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.