Robert Roche was the first firefighter to arrive. He also was one of the first firefighters to enter the burning apartment building. And because he did, a woman who depends on a wheelchair for mobility is alive today. He’s not, however, just a firefighter. Roche is an assistant chief of the Knoxville Fire Department, based at headquarters downtown.
Assistant chiefs are not typically the first on the scene of a fire and rarely the first of the firefighters to enter a burning building with heavy black smoke rolling and flames roaring, as this apartment building was.
But enter it he did … on his hands and knees … and returned on his hands and knees with a woman on his back.
The alarm came in at 1:47 p.m. on Dec. 14, a Friday. The fire was at the Morningside Hill Apartments, 2060 Dandridge Ave. Dispatched to the fire were Engines 1 and 6. One engine was at the University of Tennessee and the other not very close to the fire. So Roche, in his SUV, got there first.
“At first I saw a lot of black smoke and thought maybe it wasn’t so bad,” says the 57-year-old Roche. “Then I saw flames coming out of a window and reaching the second floor’s roof. We had fire.”
He says a group of residents was standing outside the building, and he asked if anyone was left inside. After a minute or so, someone finally told him that they could not find a woman who uses a wheelchair. They pointed out her apartment. He looked through a window and saw her, in the wheelchair, sitting next to a door that opened into a large foyer with stairs to the second floor.
“I started yelling at her not to open the door, that the smoke would come in and overcome her,” Roche recalls. “But she opened the door and quickly fell face first into the hallway.”
Within seconds he was on his hands and knees, crawling into and through heavy black smoke. He could not see a thing. He crawled to where he thought she was and finally his head ran into her chest. He knew they had to get out of the building fast.
“I kinda rolled her over and grabbed her arms and slid her onto my back and started crawling to where I thought the door was and made it,” he said. “We got her outside, got some oxygen to her and the ambulance took her (to UT Medical Center). I’m told she’s doing OK now.”
Once out, Roche shifted into his normal role as Incident Commander. Two other units had arrived by then – Rescue and Engine 5.
“This could have been much worse,” he added. “A lot of kids lived in this building and were at school when this happened.” The eight apartments in the building have 20 residents, and the American Red Cross stepped in to help them.
KFD investigators determined the fire’s cause to be accidental – a heating blanket had been left on, near or around a beanbag chair.
“What I did was not a big deal,” Roche said. “I did what all of our firefighters are trained to do. Circumstances dictate what has to be done, and I did what I had to do. I had to get her out quick.”
The fire was under control in 12 minutes, and Roche had three teams go through the building, still filled with smoke, to search for anyone left behind. All they found was an old, badly overweight dog. “My firefighters said they found him with his head under a mattress like he knew what to do to avoid the smoke and breathe,” Roche said. “Animals are smart.” And the dog is OK today, too.
Roche is a Knoxville native who grew up close to Third Creek. He and his wife of 35 years, Kim, live in Powell with their daughter, Ashley, and her son, Pete, who is 15. “Kim is the perfect firefighter’s wife. She gets it. She knows when to say something and when to leave me alone,” he says.
He’s a Bearden High graduate who, after graduation, became an iron worker for seven years and then spent 11½ years at SeaRay Boats.
“I’d always wanted to be a firefighter, so I took the test in 1996 and here I am, 22½ years later,” he said. “It all goes back to my childhood and living near Station 17.”
As an assistant chief at Station 1, he is responsible for downtown Knoxville, the University of Tennessee campus and South Knoxville.
To relax, he hunts and fishes, pretty much year-round. In fact, he’s headed out on Christmas Day to Nebraska, going to hunt ducks and geese with grandson Pete, his brother and his brother’s two grandsons.
Christmas Eve – today – marks his second anniversary as assistant chief.
“And now, not a day goes by that I do not thank the Lord for this job. I’ve met and worked with the best people on earth here and made so many best friends with the people who work here,” he said. “I’m very blessed.”
An alarm sounded. The interview ended. “Gotta go,” was all he said.
(Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday.com and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we should feature, email Tom King.)