EVERETT — The girls might as well have been invisible, coated in soot in a room flooded with smoke.
Three stories of flames had been beaten down by Engine 7, just enough for Capt. Nick Adsero and firefighter Brent Duckworth to skirt past a broken sliding glass door and into a burning living room at the Olin Fields Apartments.
They groped through dense black smoke. Adsero trudged in front. Duckworth crouched behind him spraying the hose line to snuff out flames that still flared at them in the hallway. Ceilings can top 1,000 degrees in a fire, too hot even for heavy fireproof gear. So they had to keep low.
“Fire department! Is anybody in here!”
No answer. They battled through the bottom floor of the N building to a master bedroom, where a chief told them the twin girls might be. It was the first place they searched. In the dark, Adsero went by touch. He lifted whatever he could. Bedding on the floor. Random debris. Then, a tiny body.
“It was shocking, that this was really happening,” Adsero, 41, said a week later in an interview. “I have a kid in my arms.”
He heard a little moan. She was breathing. Chloe, 3, was caked in soot, all over her skin, deep into her throat.
Adsero handed her to Duckworth, 34, a new firefighter who was two months, two weeks and five days from finishing his time as a probationary hire. He had been a volunteer in Kirkland and a part-timer in Granite Falls. He started training at a fire academy in May. He’d used adult-sized dummies to test his physical limits in a rescue. But until Jan. 29, he’d never been “first in” to a real fire.
Both firefighters are dads, with kids 6 and under.
“I cradled the little girl like I would with my little kids,” Duckworth said. He scrambled to the paramedics outside. Then he hustled back to the bedroom, to search for her twin.
Meanwhile, Adsero was sifting through debris. He couldn’t see the other girl, who was wedged against the bed.
‘You just feel sick’
It was a surprise when Sihaya Sweum, 44, learned she was pregnant — with identical twins. Now at age 3, the girls are spring-loaded with energy and life. Emma, who has chubbier cheeks, is the more outgoing of the two. Recently she cut her own hair, and when it’s not in pigtails it has a Joe Dirt look to it, her mother said. She was born four minutes earlier. She’s protective of her little sister, Chloe.
An older sibling, age 23, had been babysitting the twins. She left them alone in the home, Sweum said.
So far Everett fire investigators haven’t been able to confirm what sparked the fire. They’ve examined the possibility it was started by someone in the apartment, but haven’t ruled out other possible causes. They were still digging through charred evidence late last week.
“Our biggest focus was not to preserve the scene, it was to rescue the two kids,” Everett Assistant Fire Marshal Steve Goforth said.
The crew of Engine 6 started their shift at 7:30 a.m., on what turned into a busy Monday: aid call, fire call, aid call. They kept trying to get lunch, but it wasn’t happening.
Around noon a commercial fire broke out at a north Everett auto shop. Crews from stations citywide, including Engine 6, darted to Rucker Avenue. Flames didn’t leave serious damage to the shop. Firefighters were getting things under control, when emergency calls poured in from the south end of the city, at the 352-unit complex on Holly Drive.
Heavy flames had fanned up the three floors on the eastern face of the N building. The girls’ older sister returned to the home, crying out that the babies were inside. Longtime paramedics Jack Murrin and Joe Paterniti were among the first to roll up to Olin Fields. They saw the intensity of the flames, and wondered if anyone could survive. They were assigned to wait by their rig, as the crew of Engine 6 raced inside. Moments felt like ages.
“You just feel sick,” Murrin said. “You’re picturing a worst-case scenario. You’re going to get, basically, a body.”
Then Duckworth emerged cradling the soot-covered girl, Chloe. She flopped in his arms like a big rag doll. He brought her over. She was moving on her own, a little.
“Oh, man,” Murrin thought. “We’ve got a chance here.”
‘We carry a lot of ghosts’
The assistant chief, Dave DeMarco, jumped in the back of the ambulance to help the paramedics. It’s uncommon to see a white chief’s hat in an ambulance, but DeMarco had been a paramedic for decades, and they were stretched thin. The second ambulance was coming from Silver Firs.
Paterniti looked down Chloe’s throat. All black.
