Quick work by Olean police, firefighters prevents tragedy at apartment fire
Tenants helped down ladders, awoken from bed by first responders
OLEAN — Olean police officers and firefighters responded to 114 E. Oak St. during the early morning hours of Oct. 30 to find a scene that some of them called their worst-case scenario: a structure fire with people, including children, trapped inside.
But through some quick thinking and quick action by members of the Olean Police Department and Olean Fire Department, all occupants were safe and accounted for by the time the flames died out a few hours later.
First responders helped a total of five people, including two children, escape the apartment building via ladders, as flames blocked off a stairwell where the fire began; police found fire-starting materials in the stairwell and have ruled the blaze an arson, but have yet to announce an arrest. Another tenant was rescued after an officer made a forcible entry into a first-floor apartment and alerted him of the fire.
While the officers and firefighters involved in the rescues were willing to share their experiences, they all maintained their actions weren’t anything beyond what’s in their job descriptions.
“If you pick this profession and don’t put other people first, you’re in the wrong job,” said Olean patrolman Matt Schnell.
Schnell and fellow patrolmen William Beggs and Kyle Baldwin, as well as Olean Police Capt. Andrew Langdon, were already out on patrol throughout the city when the fire was called in at approximately 1:19 a.m. They were the first to arrive at the burning East Oak Street home, something that’s not unusual when it comes to fires.
“Firefighters do a great job, but you got to keep in mind they have to get gear on, they have to get the trucks running,” Beggs said. “You kind of have to be able to adapt to different scenarios when you’re a cop just because most of the time you’re going to be the first one out there.”
The officers were forced to adapt, as they arrived on scene to find a woman hanging half her body out of a second-floor window and calling for help, as well as two adults and two children having difficulty making their way down a wooden fire escape from a third-floor apartment.
Langdon credited Schnell for using “quick wits” to find about a half-dozen extension ladders lying around that a contractor believed to be doing work on the building had left outside.
A fire escape allowed Stephanie Searles and her two young children, as well as an adult male, to get down from a third-floor apartment to a second-story deck, but there were no steps to get down from the deck. Schnell and Beggs used the ladders to bring the four of them safely to the ground from there.
Schnell said Searles’ young son was frightened and initially didn’t want to come down from the third-floor apartment.
“The mom thought our presence kind of calmed him down to where he was willing to come down,” he continued. “The kids were stellar. They were crying, they were a little scared, but I think all the adults, myself included, were more nervous than them. They’re brave little kids.”
Meanwhile, Langdon grabbed one of the ladders to assist the woman down from her second-story window. However, firefighters then arrived and ultimately Olean firefighter Nate Veno used one of the fire department’s ladders to rescue the woman.
“Capt. Langdon was there to assist me in anything I needed,” Veno said. “He assisted me as I climbed up and got her out of the window.”
While his fellow officers tended to those who were visibly trapped, Baldwin entered an unlocked door to the building to make sure no one else was stuck inside. He found a locked apartment door, and after knocking several times and hearing no response, used his shoulder to open the door.
Inside the apartment, Baldwin woke a sleeping Mark Wilson, who was unaware of the fire.
“It’s definitely a rush, for sure, because you know you have to act fast, you know you have to make that split-second decision,” Baldwin said. “You don’t want to say it’s the right one or the wrong one because it happens so fast, but you better make sure it’s the right one.”
Baldwin said no one instructed him to enter the building — just as no one instructed the other officers to grab ladders and start the rescue process. Police did what their “gut” told them, he said.
“The team that just happened to be there that day, we work real well together,” Beggs said. “We didn’t even have to speak — everybody just split up and accomplished everything that needed to be accomplished.”
When arriving first at a fire, Langdon said police simply have to assess and the deal with the situation they’re presented.