Wichita firefighter honored for rescue of woman (+video)

Letitia Houston, 38, was reading a romance novel in her pajamas in bed on March 15 when she noticed smoke in the living room of her apartment. She thought it was from her cigarette. She looked in the garbage to make sure a butt hadn’t caught fire, didn’t notice anything and went back to reading in her apartment.

Lt. Rob Kanaga, who had already been named firefighter of the year in Wichita for his actions that day, was given statewide honors at a Wichita City Council meeting Tuesday. Because March 15 was a Sunday, he said, he was probably watching TV or playing cards at about 1:30 p.m. when the bell at the station rang three times to signal a fire.

Houston had moved into the apartment in southwest Wichita five months before because she wanted to be on her own again. She had suffered a stroke two years before and had been temporarily paralyzed. But now she could get up and down the stairs on her own – it just took a little longer. She said she’d asked for one of the apartments on the ground floor, but none was available, so she took the one in the middle of the second floor.

Two minutes after she’d gotten up the first time on that Sunday, Houston said, her apartment had filled with smoke. She sometimes saw bonfires across the alley of her apartment at the 1300 block of West Walker, so Houston wasn’t too nervous. But when she went to the door, flames burst through the windows, she said.

She opened the sliding glass door to her balcony. Burning embers fell onto her arms and legs, she said, melting her pajama pants to her leg in one spot. She yelled for help, but nobody seemed to be out back. She went back inside, a few feet from the door, and lay on the ground with her head sticking out for fresh air.

As Kanaga approached the building, he could see smoke and flames and radioed in that his team would go into the attack position with their hose. As the other team members laid the fire hose, Kanaga did a lap around the building to get a better look.

There was a bit of wind coming from the south that day, which, along with the size of the two-story apartment, meant that when Battalion Chief Ernie Schuler arrived at the scene minutes later and saw the extent of the fire, he raised the threat.

By the time the other units arrived, there were about 50 people there to help.

“It’s kind of like organized chaos at first,” Schuler said.

Fire crews had to get the utilities turned off, ensure an adequate water supply was in place, start attacking the fire, treat the people already outside and, most importantly, rescue the people they suspected might still be inside.

Kanaga entered the first floor and determined that most of the fire was coming from above. The wooden stairway on the left was in flames, so he and two other firefighters turned their hose on it.

Once they reached the second floor, they fell to their knees and crawled for better visibility and to reduce their exposure to heat. The first apartment they came to had little damage, the second one had some flames, but it was the third apartment that, when they entered, was engulfed.

In the meantime, a neighbor had told someone there was a woman still in the building. Kanaga said he and his men weren’t making much progress on that third apartment, so when he heard about the incapacitated woman on his radio, he told his crew they needed to back out and look for her.

He asked the nozzle person to spray the entrance to the apartment next door.

Houston couldn’t hear the sirens and was still sitting calmly on the floor a few feet from the flames out on the balcony.

“I didn’t have a plan. I wasn’t panicking. I wasn’t thinking of dying or burning to death. I was just sitting there trying to get some fresh air,” she said.

Kanaga heard screams and used a special camera that sees through smoke to find Houston. He asked her whether she could walk out on her own. She said no, so Kanaga picked her up from under her arms and dragged her to where another firefighter helped him carry her down the stairs.

Houston, who was disoriented, said she tried to go back to get her purse and pictures of her two children before someone told her it wasn’t safe, strapped her into a stretcher and took her to the hospital.

“I want to make it clear to everybody that the romance novels that firemen are hot and it’s sexy to be carried by them is overrated,” Houston said. “I know from experience, it’s not that fun.” She said that, in addition to several small burns, she had bruises from being carried.

By the time Kanaga returned to his crew a few minutes later, Schuler had told the firefighters to go into a defensive position. That meant they were going to step back and pour a large amount of water from overhead.

There had been another group searching for victims from the other direction, Kanaga said. He just happened to be the one that pulled Houston out.

On the day of the fire, “I told the fire chiefs and everyone who was on the scene that,” Kanaga said at the City Council meeting, where he accepted the Tom McGaughey Fire Service Award Tuesday. “There were over 50 people there, and it was a joint effort to facilitate that rescue.”

But that’s not how Houston sees it. When she went back to the scene, she said, the roof above her bedroom, where she had been sitting, had collapsed.

“I’ve been trying to find (the fireman who saved me) since it happened. I just haven’t had any luck,” Houston said. “When I got the call today (from a fire marshal), I about started crying. I was like, ‘Wow, to run into a building to save a total stranger takes bravery.’ ”

Houston said she’s planning to get a tattoo with a red fire department ribbon and the letters WFD.

Kanaga said he never got the name of the woman he saved and saw her for only a few minutes before going back to fighting the fire.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison