Arriving to the scene of a roiling basement fire — clouds of smoke streaming out the low-lying windows — there was no doubt in Capt. Stan Double’s mind what he and three other Hamilton firefighters had to do next.

“While we were responding, it was indicated on the radio that there was somebody possibly trapped in the basement,” said the 24-year veteran firefighter of a Nov. 28 call to a house fire on Gage Avenue South. “Our goal once we arrived on scene was to gain access to the basement and search it to see if in fact somebody was there.”

In an interview with CBC Hamilton, he and two other firefighters described the rare, risky mission, which saw them crawl through thick, black smoke and dodge bursts of flaming debris in a race to locate Nina Zajaczkowski, the 53-year-old mother who was trapped downstairs.

The Hamilton woman died in hospital this week after firefighters staged the dramatic rescue to retrieve her from the burning bottom floor of her home.

'To describe what it’s like, it’s almost impossible. It can’t be replicated in a movie.' —Glenn Matthews, firefighter

The firefighters said the scene was so smoky, they had to rely heavily on instincts, their training and, of course, each other to navigate the basement and get out before their surroundings became too fiery to bear. 

“To describe what it’s like, it’s almost impossible,” said Glenn Matthews, a 25-year veteran of the Hamilton Fire Department. “It can’t be replicated in a movie”

‘Visibility is zero’

Around 1 p.m. that Thursday afternoon, firefighters responded to a call about a structure fire at a two-storey redbrick on Gage Avenue South.

Hamilton firefighters

Stan Double (left), Glenn Matthews (centre) and Eddy Davies were tasked to retrieve a 53-year-old Hamilton woman from her burning basement on Nov. 28. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

When the first crews arrived, Zajaczkowski’s two daughters told them that their mother was still in the house. It was Matthews, Double and two-year veteran Ed Davies who would be assigned the perilous task of getting her out.

With the clock ticking, the team quickly assessed the situation, gathering as much information as possible to make a split-second decision on how to proceed. 

“When we arrived, there was a large volume of smoke emitting from the house,” said Double. “The basement door, the first floor windows — the house was just surrounded with smoke.”

The group entered through a side door, not sure precisely what they would find.

“When that door was opened, there was a lot of heat and a lot of smoke that came out with it,” Matthews said. “It didn’t take a long time to realize that as soon as you got on the stairs, the basement was fully [engulfed in flames].”

Accompanied by a “hose man” to push back some of the fire, the team crept down a flight of stairs, forced to feel around with their hands and feet to navigate the unfamiliar terrain.

“With the heavy black smoke, it’s black,” Double recalled. “Visibility is zero.”

Flashes of burning debris afforded them momentary sight, he said. 

“That was in front of us, beside us, above us."

Once they reached the floor, the firefighters began the urgent, but systematic work of combing the basement for survivors. Lacking visibility, they crawled along the floor— as well as over furniture and other personal items — to conduct a scan of the room.

The first to reach the opposite end of the basement, Matthews crawled over a couch, only to discover what he believed to be a body — Zajaczkowski’s — lying unconscious on the floor. 

At that moment, the operation switched gears.

Race to the exit

“Basically, communication begins. I communicate back to the captain that we’ve got a rescue,” Matthews said. “And then I began dragging her out.”

Matthews yelled to Davies, who had been following not far behind. Matthews grabbed Zajaczkowski’s feet, enlisting his younger teammate to take her upper body.

Remaining on their knees, they started the race to the door.

Having ventured the farthest, Matthews was exhausted and let his teammates take over. 

All the while, the “hose man” continued to fight back the surges of flame.

The firefighters estimated it took only a minute of vigourous push and pull to scoop Zajaczkowski from the basement.

“There’s no graceful way of removing a victim from a fire scene. It’s a fairly aggressive,” said Double. “Now you’re dealing with time, you're thinking of time for the individual.”

Within the span of a minute, he estimated, they made it to the exit.

'There’s a lot of thing you’re thinking about. And you think about them all at once, or you really don’t think. You just try to do it.'  —Glenn Matthews, firefighter

Once outside, other firefighters attended to Zajaczkowski and found that she had no vital signs. After receiving oxygen and CPR, her pulse and breathing returned, and she was rushed to hospital.

The entire effort was so physically demanding that it depleted each man's air tank — they are designed to provide a firefighter 30 minutes of normal breathing — even though the search and rescue lasted for a total of only about 10 minutes. 

But as they waited to be fitted with fresh canisters for their breathing equipment, Double, Matthews and Davies had no time to reflect on the gravity of the situation, or on the impact of their actions. 

Instead, they focused their minds on returning to the interior of the house, where they would join their colleagues in battling the flames.

“Certainly our thoughts are with the individual with the family, but we still have work to accomplish,” said Double.

“There’s a lot of thing you’re thinking about,” Matthews said. “And you think about them all at once, or you really don’t think. You just try to do it.”

'One tragedy piled onto another'

Despite the firefighters’ best efforts, Zajaczkowski died in hospital earlier this week.

Debbie Zajaczkowski thanked emergency crews, as well as bystanders who attempted to rush into the house before firefighters arrived, for their work in trying to save her younger sister.

“My heart just goes out to them to ambulance drivers, to the firefighters, to the nurses, to the doctors, and for all the support from everyone and all of the prayers,” Debbie told CBC Hamilton on Saturday.

'The sacrifices people are making for my family…there are just no words to say how grateful we are.” —Debbie Zajaczkowski

She said her son, Steven Hilliard, continues to collect donations — including gift cards for clothing, furniture and other necessities — for Zajaczkowski’s twenty-something daughters, whose possessions were destroyed in the fire.

“For the immediate costs, [Nina] didn’t have any life insurance,” said Debbie. “It‘s just one tragedy piled onto another.”

Well-wishers, she added, may still drop off donations at her home, 71 Connaught St. S.

“The sacrifices people are making for my family…there are just no words to say how grateful we are.”

A funeral is tentatively planned for Dec. 14 at 11:30 a.m. at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church (440 King St. E).

The Ontario Fire Marshal said the house sustained more than $300,000 in damage.

The precise cause of the fire has not yet been determined.