Under Fire

Mike Estrada was supposed to be ordered away from a burning building by his superior. It was just one of many mistakes that put him in harm's way.

Estrada is 6-foot-1 — he loses roughly a foot when hunched over crutches. Besides his mangled leg, a nickel-sized scar next to his left eye, and some discoloration on his left hand, few would guess from his appearance that he celebrated his 37th birthday in the hospital. His smiles are warm and frequent, he laughs easily, and he still proudly sports his long-sleeved Harley-Davidson T-shirt, despite the discouraging words of some doctors who have told him he will never ride again.

Charles Lee, whom Estrada was visiting that day, was not one of those doctors. Lee, the director of microsurgery at St. Mary's, is a body reconstruction expert. He and his team received media attention in January 2008 when they successfully harvested a man's big toe to replace a thumb he had lost in a woodworking accident.

All expertise aside, Lee admits there were times he thought they would have to amputate Estrada's leg: "It was a pretty big wound," he said. "This is about as big as it gets." Because Estrada had lost so much muscle, the injury required a similar kind of tissue transplant as the toe-to-thumb surgery. When he first arrived at San Francisco General, his bones were sticking out of his uniform pants. Lee says he transplanted muscle from Estrada's abdomen to replace what he had lost on his leg; Estrada sports a long, dark centipede scar running down his belly to prove it.

Patrick Gardner, the SFFD’s deputy chief of operations.
Courtesy of the SFFD
Patrick Gardner, the SFFD’s deputy chief of operations.
Dr. Charles Lee checks up on Mike 
Estrada’s leg injury.
Joseph Schell
Dr. Charles Lee checks up on Mike Estrada’s leg injury.

Thanks to Lee and his crew, Estrada may have the opportunity to get back to work as a firefighter, which he says he wants to do — no matter how hard it is for him to watch the YouTube video of the fire, captured on a cellphone by a passerby. The video shows the entire incident from the moment Estrada approaches the warehouse with the hose to the moment he's loaded into the ambulance.

It's a dramatic video to watch — so much so that the videographer was able to sell the clip to Most Daring, a TV show on truTV that aired most recently on Sept. 9. It's so dramatic that many of the comments on the thread following the YouTube video assume the firefighter had been killed. "That guy is for sure dead," commenter humzilla707 wrote. "Blow it up full screen you will see."

Estrada is less bothered by the video itself (or that it was sold for profit) than he is hurt by some of the comment squabbles on that thread. Many posters noted that more than one firefighter was standing in the collapse zone. Some questioned what the department leadership was doing at the time. Still others accused anyone making suggestions based solely on the video of "armchair quarterbacking" without complete information.

When executives from San Francisco's firefighters' union learned that the fire department wouldn't be issuing a full safety report, they asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to conduct an independent investigation. Union officials hope it will provide the department with training recommendations based on lessons learned from the Revere Avenue fire. NIOSH officials started their investigation in August, and expect to have recommendations early next year. Gardner said department heads voluntarily complied with and welcomed the safety audit, even if they didn't initiate it.

But union president John Hanley says a department that cares about its members would have initiated its own full-blown safety investigation — especially since two firefighters were critically injured after a roof caved in during an arson fire on Felton Street just three months before. The department hadn't seen so many serious firefighter injuries in such a short period of time since the mid-1990s.

"There's no doubt that our injuries have increased," Hanley said. He says that the union is very concerned, and hopes that the federal report will shed some light on the causes: "What we want to know is whether this is a temporary spike, or if this is just going to be the way business is done nowadays."

In the last three years, the landscape of the department has changed dramatically because it started offering promotional exams again after nearly a decade without. But few are willing to discuss the possibility that this turbulent history had the unintended consequence of making the risky job of a San Francisco firefighter even riskier.

Following a host of discrimination lawsuits starting in the 1970s, the San Francisco Fire Department promoted firefighters from 1988 to 1998 based on a federal court order that required the city to hire at least 38 percent minority and 9 percent female firefighters. After the expiration of that order, several years of litigation kept promotional exams on hold until 2006, when the department finally offered its first captain's exam in more than 10 years.

According to Hanley and Kevin Smith, president of the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association, the department had decimated its upper ranks by that time — which meant that, starting in 2006, there was a massive influx of new blood to higher ranks. The most recent lieutenant's exam, administered about a year ago, was the first the department had offered in 11 years.

It's impossible to ignore such a glaring piece of context: When the department held off on offering promotional exams for so many years, it backed itself into a corner. Now it's paying the price, experiencewise. Of 200 lieutenants currently in the San Francisco Fire Department, 183 — 92 percent — were newly appointed to their positions, while 62 percent of those promoted had 15 years or fewer of experience. Many veterans had retired before the exams to avoid the possibility of demotion, so the newly appointed had few experienced lieutenants around to guide them.

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