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Four Wichita firefighters receive national awards for heroism

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, July 5, 2014, at 8:42 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, July 6, 2014, at 7:14 a.m.

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Moments after a Wichita police officer plucked a near-lifeless toddler from a murky creek in July 2013, three firefighters took on a daunting task.

Submerged in knee-deep muddy water for several minutes, 2-year-old Max Pierson had turned a deathly shade by the time he was handed to Wichita fire Capt. Boyd Lauber and the Quint 15 crew. The boy had slipped on an embankment of east Wichita’s Gypsum Creek – swollen and fast-moving after recent rains – and was swept away during a midmorning walk with his grandfather.

“His whole body was purple. He had essentially – he had passed away,” Lauber said, recalling Max’s rescue on July 26.

The crew immediately initiated cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the boy, Lauber said. It took three to four minutes of mouth-to-mouth breathing and chest compressions, he said, to force most of the fluid out of the boy’s lungs.

“We did everything we could bring this child back to life with our training,” said Lauber, a 28-year firefighting veteran. “It was a very moving moment for all of us to see this child go from lifeless and purple to pink and breathing. We didn’t think we had a chance (to revive him), but it was a great feeling for the whole crew.”

During the ambulance ride to the hospital, “I remember saying, ‘Welcome back, son. Welcome back,’ ” Lauber said.

Lauber and the two other Wichita firefighters who worked together to save Max’s life – eight-year veteran Tim Robinson and Christopher DeLeon, a 13-year veteran – are among four Wichita firefighters recently recognized by national publication Firehouse Magazine for engaging in heroic acts.

The fourth firefighter, three-year veteran Stephen Burns, received his Heroism Award for helping fellow Wichita firefighters escape a home that ignited in April 2013 after two brothers working on a scooter in the attached garage inadvertently spilled gasoline near a space heater.

The annual awards are given to candidates selected from a pool of nominees. Others recognized by Firehouse Magazine this year include individual firefighters and crews from New York, Texas, Virginia, Maryland and Louisiana.

Wichita Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said the Wichita firefighters recognized by the magazine received medals, which they will be given later this year during the Wichita Fire Department’s annual awards day. The ceremony is scheduled for fall, he said.

“We try to collect instances where we think a member or a crew has gone above and beyond what we would expect in emergency calls,” Crisp said of the process for nominating firefighters for the award.

“We get called to bad situations all the time,” he continued, “and the expectation is that we are going to try to make whatever bad things happened better. ... There are instances every year that our firefighters find themselves in a situation where they have to use ingenuity ... (or) something different than they are accustom to. And those are the instances we want to recognize.”

As in the case of Max’s rescue, the situation that led to Burns’ Heroism Award was dire.

On April 11, 2013, Burns was searching for anyone who might be trapped by an inferno raging inside 1526 E. Amsden when he and three other firefighters became disoriented from blinding smoke and lost their way.

Before long an alarm sounded, warning the crews of low air supplies, the Wichita Fire Department wrote in Burns’ nomination letter to Firehouse Magazine. The foursome dropped to the floor and hunted for an exit, to no avail.

As the situation escalated – prompting a mayday call – Burns remembered that a large bay window was near the home’s front door.

“He basically threw himself through the window” to save himself and the others, Crisp said.

“His cool, calm and collected actions ... (helped) his fellow firefighters get out without significant injury.”

Although fire crews managed to escape mostly unscathed – only one firefighter received minor burns that day, Crisp said – the brothers who were working on the scooter suffered serious injuries. Michael Durham, 54, died later at a local hospital, according to an Eagle news report; he had suffered extensive burns to the lower potion of his body.

For Max, the toddler swept away by the creek, there was a happy ending. He made a full recovery and is now 4.

In a May story about an award Wichita Police Officer Darren Sundquist received for his role in the boy’s rescue, Max’s mother, Jennifer Pierson, told The Eagle her son has “made comments a couple of times about falling into” the creek but has no lingering fear of walking near the water.

Lauber said that “firefighting is only a small percentage of our job. About 75 to 80 percent of our calls are medical calls – from car wrecks to heart attacks … to the plain I-don’t-feel-good.

“To save a life was really exciting – to save a child’s life. When you get a call for a child, your adrenaline kicks in pretty hard. And it’s all about getting there quickly and doing what you can to save a life.”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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