South Bend Tribune
NEW CARLISLE, Ind. — An autopsy showed a New Carlisle firefighter died from the sheer force of a collapsing ceiling as he battled an industrial barn fire late Tuesday night.
Assistant Chief Jamie Middlebrook, 41, died of blunt-force trauma and a broken neck, LaPorte County Coroner John Sullivan said. His autopsy was completed Wednesday at the Tippecanoe County medical examiner's office in LaFayette.
"The weight of the ceiling compressed the spinal column in a downward fashion and fractured those vertebrae," Sullivan said. "It's very quick, and it's a catastrophic event. The body just can't bear that weight."
Middlebrook and another volunteer firefighter, Matt O'Donnell, were laying a hose inside the K-Fex building, just west of town in LaPorte County, when the ceiling collapsed.
Middlebrook died at the scene, and O'Donnell was treated for a broken ankle, among other minor injuries.
Sullivan, who has served with the LaPorte Fire Department for 25 years, said fighting a blaze from inside a building is a proposition that can turn deadly at any moment.
"Interior structure firefighting is extremely hazardous, and the danger of collapse is always looming," he said. "When you walk into the building, there's no guarantee you're going to walk out."
The state fire marshal's office and LaPorte County Sheriff's Department continue to investigate the fatal blaze, which started about 9 p.m. Tuesday. Officials said the investigation could take several days.
Middlebrook’s death sent New Carlisle into mourning, with dozens of residents laying flowers and writing messages that hailed him as a hero. The fire department was to remain closed for non-emergency calls until Monday.
“We are so proud to be members of the this community, and we know Jamie was as well,” the department said in a statement on its Facebook page. “He represented the best in us, and not a day will go by that don’t remember him and try our best to make him proud.”
Bethel College in Mishawaka will host a viewing and funeral services for Middlebrook, with the viewing set for 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday and the funeral at 11 a.m. Monday. A burial is scheduled to come after the funeral at the New Carlisle Cemetery.
Meanwhile, the fire department invited supporters to donate to the Middlebrook family at area 1st Source Bank locations by making deposits to the Jamie Middlebrook Memorial Fund.
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