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The Rick Mehaffey Story. Flashback to Episode 142 – SAM 344

In this episode, Captain Ricky Mehaffey from the Waynesville NC Fire Department chronicles his near-miss survival story where 3 firefighters almost died at a “routine” chimney fire.

At the time of the fire, Rick Mehaffey served as an engineer for the Waynesville Fire Department, is combination department that runs 2500 calls a year out of two stations. (He has since been promoted to Captain.)

At the time of the near miss event the staffing levels was 1 person on-duty at each of two stations, supplemented by roughly 30 volunteers.

At 0759 the fire department was dispatched to a residential fire at 71 Cornerstone Ridge in Waynesville. Mehaffey was first on-scene of a working fire in a two-story wood frame structure with light smoke coming from the eves and smoke coming out of the chimney.

Mehaffey noted the rock chimney stood approximately 8 feet above the gutter line and was 4 foot in width. The size of the chimney led him to position my engine outside of what he would deem to be the collapse zone.

Mehaffey established command and completed a 360 degree size up. The second engine arrived and they initiated interior operations. The crew located the fire in the vaulted ceiling cavity around the chimney.

Exterior crews set a ladder up to access the porch roof. This ladder was directly under the chimney.

Mehaffey exited the structure and was stopped and asked a question by a mutual aid company. At that time they were directly in front of the chimney about 10 feet away from the house.

Then someone screamed the chimney was falling.

Hearing the scream, Mehaffey and the other firefighters he was talking to began to run.

As Mehaffey heard the crash of the chimney he turned to look back to see a few large rocks that, as he described, “almost appeared to be chasing me and where so close that as I turn my head to watch where I was running I was anticipating the pain of the rock taking my legs out from underneath me.”

As he reached the engine h stopped running, turned and looked back. The rocks had stopped rolling about 5 feet behind him.

An investigation revealed the chimney was a wood frame construction with large rock attached. Improper installation had contributed to the wood frame catching fire and spreading into the ceiling cavity, causing the chimney to fall.

As Mehaffey wrote to me: “In my opinion we almost had three LODDs that day due to my inability to remove my blinders and see a potential hazard,” a hazard that by his own admission he was concerned enough on his arrival to ensue he positioned his engine outside the collapse zone.

But, as he noted; “Once my boots hit the ground I got tunnel vision and it almost cost four firefighters lives.”

Length: 37 Minutes

Click the YouTube meme to watch the full episode

About the Host

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.


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