The fire at 172 Pocahontas Street on Nov. 27. (Brian Bergstrom/My Buckhannon)

As fire victim recovers in Pittsburgh, the firefighter who helped rescue her gives a firsthand account of what it was like inside the burning building

BUCKHANNON – The mother and daughter frequently exchanged recipes for casseroles and cakes on Facebook, as well as ideas for activities their children and grandchildren might enjoy.

In a May 9, 2020, post for Mother’s Day, Selena Lamb posted two pictures of her and her mother, Letha Lamb, with the caption, “My mom, my best friend, my partner in crime.”

Now, in the wake of a devastating fire that gutted the family’s 172 Pocahontas Street home, Letha Lamb can only hope and pray for the best possible outcome as she keeps watch by her daughter’s bedside.

Selena Lamb was critically injured in the destructive Nov. 27 fire. She remains in the Critical Care Unit of the West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh, where she’s been in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator since she was transported there that fateful Sunday.

“Over 30 percent of her body is burned,” Letha Lamb told My Buckhannon this week. “She’s had four surgeries, and eventually she will be transferred to a rehabilitation center. She has extensive burns to her larynx, vocal cords and lungs.”

“It’s a day-by-day process,” she added. “I would like to be able to say how long things will last, but we don’t know. It just depends upon her progress.”

Lamb said the outpouring of small-town support from the Buckhannon-Upshur community has been “overwhelming in a good way” and something that’s carried her through the 10 days since the incident.

“The community has reached out to our family with so much love and support, it’s unimaginable,” she said. “Friends and complete strangers that we’ve never even met have given us so much support that is so heartfelt and means so much. And what the firemen did, there’s no way for me to ever say how grateful I am. They risked their own lives to save my daughter’s.”    

Capt. Joey Baxa, one of the city firefighters injured in the fire who was instrumental in Selena’s rescue, recently shared a firsthand account of his experience.

Baxa’s shift started at 7 a.m. the prior day, and he, Firefighter First Class John Brugnoli and Firefighter Maria Potter had been up most of the night responding to a couple of calls. When the tones dropped at 6:50 a.m., indicating a structure fire – they would soon learn it was one with entrapment – Brugnoli was awake, but Baxa and Potter had been trying to catch a quick nap.

In that scenario, you just get up and you go, Baxa said, so he Brugnoli, Potter and Firefighter First Class Ethan Smith, who was about to begin his 7 a.m. shift, jumped on Engine 11 and headed for Pocahontas Street.

Capt. Brian Elmore and Firefighter Shane Jenkins, who were also about to clock in, followed close behind in the City of Buckhannon’s ladder truck.

As the trucks pulled out of the bay door, the Upshur County Comm Center radioed to inform them the house was fully engulfed.

“My reaction was like, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it – that’s probably not the case inside city limits,’” Baxa said. “There are usually too many people in an urban area like this. When you get that many people in a condensed area, usually somebody sees it long before it becomes fully involved.”

But when the fire engine pulled on scene four minutes later, they saw it: fire overwhelming the porch, climbing up the exterior of the house toward the second floor, and even blowing mercilessly out a window. They called for a second alarm, prompting two more in-county departments and two additional surrounding county departments to respond.

While Brugnoli used the engine’s deck gun to beat back the blaze, streaming 500 gallons a minute of water, Potter’s role was to utilize the handline hose to attack the fire. She and an Upshur County EMS worker pushed a fence over to stretch the hose line close enough to the house.

“The whole time [Maria Potter] has it open, there’s 90 pounds of reaction coming back on her, not to mention that hose line weighs more than 100 pounds at 50 feet,” Baxa said. “She’s moving all that weight with the hose line plus flowing water with 90 pounds pushing back on her. She has less than one year as a career firefighter – that’s remarkable. It shows the training she’s had and what she’s pushed herself to do has put her in a position to do a very abnormal thing.”

Baxa said that’s what ultimately made the interior attack possible.

An EMS worker pointed Baxa and Smith to a first-floor bedroom where they thought Selena Lamb might be located, but she wasn’t there, and she wasn’t in the kitchen.

