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A firefighter's view
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An illustration from the Nov. 25, 1871 edition of Harper's Weekly magazine, showing residents seeking safety in the Peshtigo River. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Electronic Reader)
Father Peter Pernin rushed to the Peshtigo River, dragging a cart loaded with a wooden tabernacle containing the Holy Eucharist, believed by Catholics to be the body of Christ. In this excerpt from Ghosts of the Fireground, author Peter Leschak describes what it must have been like for the priest as he tried to save himself and the instruments of his faith.

— Pernin's house was west of the Peshtigo River, and under normal conditions it was a five- or six-minute walk to the bridge and dam at the center of town. But as he struggled back to his feet, each breath was a gasp. The air was choked with dust, grit, ash, embers, and smoke.

It was difficult for the priest to keep his eyes open in the punishing blast, and, peering through slits, he tried to discern the edge of the road and stay on track. Several times his heaving chest filled not with air but noxious gas, and, unable to breathe, he instinctively threw himself down.

It's a sick sensation on the fireground, and no human reaction seems as quick and wrenching as panicky gulping for oxygen. Fortunately there's almost always a vestige of usable air on the deck, and whenever I've made that involuntary dive -- perhaps thrusting a sharp tool away from my torso -- I feel a spike of fear, even when I know the smoke will likely shift or lift in minutes or seconds. But when you can't breathe, nothing else matters. You'd probably flop onto a rattlesnake if your lungs were empty. The atmosphere at Peshtigo was also charged with sound, a discordant symphony of terror. Amid the steady thunder and howl of wind, he heard neighing horses, the crash of toppling trees and collapsing chimneys, and the dire undertone of crackling fire as houses burst into flame.

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Image Author Peter Leschak

It was a wooden town, one step removed from the forest. Homes and shops were merely a type of fuel arrangement, with beams and planks instead of trunks and limbs. What struck Pernin about the "deafening noises" was the utter lack of human content. "People seemed stricken dumb by terror." But the sound that would haunt him for the rest of his life was the mad ringing of his own church bell, hammered by the wind and sounding distant in the general roar.

The street was crammed with people -- jostling and bumping on foot or sideswiping wagons pulled by lathered horses. The frenzied stream of humans and animals was rushing in both directions, some toward the river with Pernin, and others away in the direction of Oconto.

There was no doubt in the priest's mind that his route was the better, and it didn't occur to him to turn and follow the crowd headed west. "Probably it was the same with them. We all hurried blindly on to our fate."

He was being modest. At that place and time Pernin was taking the only reasonable -- if desperate -- course. His decision space was reduced to one option -- seek the injury zone of the river.

In modern firefighting we speak of four zones in a fire entrapment. First a safety zone, where a firefighter can retreat, relax, perhaps eat lunch and watch the fire; a survival zone, where you deploy a fire shelter and weather an entrapment without ill effect; an injury zone, where a firefighter deploys a shelter and lives but suffers burns, smoke inhalation, or carbon monoxide poisoning; and, last, the dead zone, which is self-explanatory. For anyone in Peshtigo the river was the only hope ...

Another factor in the panic may've been carbon monoxide poisoning from the pervasive smoke. A common by-product of burning, carbon monoxide has a 250 times greater affinity for hemoglobin than does oxygen and is thus more readily absorbed into the bloodstream.

We teach firefighters that a .05 percent concentration is normal, just from background pollutants, and in doses as little as 1 to 5 percent, cognitive abilities are compromised - time interval discrimination, visual acuity - and also muscle coordination.

Symptoms of poisoning such as headache and dizziness are not apparent until the 10 to 20 percent range, so we stress that when firefighters are sucking smoke, they need to be aware they might not be as quick and smart as they are in clean air.

Everyone at Peshtigo had been breathing increased levels of carbon monixide for days. Since drowsiness is also a symptom, perhaps the "torpor" described by the priest was influenced by the toxin ...

At this stage of his account I was in awe of Peter Pernin. Each breath would've been rasping and painful, his eyes stinging with sweat and grit, his mind pummeled by the infectious terror of a mob. His first access to the river had been cut off by fire, and that must've been a crushing disappointment. A burning death was minutes away. It would've been so easy (and wise) to simply drop the tongue of the buggy and worry only about escape. He did not.

In the wake of the 14 firefighter fatalities at Storm King Mountain in 1994, the U.S. Forest Service conducted a workshop focusing on firefighter behavior during crisis. It was noted that some of those who died trying to outrun the flame front might have succeeded if they'd dropped tools and packs.

Why are firefighters so reluctant to jettison their gear in a run-for-your-life situation? Not surprisingly, studies demonstrated you could hustle 15 to 20 percent faster without the equipment. The conclusion was that when a firefighter drops the pack and the hand tool or chain saw, it's a tacit admission that he or she is no longer a player but a victim. The mission has deteriorated from the noble cause of beating the fire and saving natural resources (or houses or lives) to an ignoble affair of frantic personal survival. Nobody wants to be a victim.

As a "Standards for Survival" instructor, I'm now directed to emphasize the abandonment of packs and tools (except fire shelters and radios) in a run-for-it arena. I would've advised Father Pernin to leave the buggy. But it was in fact his lifeline, and the thought seems never to have entered his mind. He had a mission and believed he was doing God's work. No doubt he exposed himself to greater hazard and physical stress by acting as his own horse, but he was probably buoyed by faith that God would aid the protector of the Blessed Sacrament.

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