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As surviving firefighters heal, one asks ‘Why them, not me?’

April 11, 2018

"Thank God you lived," said Dianne Thompson, seen here embracing York city firefighter Erik Swanson, right, during his first visit back to the scene where he survived a building collapse in York, Pa., that took the lives of fellow firefighters Ivan Flanscha and Zachary Anthony. (Jason Plotkin/York Daily Record via AP)

YORK, Pa. (AP) — Not long after Greg Altland was promoted to assistant fire chief, commanding a shift of firefighters in York City’s fire department, he found himself standing on Texas Avenue at the top of a hill at the city’s north end.

From that vantage point, he could see much of the city. At night, it’s a beautiful view, the lights like stars, the universe being the 5.3 square miles that encompass the City of York.

He thought, “I’m in charge to keep everybody in this city safe tonight and to make sure all of the firefighters on my shift get to go home.”

That’s the firefighters’ daily affirmation: “Everybody goes home.” Altland’s wife, Lisa, even painted a version of it on the door leading from the laundry room of their Manchester home to the garage, so it’s the last thing her husband sees every day before leaving the house. “Come Home Safe.”

“It’s my job to keep them safe,” Altland, a 27-year veteran of the fire service, said Friday, a little more than a week after two firefighters died in a fire in an old factory in the city.

He broke down. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

“That’s a tough pill to swallow,” he said, his voice cracking. “This is something that’s going to haunt me the rest of my life.”

He will always question, “Why them, not me?”

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It was March 22, not long after 3 p.m.

There were five of them - Altland and firefighters Erik Swanson, Brandon Sawyer, Ivan Flanscha and Zach Anthony - on the fourth floor, the top floor, of the old Weaver Organ and Piano factory on Broad Street.

The fire that had torn through the structure, which was being converted into apartments, was still active from the previous day, and they were working to extinguish what they call a “hot spot,” a pocket of fire trapped between the drywall ceiling and the building’s rubber roof.

They were working on the last remaining hot spot. “We do it all the time,” Swanson said.

Sawyer had gone to a bucket truck at the window to retrieve a fresh air tank when it happened.

The building collapsed.

Altland, Swanson, Flanscha and Anthony plunged to the ground floor. “We rode it all the way down,” Swanson said,

Altland was knocked out. Swanson was buried under rubble and clawed his way out from under a pile of bricks and timbers. Altland had a gash on his head and lacerations on his hands and suffered a concussion.

Swanson hurt his shoulder and neck, injuries that he described later as feeling as though he had been in a car accident. Sawyer was far enough away that he escaped the fall.

They survived.

Flanscha and Anthony did not.

Flanscha, 50, a 19-year veteran of the fire service, and Anthony, 29, marking his eighth year with the department, died as a result of their injuries - Flanscha at 3:57 p.m. and Anthony at 8:52 p.m. that day.

Altland, 52, has a hard time comprehending it.

“How can two men, six, eight feet away from me, succumb to their injuries and, for the most part, I walk away with scratches and bruises?” he asked.

He can’t explain it.

Said Swanson: “I was so close to Ivan that I could have put my hand on his shoulder.”

After, Swanson, 50, was talking to Sawyer, a young firefighter in his 20s. The younger firefighter was having a hard time dealing with the survivors’ guilt - “walking around like a zombie,” in Swanson’s words.

Swanson told him that one day - it might be a week from now, or years from now - and it might happen on the job or off duty - he will save someone or do something that makes a huge difference in someone’s life, and he’ll say, “I was meant to be here to do this.”

People say things happen for a reason, he said.

That reason just hasn’t revealed itself.

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Altland has 10 staples in his head and stitches on his still-swollen hands. He tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder and still has pain in his lower back and ankle. Swanson’s right shoulder was sprained. His neck was wrenched and his tailbone bruised. He got word from the doctor Friday that he won’t require surgery to repair the injuries.

Physically, they are both healing, getting better every day, they said.

As painful as those injuries are, they are nothing compared to the mental injuries. Those heal much harder and leave deeper scars.

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Firefighters are supposed to be tough people. And it takes a tough person to be a firefighter. It is not a job for the timid. As Altland said, “Firefighters have to have broad shoulders.”

They witness things that many of us would rather not see. When people call 911, they say, it’s not to report that they’re doing fine. It’s usually the worst day of their lives. And firefighters, and other first responders, are duty bound to show up and make everything better.

And then they go home and put that all behind them.

It takes a toll, Altland said. You keep all of that bottled up, and one day it has to come out. It’s gotten better, he said, as firefighters and their union, the International Association of Fire Fighters, have recognized the need for trauma counseling and have moved away from the image of stoic firefighters who check their emotions at the firehouse door.

