S urrounded by flames, his equipment snagged on a ladder, Steve DesRuisseaux thought his 48 years on this earth might be over.
The Manchester fire captain, a 24-year veteran of the department he wanted to join as a kid growing up on the city’s West Side, felt his skin burning as he battled a fatal apartment fire last fall.
Engulfed in flames, caught in a flashover while rescuing a man from the second floor of the building, DesRuisseaux knew he was running out of time after his breathing device got caught on a ladder, trapping him.
“There was fire coming this way and that way, I could feel myself burning and almost got to the point where I was accepting what was going to happen, where you’re saying, ‘This is it,’” DesRuisseaux recalled Wednesday. “I was fighting the whole time, I was saying I’m not gonna go out like this, but you start thinking of your family and all the clichés you hear about.”
“Then I was falling, and it was the best feeling in the world.”
DesRuisseaux returned to duty Monday, seven months after suffering second- and third-degree burns over more than a third of his body.
Kathryn Conn, 59, of Manchester died of smoke inhalation in the Nov. 6 fire in a six-unit multi-family building at 10 Dutton St. Her body was found on a second-floor back porch after the fire was put out.
Firefighters rescued six people, including a baby, officials said. Two girls, two men and a woman were rescued from the third floor, and a man was helped down from the second floor by ladder.
“As I was making the second-floor rescues, that’s when everything lit up,” DesRuisseaux said. “Conditions deteriorated rapidly. As I was trying to make it out the window, I dove on the ladder and my gear got hung up, with my air pack on the top of the ladder. I was involved in direct fire for about 30 seconds.”
Lt. Scott Brassard climbed the ladder to try to free DesRuisseaux.
“I could see him face to face for about 20 seconds,” DesRuisseaux said. “I kept yelling at him to ‘dump the ladder, dump the ladder.’ They were trying to free me up but I knew there was no way it was going to work. I was flailing, and knew I was still in the window.”
Firefighter Joshua Charpentier noticed heavy fire coming from the second floor and decided to knock the ladder away from the building to get DesRuisseaux out of the flames
“I remember falling vividly,” DesRuisseaux. “It was the best feeling, because I knew I had a chance.”
DesRuisseaux said that from the time his crew arrived on scene to when he was crawling across the ground, badly burned, only 8 ½ minutes passed. In the days after the blaze, his protective equipment was evaluated by officials.
“They said my air pack had, at maximum, 10 seconds left before it would have totally failed,” DesRuisseaux said. “There was a hole forming in my mask, everything was burning through.”
Preparing for next time
Manchester Fire Chief Andre Parent said DesRuisseaux is assigned to “light duty” for now, after being cleared by his surgeons.
Light duty consists mainly of administrative work. DesRuisseaux is working out of Manchester Fire Headquarters downtown.
“It’s been an incredible journey for Steve,” Parent said. “His resiliency coming back, his perseverance just speaks to his professionalism to get back to the job. He loves it. We’re lucky to have him back, and we hope to have him hopping on fire trucks soon.”
DesRuisseaux said he’s looking forward to being on a truck again but admits he has played the question of how he might react in a similar situation “over and over again” in his head.
“I made the promise that I’m not going to come back onto the line until I know I’m ready, and I don’t want to be a detriment to my men,” DesRuisseaux said. “I’ve been talking to people to make sure I’m good as best I can, but ultimately it’s going to be when I’m riding in the front seat again and I roll up on something. That’s gonna be the ultimate test.
“Up until then I’ve got to make sure I’m prepared for that. I think I will be.”
After several surgeries, DesRuisseaux began five months of rehabilitation to build strength and increase range of motion in his left hand and arm. Exercises he performed were based on work firefighters do everyday, including pulling and lifting hoses and climbing ladders. DesRuisseaux also received several grafts and laser treatments in Boston to repair his skin.
Leaning on family
Through it all, DesRuisseaux said, his family — son Jack, 18, daughter Megan, 20, and wife Colleen — had his back.
“Especially my wife, since the second this happened she’s been my rock,” DesRuisseaux said. “She did everything for me, all I had to do was focus on healing. Without her I don’t know where I’d be today.”
The couple celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in May.
“I’m glad I was here for it,” DesRuisseaux said. “You say, ‘for better and worse,’ and that shined through during this. She didn’t waver, didn’t hesitate. She’s nervous about me coming back to work — you feel terrible about putting your family through this — but they understand what we do for work and they understand stuff like this can happen. For them to be accepting of that and supportive of that allows us to do it.
“She knows I love to do this for work, but she’s nervous …the last time I went to work I didn’t come home.”
DesRuisseaux said the scars he carries — both physical and mental — from that night in November will always be with him, but he’s confident his training will take over the next time he finds himself in a burning building.
“You get into that zone where you’re there to do a job and your instincts take over,” DesRuisseaux said. “It will always be in the back of my mind, but some of it’s good — use it to your advantage. It gives you a heightened sense of awareness the next time. Take a really bad situation and take something positive from it.”