The Men Who Come Back to Fight More Fires

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One firefighter was engulfed in flames after a propane gas tank exploded, another hurt his back pulling too hard on hoses in trying to rescue people trapped in a building ablaze, two others were buried for several minutes beneath a burning wall that fell on them.

These firefighters all had one thought during recovery: How fast can I get back to work?

In fact, about 98% of injured firefighters return to their duties once they have healed, said Emmy Day, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Department.

"The majority make every effort to come back to fighting fires," Day said. "They love their jobs of saving people. They feel what they do is important and rewarding."

The following are their stories:

Capt. Ron Newport, 50, was not always a firefighter with the Orange County Fire Department. When he was 27, he worked for the California Department of Forestry in San Bernardino County.

In 1970, Newport said, he and his crew were sent to the Yucca Valley where a tractor-trailer pouring propane into an underground tank leaked some of the gas, which ignited and caused both the trailer and the tank to explode.

He was 250 feet away but was still doused with the burning propane.

"Everything around me was on fire, so I couldn't drop to the ground to roll around and put myself out," Newport said. "I was too conscious of being on fire to worry about the pain."

He decided to run 250 feet to where other firefighters had ducked for cover. One of them motioned him to get to the ground and used a jacket to beat out the flames, Newport recalled.

Later, Newport had to undergo five operations to treat burns on over 80% of his body.

"At one point, doctors wanted to cut off my hands because they were burned so badly," he said. "My mother wouldn't let them. I was very athletic, playing rugby and baseball. She knew that cutting off my hands would be like killing me. As it was, I'd already lost the tips to my fingers and the tops of my ears."

Newport said he cannot bend four of his fingers and that he bleeds easily from minor scratches because his skin is more fragile.

Still, Newport considers himself lucky. He is back fighting fires full time and he can play sports.

"A lot of people who get burned die because of a lack of will to live," Newport said. "I never gave up. I just took it as another challenge. I had to get back to work. I love the fire service."

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Capt. Jim Perkins, 42, of the Garden Grove Fire Department said he did not know he was hurt while fighting a fire in 1985 until after the flames had been extinguished.

On that day, all he knew as he pulled two 2 1/2-inch hoses from the fire engine was that people were trapped inside a burning auto mechanic shop, he said. The hoses are not heavy and pulling them is routine work that he has done many times since the accident, Perkins said.

"Afterward, I felt pain in my back but I thought it would go away," Perkins said. "By the end of the second day, I lost the feelings of my legs and the pain was just incredible."

He asked colleagues at the station to take him to the hospital, where doctors said two spinal disks had ruptured.

"I've thought about this in the last years, wondering how I hurt myself," Perkins said. "All I can come up with was that I pulled extra hard on the hoses because I was on adrenaline, knowing we had to get those people out."

After treatment, he went back to work but the pain continued.

"I really enjoyed my work so I kept my mouth shut," Perkins said. "The pain would come and go, and it was bearable. I put up with it because I was terrified of being retired."

Then, in 1991, he was cleaning up around his station when his back hurt so much he could not walk. Back at the hospital, doctors had to remove the two disks that had ruptured years ago and trimmed a third disk that had herniated.

In May, 1992, he was back on full duty.

"My goal, from the second I knew I was injured, was to get back to work," Perkins said. "This job is just unbelievable. Every day is a new day, a new experience. Doctors, the city, they all wanted me to retire. The hardest thing was convincing people I wanted to come back to work."

The pain has not completely disappeared but now it is more like a "constant headache."

"It's more annoying than anything," Perkins said. "But it's much better than before, when it hurt so bad I couldn't walk."

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Santa Ana firefighters Mark Eide, 31, Dennis Atencio, 26, and Lorenzo Abundiz, 40, have appeared on the television series "Rescue 911" because of an experience they shared three years ago.

While their crew was fighting a fire at the B.F. Goodrich store at Bristol and 1st streets in October, 1990, Abundiz was standing outside when he saw through the smoke that a portion of the building's burning facade was falling on top of Eide and Atencio.

"I was in shock and I can't remember the rest in details, but they told me later I ran over and lifted the wall up with one arm and pulled Dennis out while somebody else pulled Mark out," Abundiz said.

"Dennis was holding his leg, but Mark, he was burned and he had the look of death," Abundiz added.

Both Atencio and Eide survived and together with Abundiz retold their story. Officials have estimated that the wall that buried them for several minutes was at least 500 pounds.

"It was a surprise to say the least to find we were pinned down on the ground and we couldn't move," Atencio said. "It felt like forever until I suddenly felt this incredible amount of weight being lifted off of us and this arm came out of nowhere to pull me out."

It seemed even longer to Eide.

"I panicked because the burning ashes were getting into my nose and mouth and the heat was intense," Eide said. "I was afraid of being killed by hot air before I could be rescued. I was literally holding my breath, and Larry (Abundiz) lifted the wall just at the time I couldn't hold it any longer."

Eide suffered the most injuries--a broken left ankle, left foot and collarbone; torn ligaments in both knees and on his shoulders, and burns on his face, neck and back.

Atencio's helmet cracked down the middle but he did not suffer any head injuries. He injured a ligament in his right knee.

"It would have been better if my leg had been broken because your bones heal but your ligaments don't," Atencio said. "Actually, I was really lucky the accident didn't do any more damage than it did."

He was back to full duty two months later, he said.

Eide had to go through four months of burn therapy and still has scars on his back. He was back to full duty in July, 1991.

"I was given the option to retire," Eide said. "But I was very worried during recovery that something would go wrong and I wouldn't even have the option to come back to work."

The story of their struggle aired on "Rescue 911" last year.

"It was good to see Larry (Abundiz) getting the credit for saving us," Eide said.

Abundiz's own doctors, who had operated on his back a year before in unrelated injuries, could not believe he had lifted a wall weighing more than 500 pounds.

"It's a miracle, really," Abundiz said.

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