FRESNO, California — As fire Capt. Pete Dern lies in agony on a driveway surrounded by a half-dozen of his comrades, a neighbor’s cell phone camera rolls on what would become a viral video.
“Pete, stay with me buddy!” shouts one of the firefighters.
With Dern’s bare, burned legs now free from his melting fire gear, a firefighter douses Dern with water, hoping to comfort a man who had trained most of the people who now stand over him.
“It takes about five firefighters to rescue one of our own because of just the gear,” said Cory Kalanick, a 13-year veteran of the Fresno Fire Department, who was among those trying to save Dern’s life.
But this moment of desperate humanity isn’t what made the video a viral sensation; it’s what happened just minutes before, a shocking scene even by firefighting standards.
Dern was on the roof of a burning garage when it gave way, swallowing him whole before spitting up a raging wall of flame and smoke.
Screaming witnesses and a frantic mayday call punctuated the terror: “Fireman in the garage! Firefighter down!”
“Get him out! Get him out!” Kalanick recalls hearing.
“All I had on me as a tool was a pipe pole,” Kalanick said. “And I just started beating the heck out of the top of the garage door.”
When a crack emerged, another firefighter sprayed water through the opening, trying to cool down what had become hell on Earth for Dern. Black smoke made it impossible for him to see while Dern’s fire gear began to melt on his body.
“You have to remember this equipment is not fireproof, it’s fire-resistive,” said Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis. “It wasn’t meant for you to stay in superheated gases for a minute and a half.”
Kalanick pounded on the garage door, unaware that he had only seconds before Dern’s mask would fail and his oxygen supply would be cut off.
Kalanick just kept pounding.
‘It did feel like an eternity’
Right before he fell, Dern was doing what he’d done thousand of times in his career: ventilating a roof to aid in suppressing a fire. But this roof was not reinforced, Donis said, and that allowed the fire to weaken it much faster than normal.
When Dern plunged through the shingles he landed on a sofa or mattress, Donis said, because the garage was being used as a living space. That might have helped at first, but it also gave the fire plenty to burn.
“He kept his wits about him, and kept his mask on,” Donis said. “A lot of people might have panicked trying to get out of there and ripped the mask off, singing their lungs and sealing the airway.”
Dern’s experience gave Kalanick enough time to work on the garage door. He, along with several other firefighters, ripped the door down with just their hands. Kalanick grabbed a hose and went inside.
“I was putting out the fire as I was making entry and there was so much stuff in the way that I abandoned the hose line and started moving stuff out of the way,” Kalanick said.
“All I could recognize of (Dern) was the silhouette of the bottle we carry on our back.”
Two other firefighters reached Dern from the opposite side of the garage, but Dern’s oxygen line was caught on a box spring, Kalanick said. He untangled the line, allowing the other two firefighters to carry Dern out of the garage.
“I believe we got him out within a minute and 20 seconds,” Kalanick said. “It did feel like an eternity.”
Dern suffered third and fourth degree burns over 70% of his body, but he was alive. An investigation later found that if his rescuers had hesitated it would have cost Dern his life.
“His mask was inspected by the manufacturer,” Donis said. “Their determination was it was within seconds from failing.”
Giving ‘a wife back her husband’
On March 29, 2016 — a year to the day after Dern was rescued — Kalanick stood alongside three other firefighters who helped save a life that day. As the department prepared to honor Kalanick, Justin Beard, Wiley Erikson, Michael Alvarez and Michael Boardman (not in attendance) for their bravery, Dern’s wife, Kelly, took to the podium with a message from her husband.
“You gave my wife back her husband, my daughter back her dad, my mom back her son and my sisters back their brother,” Kelly Dern read, fighting back her own emotion. “You have given me the opportunity to … share some laughs with friends and be here with my family. Thank you.”
Despite a standing ovation, those words were hard for Kalanick to hear.
“Because I don’t want my wife going through that either,” Kalanick said as his eyes teared up. “I don’t want my family to go through that at all.”
A few hours after the ceremony, Kalanick went back to that house in Fresno for the first time since the fire, which was ruled arson. Julia Harper, who was arrested last April, pleaded guilty to the crime on Wednesday and will serve nine years in state prison.
Today, the neighborhood is peaceful; the memories are not.
“Flashbacks are coming,” he said. “It’s kind of a little surreal right now.”
At 38, Kalanick is thinking of his own children, and how he no longer feels so invincible in a career he’s wanted since age 4.
“So every day you think about it on our next fire call,” he said. “And then we give our kids an extra hug.”