It turned out the bedroom door was shut, a critical stroke of luck that blocked the fire from creeping into the room. Chloe later told her mom they shut it because the smoke stank. In the end, the door was still badly singed. Carbon monoxide seeped in. Chloe’s CO levels were high.
“They didn’t have much longer,” Paterniti said. “It was remarkable that she was alive. … The fact that she had that much soot in and on her, she was already affected by the poisonous gases — it was only a matter of minutes.”
Paramedics induced a coma, put a tube down her throat and gave her a cyanide antidote that turned her skin bright pink.
They took her to Harborview Medical Center. Paterniti has been a paramedic for 25 years. On the ride to Seattle, he thought of kids in the past he tried to help, but couldn’t.
“We carry a lot of ghosts with us all the time, the calls we didn’t save,” Paterniti said. “I put the other kids’ faces, that I’ve worked on from the past, on the ones that I’m working on. To have this one, Chloe, make it, is a blessing.”
‘There could be more’
Time seemed to distort in the burning apartment. Things moved in slow motion. Looking back, Adsero doesn’t know how long he waited for Duckworth to return. But just as his partner re-entered the room, they heard a squeak from a hidden spot by the edge of the bed.
“She was in between the bed and the headboard, or the back — it was hard for me to tell,” Adsero said. “She was kind of wedged off the bed a little bit, underneath some blankets.”
They pulled Emma to safety. She had inhaled smoke, but she was in better shape than Chloe. An ambulance took her to Harborview, a few floors below her sister.
Tenants of six apartments were displaced. Sweum’s dog, Yoda, a miniature schnauzer, died in the fire. He was 4. She plans to have him cremated, so he can always be with them.
Adsero has seen a lot — big fires, fatal fires, many calls where patients didn’t make it — in his 14 years in the fire service. A rescue like this was a first for him. Often firefighters go a whole career without saving a child from a burning building. On his first fire, Duckworth helped save two.
“To pull out one kid is a lifetime career experience,” said DeMarco, the assistant chief.
But to grab two? That’s unbelievable, he said.
Once the girls were safe from the flames, Adsero and Duckworth leaned over to catch their breath. The air bottles strapped to their backs have a 45-minute time limit. You can suck down that bottle fast, if you’re running in and out of a building that’s on fire, in full gear.
It’s hard to find time to pause and celebrate a good save. First-responders always have to move on to the next task, the next call. Adsero glanced over the parking lot. No other engines had arrived. A battalion chief asked if they were OK. They were fine.
“You have a report of two kids, but there could be more,” he said. He asked if they could go back. Adsero looked at Duckworth. They swapped out their air bottles for fresh ones.
‘They don’t understand it’
At the hospital, Emma was talking and laughing, with an oxygen mask over her face.
“I started crying, and she’s just pushing the tears off,” her mother said.
Harborview staff took Sweum to see Chloe next. She broke down, for a long time. Chloe had the tube down her throat. And her skin was so pink that Sweum thought people had been lying to her, when they said she hadn’t been burned. Her skin stayed that color for days. It gives you bragging rights, if you’re a 3-year-old girl. She talked about being pink so much that Emma started to tell people she was yellow.
In one way, Sweum is glad she was at work that day. She didn’t have to helplessly watch in the parking lot.
“I don’t know how you can deal with that,” she said. “I know all the neighbors had a hard time watching.”
Doctors warned that health problems could arise months in the future. However, neither girl showed signs of serious internal damage, Sweum said. The twins spent one night at Harborview. Staff had to put a tracking bracelet on Emma. She was having too much fun riding around in a toy police car. Back home they played with new toys, stickers and stuffed animals that were donated by friends and strangers.
Sweum hasn’t talked with her oldest daughter since the fire. Police were investigating. It’s too early to say if the babysitter could face charges, officer Aaron Snell said.
The twins don’t seem to grasp how close they came to dying. They haven’t had nightmares, their mother said.
“They’re at such a young age, they don’t understand it,” Sweum said. “When you ask them about it, they don’t associate it with fear.”
The girls panicked when their mom turned on their new oven for the first time, and they smelled smoke. The family had moved into an apartment across the parking lot. Their windows face away from the old, fire-scarred home.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.