Survivor commits to volunteer fire service
Ten years after a Christchurch couple narrowly avoided death in a house fire, they recall the legacy of that night. Brooke Mitchell tells BECK ELEVEN it inspired him to join the volunteer fire brigade.
Unless you have experienced a house fire, it is difficult to understand just how quickly flames can spread or the way deadly smoke turns a familiar room into a black, claustrophobic maze.
Then there is the sound, a multi-toned roar punctuated by the cracks and snaps of windows imploding and things falling off walls.
Brooke and Rebecca Mitchell remember these things vividly despite it being more than 10 years since they escaped a house fire that should have killed them both.
"It's pitch black and loud, so loud. I only really remembered that years later," Rebecca says.
"It was like a monster, a roaring monster lashing out at you. The flames were like arms trying to grab at you."
Paint melts, furniture just seems to combust and windows explode. Each year the Fire Service is called to an average of 3800 residential fires. Fire claims about 20 lives a year and, of those fatalities, 80 per cent occurred in homes without working smoke alarms.
Today Brooke and Rebecca Mitchell live in Arrowtown with their two young children and recently celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary. They have smoke alarms, probably a few more than necessary, and their decor is minimalist because once you've lost all your belongings in a fire, it tends to change your attachment to material possessions.
The couple met at a friend's wedding in 2003. Six months later, they were living together in a two- bedroom unit on Manchester St in Christchurch. She was a nurse, he was in the midst of a four-year landscape architecture degree.
On a cool September evening, they had friends over for a dinner party and some time after midnight they farewelled their guests, gave the lounge and kitchen a reasonable tidy up and went to bed.
At about 2am, Brooke woke with a "strange sense". In the corner of his consciousness, he heard cracking noises. As Rebecca slept, he got out of bed and peered down the short hallway towards the lounge, which appeared to be glowing. As he looked into the lounge, flames were licking the walls. To his left was the small kitchen and through that, the only door to the outside. Still not entirely comprehending the gravity of the situation, Brooke grasped the metal door handle and was immediately burnt.
"Something about that triggered a thought about Bec so I turned around to go back to the bedroom, by which time the flames had engulfed the hallway. I knew straight away I'd have to go through them to get to her."
Instinctively, he put his hands over his face and went through the fire.
"Some things are a bit fuzzy but I got to the bedroom and I must have closed the door behind me."
Rebecca remembers being shaken awake and hearing her cat, Jess, crying from somewhere. She knows now that the air was already poisoned.
"We had no fire alarms and we don't know how long it had been burning for," she says.
"I would have been what they call hypoxic - drowsy from the smoke and gases and lack of oxygen. We were lucky to be alive. I wanted to find the cat. It was dark, black and I was crawling on the ground. I was hysterical, calling 'Jess, Jess', that's all I could focus on. I didn't realise how in danger we really were.
"Brooke was doing everything, smashing the window, telling me to move, getting me out. I'd just woken up and all I cared about was rescuing my baby - which was the cat at the time."
Brooke knew they were trapped in the bedroom. The only route to the door was blocked by a wall of "colossal" flames. There was a large window in the bedroom but only a small part of it opened, enough for the cat to slip in and out.
It's strange what comes to mind in an emergency. For a split second, Brooke worried about smashing the window and how much glass would cover the floor.
Nevertheless, he smashed the window with his elbow (later, when he was sedated, a nurse would find glass embedded in it). "When Brooke broke the window, that's when the oxygen came in and the fire went mad, windows were exploding behind us as we got into the courtyard," Rebecca says.
"To get out of our courtyard, we had to climb out of ours (unit three), wake up the woman from unit four, go through her place into the driveway and then Brooke went down the driveway to wake up units one and two."
By this time, people had gathered on the street and a fire engine arrived.
Then Brooke's adrenaline simply ran out. He recalls an overwhelming sense of pain.
"I looked down at my hands and thought 'holy f... I'm in trouble'. They were just covered in blood. Burns don't show up straight away. They were just raw and bloody. And so was my shoulder."
An ambulance arrived and administered morphine for his pain.
"The trip from Manchester St to Christchurch Hospital seemed to take forever. I was pretty quiet because I knew in my heart of hearts something was quite wrong."
In patches, he remembers Rebecca's panic, and an unusual number of people hovering over them as they were taken through the hospital doors into A & E.
"All of a sudden everyone was concentrating on Bec and I, and I just didn't understand why. One lady told me she was going to cut a ring off my finger and someone else told me they were going to put me to sleep for a few days.
"I woke up 10 days later. What happened through that time is a mystery to me."
What happened is that he had breathed fire into his airway, or as he puts it: "torched the inside of my larynx".
His throat was swelling and soon he would not be able to breathe unassisted. He was placed in an induced coma and put on a ventilator for 10 days.
Rebecca was in shock, kept on oxygen and admitted overnight for observation. However, she barely left the hospital even when discharged. The next two or three weeks were spent watching and worrying over Brooke.
"Down the track, we had flashbacks and nightmares. The impact for me was huge. I was so worried about him. I had so much guilt. Guilt because I wasn't injured, guilt because of the cat. I couldn't eat, I lost weight, I was down to 49kg, I burnt an ulcer in my stomach because I was so anxious," she said.
"Everything was hard. His parents didn't really even know me at the time. I had to write out all the insurance, list every single thing, and doing it by the bedside because I didn't want to be anywhere else."
They are forever grateful to everyone who supported them after the fire. Girlfriends turned up with bags of clothes and welcomed her to stay. Workmates donated blankets, kitchenware and pantry goods. Family friends donated money and people even went through the charred remains to find anything salvageable. The firemen had buried her cat in the garden but the thought of her precious pet buried in a place she now hated upset her further. One dear friend even went to the house, dug up the cat and took it to Rebecca's parents' home for burial in their garden.
"At first the loss of material goods didn't matter to us because Brooke's life was the priority and we had lost Jess. But when we recovered, it was all the small things and precious things we lost that made it hard.
"Queenstown was a fresh start. We lived in a minimalist culture because what we did have was special. Today we still live like this. Clutter is too much and if something doesn't have a place in our house, then it doesn't belong."
Brooke's injuries were substantial. He had laser surgery to relax his vocal cords and 18 months of speech and language therapy. His voice is permanently changed and croaky. He had third degree burns over 17 per cent of his body, mostly on his shoulder and the back of his hands where he held his palms over his face shielding it from the hallway flames.
But despite this, four years ago he became a member of the volunteer fire brigade in Arrowtown.
"I wanted to help prevent others from experiencing the raw nature of a house fire. I remember I was so grateful to the firefighters who attended our incident, that I wanted to be able to offer that level of commitment to our local community."
He is one of about 7200 volunteer urban firefighters across 440 stations in New Zealand. For Brooke to become a firefighter he had to go through rigorous tests to confirm his airway and lungs could withstand the fitness, oxygen mask and being in a fire.
The training brought back tough memories.
"They put you in a confined room and fill it with flames and you're in your full kit with a BA (breathing apparatus). I did think "how am I going to handle this?' And that was seven-odd years after the fire.
"What freaks me a little bit sometimes is that smoke-filled room when you can't even see your hand in front of you, it's very claustrophobic.
"You are guided by just your hand. We did that training exercise the other week. I manage it but it's the one I find hardest. I'm fine with high ladders, car crashes, you name it but there is something claustrophobic about that.
"But there's something about the brigade too. This part of the world is a millionaires' playground but when I walk in the brigade doors, everybody is the same. That's what I like about it."