have chosen to rescue himself, Firefighter Newman held onto the victim and was able to pull him up using a safety rope that was connected to shore.
The victims care was taken over by the land based teams and Firefighter Newman was assisted with the removal of his face piece, which finally allowed him to breathe.
The actions taken by Firefighter Newman on this day were truly heroic and were taken at great risk to himself. Sadly, as was the driver’s intentions, both he and the child died, but they were given the greatest possible chance of survival by the actions of Firefighter Newman, and all the other members of the Milwaukee Fire Department present at this call.