STURGIS — As the sun rises on a clear September morning over Sturgis, a lone individual donning dress blues stands sentry at the entrance to Kinkade Funeral Chapel.
Inside the funeral chapel lies a fallen brother — Sturgis firefighter Dave Fischer — who died in the line of duty Friday afternoon during a house fire at Tilford.
“He was always there for us, now it’s our turn to be there for him. It’s the least we can do,” said friend and fellow Sturgis firefighter Kaleb Zook.
In addition to Fischer, 82-year-old Raymond Bachmeier of Tilford, died in the fire. Bachmeier was listed as unaccounted for Friday evening during the fire.
At around 8 a.m. Saturday morning, firefighters and law enforcement officers located Bachmeier’s remains in the charred rubble.
Additionally, Meade County Deputy Daniel Morgan suffered smoke inhalation during the fire. He was airlifted to Regional Health Rapid City Hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation, Meade County Sheriff Ron Merwin said. Morgan was released and is recovering at home, he said.
Lt. Jim Bussell, of the South Dakota Local Assistance State Team, explained what happened on Friday. He said just after 4 p.m., the Sturgis Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to a report of a structure fire in Tilford.
When Sturgis firefighters arrived on scene, a single-family dwelling was fully involved in fire. Several outbuildings on the property and adjacent properties were also catching fire or threatened. Additionally, a number of propane tanks in the area were threatened by fire.
“There was a large amount of combustible material available for the fire,” he said.
As firefighters continued to battle the blaze and attempt to locate Bachmeier, a 500-gallon propane tank on the property experienced what Bussell described as a catastrophic failure and ruptured in an event known as a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion, or BLEVE.
When it blew, half of the tank, about a four-foot section traveled about 75 yards to the east and the other half about 350 yards to the west, Merwin said.
Fischer was in the process of moving one of the Sturgis fire command vehicles, a Suburban, across State Street to the east. He was behind a fire engine and close to the vehicle he was trying to move.
“When the tank blew, it went up over the house, over the structural engine, over the Suburban and he was struck by it,” Barrows said.
When it hit him, it continued on and lodged in a well house further to the east.
Merwin said they believe Fischer died instantly.
Even knowing they had lost one of their own, Sturgis firefighters continued to fight the fire until it was mostly out, Merwin said.
When the fire assistance team arrived on scene later in the evening, they transitioned command from the Sturgis department to the Pennington County officials, Barrows said.
“At that time, we pulled all of Sturgis’s firefighting resources off the fire and had them come back to the Sturgis Fire Hall,” he said.
Firefighter tradition in a line-of-duty death is to remain with the fallen, Barrows said.
“We don’t leave any of our firefighters unattended. Through the process, we stayed with Dave and we escorted Dave back to town,” he said.
Since then, there has been a sentry on sentry at the funeral home. Firefighter honor guards from across the state have pledged their willingness to provide that watch 24 hours a day, Bussell said.
“We will have at least one person with Dave from now until he is laid to rest,” Barrows said.
Nearly 30 departments in addition to the Sturgis Volunteer Fire Department assisted with the Friday blaze.
Barrows said that was due to the conditions on scene when Sturgis arrived. There were many other structures close by and fire officials quickly realized they didn’t have the manpower they needed to battle the blaze.
“We requested mutual aid right away from our local departments, and made a fire assistance call out which involves any departments in Pennington County that are able to supply resources,” Barrows said.
It also made firefighting efforts difficult that there was no water supply in Tilford. Sturgis firefighters brought trucks the eight miles back to Sturgis to fill with water. Other departments filled their trucks in Piedmont, about five miles away.
“All the water we used to fight the fire we had to haul in,” Barrows said.
Getting the fire trucks to the scene also proved challenging. Tilford has one entrance, State Street, where people enter and exit the community named for Colonel Joseph G. Tilford, a commander at nearby Fort Meade.
“Getting the tenders in was a little difficult. They were lined up from the entrance on State Street sometimes all the way onto the bridge (over Interstate 90),” said Doug Huntrods, Meade County Emergency Manager/Veteran Services Officer. “They would basically have to wait for one to unload and come out before the next one could come in.”
The tender trucks would fill portable holding tanks located just off the west side of State Street in a flat, grassy area.
Barrows said the in addition to the access issue for firefighting needs, fire and law enforcement officials also worried about evacuating nearby residences.
“Because it’s basically a one-way-in, one-way-out, we had issues trying to evacuate residents. We wanted to make sure those residents had the opportunity to be removed from the area,” he said.
Merwin said there were five or six houses close to the fire zone. Those residents were asked to leave.
“No one wanted to leave. We got called lots of things and told a lot of expletives. That was until the fuel tank blew up. Then, everybody wanted to leave,” he said.
Also making the firefighting troublesome was that the structure was two mobile homes placed side-by-side. In addition to the steel siding on the mobile home, there was Masonite siding built over that, said Merwin.
Around the property were two buses and other vehicles.
Neighbor Roger Schlem, who lived across State Street since 1990, said his house shook from the force of the explosion.
“They wouldn’t let me go anyplace. They told me to stay in the house. There was too much going on,” said Schlem, whose mobile home east of the fire sustained broken windows from the blast. “It took what I had left after that hail storm.”
He said Bachmeier drove buses until age 75. Two old buses parked near the burned home were gutted in the blaze.
“We was good neighbors,” Schlem said. “He was just a wonderful guy.”
Officials said that representatives of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were called to help with the investigation of the fire.
“ATF comes because they have a lot of fire investigative experience and fire investigative toys and tools so to speak,” said Merwin. “Anytime we have a major fire like this they will assist us in determining the cause.”
Barrows concurred saying anytime there is high dollar loss or loss of life, they will, in conjunction with the state Fire Marshall’s office, conduct an investigation.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, Bussell said. The Meade County Sheriff’s Office, the South Dakota Fire Marshal’s Office, the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will conduct the investigation into the incident. These agencies will also conduct an investigation into the cause and manner in which Bachmeier died.
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