Still, it’s hard to deal with.

At the memorial service for Flanscha and Anthony in the York Expo Center’s Memorial Hall, Altland, surrounded by 5,000 people mourning the loss of the two firefighters, felt alone.

“It’s hard to think that you could feel so alone with all of those people around,” he said. “I felt very alone.”

As he left the service, he became angry, “pissed off,” he said, the anger welling from his grief. He snapped at his wife, lashing out at the most important person in his life. There was no reason for it. It just happened.

He got out of the car and started walking. He walked the two and half miles from the fairgrounds to the Rex fire station, where he had left his car.

He learned one thing from it: Don’t ever walk that distance wearing dress-blue uniform shoes. He had blisters on his feet.

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Swanson couldn’t help it.

He couldn’t help feeling that Flanscha’s widow, Casey, and Anthony’s wife, Brooke, would look at him and wonder why he got to go home to his family while their spouses didn’t.

Casey and Brooke saw that he was hurting and approached him. They told him they were so glad he was alive, that he survived. They told him not to feel guilty.

Words do not exist to describe how that felt - and what that meant to Swanson.

“That was a turning point for me,” Swanson said.

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The community has helped with the healing process, both firefighters said. The outpouring of support for them and the families of the fallen has been overwhelming. They have been inundated with cards and texts and calls from people wishing them well, expressing condolences and asking whether they need anything. Neighbors stop by their homes with food. Businesses have been generous with donations.

One example: Swanson and his wife, Donna, have a rescue chihuahua - Chico, one of three dogs in their family - with an enlarged heart. He has bad teeth, abscessed, that have to be removed, but with his cardiac condition, he can’t be put under anesthesia.

Long story short, the treatments have racked up more than $1,000 in vet bills. The vet’s office, the Charles E. London Animal Hospital on South Queen Street, provided the care gratis. “We just want to help as much as we can,” said Betsy Henson, a customer care specialist at the animal hospital.

There are numerous other examples, almost too numerous to list.

Yet, to some of the firefighters, it’s the small things that help the most.

On Friday, a woman approached the makeshift memorial in front of the Rex with her two small sons. The boys went to the memorial and prayed. The mother, Claudia Ramcharan, said they had just come from Good Friday services, and her sons, Jaden, 8, and Cyrus, 5, wanted to stop at the fire station on the way home to say a prayer for the firefighters.

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Firefighters are like family, they all say.

And it’s true.

They live together at the station. Their families are part of the larger firefighting family. They are in each others’ weddings, and celebrate their kids’ birthdays with one another. Altland said Flanscha served as a groomsman at his wedding and played the guitar while Altland serenaded his bride with Chris Young’s “The Man I Want To Be.” Flanscha even told him he sang the song well, even though Altland knows his voice wandered somewhere around the neighborhood of the song’s key.

The family extends to all firefighters. After the memorial service, Altland met some firefighters who made the trip from Toronto to pay their respects to their fallen brothers. They gave Altland a T-shirt. The simple gesture, Altland said, “meant a lot.”

It was good, during the week and during the service, to have the family of firefighters around, Altland said.

“It’s definitely moving to see so much support from the community, friends and family, and the police departments and EMS community, and firefighters,” he said. “It’s nice to have people around to talk to. Other times, I just want to be alone with my thoughts.”

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Saturday afternoon, Swanson visited the scene of the fire for the first time. It occurred to him that in 1998, when he first joined the department, the first fire he worked was in that block, in the rowhouses just north of the Weaver building.

“I just now thought of that,” he said. “My first fire out of the academy. Now, I could end my career, possibly, on the same street,”

When he arrived, city clerk Dianna Thompson was already there, at the fence, showing her mother the scene of the fatal fire. She recognized Swanson, and they chatted. She then asked to take a selfie with him.

“You’re everybody’s hero,” she told him.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Swanson said. “Maybe everybody’s lucky charm.”

She gave him a hug.

“Thank God you lived,” she said.

After Thompson left, Swanson gazed at the building. Half of it remains standing. The other half, the half he and the other firefighters occupied, was a pile of bricks, timber and concrete.

“Crazy,” he said. “Crazy.”

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They try to focus on the good times, the memories of Flanscha and Anthony, the stories about them. And they will strive to keep those memories alive - that their brothers will not have died in vain.

Both Altland and Swanson are approaching eligibility for retirement. They love the work. They love being firefighters. And they love their firefighting family. They might have considered staying on, but now both speak of retirement. Their wives have contributed their opinions.

For Altland, he’s pretty sure about it.

“I never want to experience this again,” he said. “It really hurts, and I don’t know what’s going to make it better.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2Jbs4MP

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Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com

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