“It’s hot. It’s smoky. You can’t even see your hand in front of your face,” Baxa said of the search inside the house.

The fire department’s thermal imaging camera indicated the temperature on the first floor topped 300 degrees Fahrenheit — and in some spots, even exceeded 600 degrees.

“I’m trying to locate the stairs and I see Maria come through the front door with the hose line, and she just absolutely obliterated the heat inside of that living room,” Baxa said. “It allowed us to push into areas that we maybe couldn’t have, and it also took the heat off the victim.”

Baxa was finally able to see the stairway, so he charged upstairs to find at least two dogs who had succumbed to the fire. While he was searching one of the bedrooms, Elmore radioed that Selena Lamb had climbed out the window of a second bedroom onto the porch roof.

Baxa made it onto the roof to find Lamb weak, covered in soot and struggling to breathe.

“She actually still had her glasses on; I remember looking at her and seeing those,” Baxa recalled. “So, from there, John threw up a ground ladder and I crawled over to it and went to put my hand on it and got electrocuted. It’s not atypical for a gutter to get electricity on it, so I asked them to reposition the ladder. They moved it, and we thought it was clear, but when I reached out and touched it, I got zapped again.”

Abandoning the ground ladder, Elmore and Jenkins raised the ladder truck’s platform up to the porch roof. Baxa reached out to grasp the platform door and he got shocked a third time, the worst of the three, but managed to jump onto the platform and then turned around to hoist Selena onto it with him.

“Whenever I turned around to grab her, she reached out and touched the bucket and got shocked and pulled herself back with everything she had left in her,” Baxa said. “She just pulled herself back, and I jumped back onto the porch roof with her.”

Baxa knew they had to get Selena out of the burning structure – and get her out quick.

“I’m thinking, ‘she can’t talk,’ and looking at her working to breathe, I knew her airway was burned,” he said. “I’m no doctor, but I knew she couldn’t take much more.”

More than anything, Baxa felt Selena needed hope, and he thought his mask supply might give her that, as well as breathable air.

“We’re sitting there while all the steam and smoke is around us, so I made the decision at that point to take off my mask and put it on her, so at least while we’re there she’s not breathing anything more,” he said.

Baxa placed the facepiece of his self-contained breathing apparatus on Selena and then saw the faint outline of a firefighter inside on the second floor.

“I remember turning to John and saying, ‘We’re going through there; we’re going back,’” he said. “There were some other options thrown out, but at that time they would have slowed us down, and she needed speed. She needed to get to a hospital; that was the only thing that was going to help her.”

Baxa fell back through the window with Selena, and volunteer firefighter Hunter Wilfong yanked him up. The two took Selena down the stairs and onto the porch, where they were met by a group of first responders. Upshur EMS transported Baxa to St. Joseph’s Hospital, while Lamb was taken to the Burn Center in Pittsburgh.

Baxa, who sustained serious lung injuries, said the timing of the fire – the fact that it erupted just 10 minutes before the once-a-day shift change – resulted in six paid staff members responding when the initial response could have been as low as three or even two.

“She was given a chance not just because of the number of people, but because of their training, their physical capabilities and how quick they got there,” he said. “I was there with her, but everybody else was playing just as important of a role.”

“Those other three people who were in that engine with me are consummate professionals,” Baxa said of Brugnoli, Potter and Smith. “They know their job; they are not state-minimum certified firefighters. They have had training on the national level, high fidelity live fire training – real fire, real smoke, real-situation-type stuff. They do what they have to do to save lives. Each of the three of them – and the ones who came behind us – believe in making a difference.”

This week, Letha Lamb’s tone was somber as she described the long road ahead for Selena, but she’s also deeply grateful for her daughter’s survival.

“With the firemen, there’s no way to thank them,” she said. “I’m very grateful that it was a shift change – I read about that. It’s not like they stood back; they went into it, and they weren’t thinking about themselves. They were thinking about getting her out and every second mattered. I was there; I saw it.”

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