The Saddest Call

Tragedy still haunts Northfield firefighters

By Chris Harris

Ask any life member of the Northfield Fire Department about his saddest call and he will fall silent for a moment as he collects his thoughts and marshals his emotions surrounding the death of a young girl in a house fire.

“That was the closest time I ever came to hanging up my helmet,” says Chief Floyd M. “Skip” Dunnell.

The call came in late one evening for a house fire. “I don’t remember the year,” says life member Walter Anson. “I try not to remember those things. She was my daughter’s age and I’m going to say she was 14 or 15. The family woke up at night and the fire was already in the partitions. Two of the family suffered burns and were later transported by ambulance, but they got everybody out. Then her cat ran back in and she ran after the cat. Our guys got there really quick and suited up. They were told this was where they last saw her, so that’s where they went in.”

Flames were rolling out of the whole front section of the house when the Northfield Fire Department arrived on the scene.

“We made an aggressive blitz attack,” said Skip recently. “We just threw everything we had at it in terms of hose lines and manpower. I had two fellows on the large-diameter hose and I remember them advancing up to a certain point, and then they started to back off because of the heat. I said, ‘Come on, guys, you can take it harder than this!’”

“That was the only time I ever heard Skip swear,” recalls life member Ted Powell. “He was cussin’ fit to be tied.”

“We got right up there and we tried to knock the fire down as best we could in the last known area where she was,” says the Chief. “We went in the front door and we searched and we couldn’t find her. There was very poor visibility.”

She had gone all the way through the house almost to the back door. The next morning, the chief asked Ted Powell to carry out the body.

“I think this affected the department very, very deeply,” says Walter Anson. “I know the chief himself was pretty devastated, and the three or four guys that tried so hard and just couldn’t get in there, it was pretty tough for them.”

“I knew he was hurting,” said Skip’s wife, Christine, when he returned home. “I just let him know that I’m there if he wants to talk about it, but I don’t push and I don’t ask.”

“I knew her father,” said Skip recently. “He came to me, probably three or four years after that. I was teaching him how to scuba dive and he and I just had a moment away from the group and he says, ‘Can you tell me why?’ And he didn’t have to say her name or anything; I just knew. I said, ‘No, I can’t tell you that. I don’t know why.’ Why did everybody else get out and she didn’t? She was out but she went back in for her cat. So that’s a tough one.”

“You never really get over something like that,” says Christine Dunnell. “It’s always there in your mind. But on the next call, when you do save someone’s house or someone’s life, it makes it a little easier to cope.”