Last alarm: How Cincinnati firefighter Daryl Gordon lost his life saving others

FAO Daryl Gordon's final moments
Posted at 3:37 PM, Mar 31, 2015

CINCINNATI -- Before the sun rose March 26, flashing lights illuminated the misty streets as fire truck sirens bellowed, echoing from Firehouse 14 racing to 6020 Dahlgren St.

It was just another fire run, a call to duty for 54-year-old Cincinnati firefighter Daryl Gordon, who was just an hour and a half from signing off of his shift.

Just months from retirement after proudly serving 30 years, first as a firefighter, and then as a Fire Apparatus Operator and Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician, Gordon could not have known this would be his last fire. 

'It's On Fire'

On duty since 7 a.m., Gordon’s shift was just about to end; 24 on, 48 off. It's a shift he'd worked for decades.

It had been a busy night. There had been structure fires on Harrison Avenue, Queen City Avenue and President Drive.

Then a half dozen 911 calls flood dispatch.

“Cincinnati 911 what is the address of your emergency?”

“I think my neighbor’s apartment next door is like burning… [it] is on fire!”

“I can see smoke in the hall…. heavy smoke in the hallway. I got kids I gotta wake up!”

It’s 5:31 a.m. The 911 calls escalate quickly into a 4-alarm structure fire at a Madisonville apartment building. 

Gordon, along with the rest of his crew, swiftly whips on his turnout gear, easily packing on 50 pounds of equipment to his sturdy 6-foot tall frame.

After piling into Heavy Rescue 14, he peels out of Station 14, at 5th and Central streets. Sirens erupt as he drives the 11 miles to complex.

Bold, gold letters on the side of his truck: CINCINNATI HEAVY RESCUE, flash in unison with the red emergency lights as it barrels through the dark downtown streets.

Gordon brings the truck to halt in front of the Kings Tower Apartments, a 5-story complex around 5:45 a.m.

Residents, including children, are in the building. Gordon is a father of two daughters himself. 

Rain pelting him, Gordon bolts from the truck to the building as he’s done hundreds of times before.

Smoke has filled the second floor, from a fire that started in apartment 27 on the back of the building. Rescuers can see residents who are looking out their windows -- looking for help.

Intense heat exposes the ceiling’s reinforcing bar and slowly begins to melt, bending the structure’s support. 

And then among a firefighter's worst nightmares: Flashover.

Then another on the second floor. 

A flashover happens during a fire when everything in an area is heated to an ignition temperature and flame breaks out. 

“Be advised, I see heavy fire on the second floor rear. It is not knocked down,” one firefighter warns over dispatch. "I've got a good visual on the fire.  They've just about knocked it down. But, there's still a lot of smoke in the building.”

As firefighters rush to rescue residents -- carrying children and aiding the ailing -- a surplus of medical units is requested for victims with smoke inhalation.

After getting the fire under control, one firefighter moves slowly up Ladder 31.  

Ready to rescue residents from the fourth floor, Gordon makes his way through the dense, smoldering cloud of black smoke. The darkness hinders his ability to see what’s ahead.

Gordon tugs open a heavy door, toward him, looking for residents. Commonly mistaken as an apartment door, this door leads to an elevator apparently stopped on the floor it was at when the fire started.

Before he can see what’s on the other side of the door, he falls down the elevator shaft to the second floor.

His body is wedged between the elevator car and the wall.

6:55 a.m.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! We have a firefighter down! He went down the shaft!”

Gordon is unresponsive and bleeding profusely.

His fellow firefighters begin rescue efforts by first accessing the situation.

“We have located the firefighter. He’s right along side the car. He is not responsive."

His firefighting brothers work to save the man they have come to know as teddy bear.

The requests are barked over the radio:

“Command, go ahead and get me a RAT pack up here. I'm going to need an extension ladder, portable ladder, and we need that STAT!”

“Rescue 9, I need you to breach the side of the elevator. I need you to bring tools u and breech the side of the elevator. Rescue 9. Rescue 14. Now! Third floor!”

“I need Rescue 9 in the elevator to breach that elevator to get to the firefighter!”

'He's going to fall another story'

Rescuers flee in several directions gathering tools they need to bring Gordon out of the shaft.

“I need them in the elevator shaft on the first floor. Ladders leaned against the wall. If he comes loose, he's going to fall another story,” another chimes in.

“We're still evacuating people in the building. We have an active Mayday in progress. We're attempting to extricate the firefighter at this time.”

In a momentary breath of relief, firefighters pull Gordon out of the elevator shaft.

Voices bellow over the radio.

“Firefighter has been extricated. We'll be removing him out. I need a rescue unit in the lobby ASAP!”

“Firefighter's been extricated. Being treated… triaged and packaged right now. We're waiting to evacuate him out of the building.”

Maneuvering over and around thick, heavy hoses scattered across the slick pavement four emergency medical technicians move in sync, racing out of the building with Gordon on a stretcher. His nose and mouth are enveloped with a breathing mask, replacing his fire gear.

His fellow firefighters surround him. 

Several men hoist him into Cincinnati Medic 19, secure him into place and slam the double doors shut.

As the ambulance races away, a crew of somber firefighters are left standing in the pouring rain, watching as the flashing lights blur and the interior-lit ambulance fades into the darkness.

He is pronounced dead University of Cincinnati Medical Center's a short time later. 

A Hero’s Ending

Twelve residents were rescued that day during the chaos, which also left two other firefighters hurt.

“We lost a hero today, and we are all mourning,” an emotional Cincinnati Fire Chief Richard Braun said during a press conference. “Daryl lost his life in the line of duty to save others.”

He leaves behind his wife, Angela, and two daughters, Angelique and Chelsea.

Gordon’s visitation will be Tuesday at the Duke Energy Convention Center from 3-8 p.m. His fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, will hold a private memorial service at 7:30 p.m. at the convention center.

More than 3,500 firefighters from Cincinnati, the state and the nation are expected to attend his funeral at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral in Cincinnati.

Firefighters have never left Gordon's side and they won't until the last bells ring during the burial service at Oak Hill Cemetery in Springdale. The bells signify his last alarm.

READ MORE: Funeral and procession details.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is written from interviews, reports, recordings and public records.


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Additional reporting by WCPO staff.