When a Lesson Took a Dangerous Turn, a Room Full of Firefighters Couldn't Save Neal Smith

Firefighter Neal Smith was almost out of the second floor of the six-story training tower when he became disoriented and fell to his knees.

Smith had excelled through the first day's exercises, and he was doing fine on day two. He was one of a few to clear a bunker with air left in his tank; others quickly depleted their supply as instructors, perched above the rafters, threw firecrackers and lassoed the trainees' air tanks with bungee cords. And now he was making his way through four floors of the tower until he reached the room where the mission was a right-hand victim search: Trainees had to slide beneath a plywood plank screwed to the entryway 30 inches above the floor and conduct a counter-clockwise sweep of the room while keeping their right hands on a wall. Visibility was impaired by a fog machine and by a web of fire hoses and landscaping timbers hanging above a floor littered with golf balls and marbles.

Weighed down by 75 pounds worth of gear that included an air tank, mask, coat and trousers still saturated with sweat from the previous day's exercises, trainees had to navigate their way through pallets, tires, metal pipes and burned-out box springs to reach a 2-by-10 wooden box with one end propped upon a barrel. The men had to crawl through the box, which spilled out into a floored elevator shaft, and then crawl back through to continue the sweep.

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow