CINCINNATI -- Daryl Gordon fought through heavy smoke opening doors looking for trapped apartment residents in Madisonville before the sun rose Thursday morning.
One of the last doors he opened at Kings Tower building wasn't to an apartment at all. It was to an elevator that was often inoperable, according to residents at the Dahlgren Street complex.
Those residents and firefighters said it would not be hard to mistake the elevator for an apartment door, especially in a dark hallway filled with smoke.
Gordon stepped into the open elevator shaft and fell five flights. His body became wedged between the elevator car and the shaft, according to reports, frantic mayday calls and residents.
The 54-year-old was pronounced dead at University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
"Today our Cincinnati firefighters did their jobs. They ran into a burning building and saved lives. Women and children were carried out of the building to safety,'' Mayor John Cranley said in an emotionally charged press conference just hours after Gordon's death.
"When it was over, God delivered all of the civilians to us, but kept one of our firefighters back. We know God is holding him tightly," Cranley said.
Investigators were working through the day Thursday to determine what caused the fire that also left two other firefighters injured. The fire was first reported at about 5:45 a.m.
Calling him a hero, Cincinnati Fire Chief Richard Braun said Gordon was searching the five-story apartment complex when he opened a door that was supposed to house an elevator and "the elevator wasn't there and he fell down the elevator shaft. That's what caused his demise."
Fire officials said he fell from the fifth floor to the second floor of a building at 6020 Dahlgren St.
City officials said women and children were pulled from the fire, and a total of 23 people were displaced. Two other firefighters suffered second-degree burns, as well.
Gordon was a 30-year veteran of the department who was close to retirement. He served as a Fire Apparatus Operator for Heavy Rescue 14. He joined the department on June 30, 1985. His wife, Angela, and two daughters, Angelique and Chelsea, survive him.
“We lost a hero today, and we are all mourning,” Braun said. “Daryl lost his life in the line of duty to save others.”
Gordon's death comes almost 12 years to the day of the last Cincinnati firefighter killed in the line of duty. Oscar Armstrong III died on March 21, 2003 while fighting a fire on Laidlaw Avenue. Eight years ago, Colerain Fire Department Capt. Robin Broxterman and firefighter Brian Shira were killed battling a house fire.
"Giant teddy bear is what you'd call him," IAFF Local 48 union leader Matt Alter said of Gordon at a press conference at 11 a.m. "He always had a friendly smile. Big smile. Big burly laugh... Solid union man. Solid family man. A solid man."
Alter was joined by Cranley, Braun and City Manager Harry Black to discuss the incident.
Cranley said, "I can only imagine the pain and anguish his wife and children are feeling now. The level of grief is also shared by his brother and sister firefighters. Please know that my thoughts and prayers are with all of you as are all the prayers of Cincinnati and Cincinnatians today."
The group promised Gordon's death would be thoroughly investigated.
“I am deeply saddened to learn that FAO Gordon paid the ultimate price while in the line of duty,” Black said. “We can never take for granted the work that the brave men and woman of the fire department do on a daily bases to protect and keep us safe."
He added, “It is a reminder that we know not when the hour is going to come but that it is going to come. Hopefully we can do what we can to follow his example in making the world a better place.”
Black said Gordon died doing the right thing.
“Today is obviously a terrible day for the fire service," Braun said. "We look upon ourselves as family… Daryl was a big part of the family.”
He went on to say the department is still dealing with Armstrong’s death as well.
“It’s something that we, as firefighters, carry with us every day,” Braun said. “Daryl was an example for the new firefighters we bring on board and to the rest of us.”
Alter said he worked with Gordon as a firefighter for many years. He said Gordon was also a bomb technician for the department.
Alter said the city's firefighters will press on and continue to serve the community and try to live up to Gordon’s legacy.
"Many times I think people ask, what's next? What I will say is this. We continue to do our job. You have 200 firefighters out there right now still protecting you," Alter said. “Daryl died doing his job and that’s what Cincinnati firefighters will continue to do. We’ll do our jobs."
Gordon also worked for the UC Health Air Care and Mobile Care unit for 10 years.
Firefighters Rescued Many in Madisonville Fire
The fire was first reported at about 5:45 a.m. at the Kings Tower complex on Dahlgren Street.
Several residents and two other firefighters were injured in the fire, officials said.
Fire crews said the fire was in an apartment on the second floor and at the back of the complex. Firefighters had to rescue several people on the upper floors when they arrived.
Commanders at the scene issued a mayday call just after 6 a.m. when Gordon fell down the shaft.
Several residents of the apartment complex told WCPO reporter John Genovese that "it would not be hard to mistake the elevator for another door" in the building. Firefighters also corroborated that information, adding that the hallway in front of the elevator was pitch black and filled with smoke.
The elevator is not a standard type of elevator with accordion style doors. People who have seen it told WCPO reporter Tom McKee that it has a door that opens outward.
It's not clear if there's a latch that prevents the door from opening if the car is not there. It's also not clear where the elevator car actually was at the time of the fire.
Residents also said the elevator has broken down "several times" in the past.
It took crews several minutes to evaluate Gordon's situation and condition before they attempted to move him.
At the time, a fire chief at the scene said, “We could use the community’s prayers and prayers for the family [because] we have one of our brothers in dire straits right now. … He’s not in good shape.”
The other firefighters suffered second-degree burns. They were treated at an area hospital and later released.
Officials said several residents at the complex suffered smoke inhalation. Commanders requested extra medic personnel to help treat the affected victims.
The fire was brought under control by about 6:15 a.m. However, firefighters remained at the scene to check the smoke conditions on the second through sixth floors of the building.
The investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing.
WCPO web editor Jesse Folk contributed to this report