Seat belts save St. Louis firefighters in crash

By Patrick M. O'Connell
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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ST. LOUIS — Several times every day, St. Louis Fire Department dispatchers broadcast a radio reminder that, "All persons riding on Fire Department apparatus shall wear seat belts at all times."

The reason was made dramatically clear about noon Friday when two firetrucks converging on the scene of a house blaze collided at Martin Luther King Drive and Taylor Avenue, tipping one of the big rigs onto its left side.

Seven of the eight firefighters aboard were expected to be released from the hospital Friday night after treatment for cuts, scrapes and bruises. The eighth was to be held overnight at Barnes-Jewish Hospital for observation after suffering a concussion.

A relieved Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson said it looked worse when he arrived. "It was just bad, it didn't look good. I was really worried for them all."

But, he said, "If there is one saving grace in this whole incident, it's the fact that the firefighters were still in their seats and belted in place, which, if you really look at it, probably saved their lives."

The names of the firefighters were not released. The collision was between Engine Co. 10, based at Kennerly Avenue and Whittier Street, and a spare truck being used by Engine Co. 28, based at Enright and Bayard avenues. Each carried a usual crew of four. No other vehicles were involved.

"We don't know the exact extent of who did what or which truck hit which truck first," Jenkerson said at the scene. He declined to elaborate later but said it would be the subject of an accident reconstruction and interviews of all the firefighters.

Buildings at the intersection, which has electric signals, make it difficult to see around the corners. Police said one truck was headed north on Taylor and the other east on King.

Officials say it is always hard for the driver of an emergency vehicle at a blind corner to hear another's siren and air horns over the sound of his own.

Jenkerson said the department policy is to drive cautiously. "We do not 'run' intersections," he said. "If there's a red light, we stop and look both ways and make sure you have a clear intersection to proceed through."

He acknowledged that there is urgency to reach a confirmed fire. "They were trying to get there. You don't know who's in these buildings," he said.

The chief thanked construction workers nearby who heard the impact and rushed to help. He said a department ambulance was already at the fire, about a block away, at Aldine and Newstead avenues.

"I can't say enough, or give enough thanks or praise to our emergency medics. They did a tremendous job," Jenkerson said.

The trucks, both heavily damaged, were "quints," the fire service term for pumpers that double as ladder trucks. The last new ones bought, in 1999, cost about $410,000 each. The department keeps reserve trucks as emergency replacements.

The fire the trucks were headed to was extinguished by other crews. The house had extensive damage.

The incident was reminiscent of one of the darkest days for the department — June 6, 1952 — when three firefighters died in the collision of a pumper and a hook-and-ladder rushing to an alarm in the same area.

Friday's crash was on the same street, only about eight blocks away.

The 1952 accident occurred about 8:40 a.m. that day at Vandeventer and Easton avenues as the open-cab vehicles were responding to a fire in a vacant house at 4040 St. Ferdinand Avenue. Easton is now Martin Luther King. Six other firefighters were badly hurt. It was the pre-seat belt days, when department members commonly hung on the backs or sides of speeding trucks.

Jenkerson said firefighters in training were taken to Friday's scene to remind them that the dangers of the job are present on the way to fires, not just at the scenes.

The chief said, "This kind of event sticks with you for a long time."

Copyright 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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