Three lives were changed 15 years ago on Thanksgiving night in 2007. A second-story apartment in a now-razed building on Fifth Avenue was burning. The apartment was filled with blinding black smoke and firefighters depended on air packs to breathe. Walking into the fire went now-retired Capt. Dennis McClain and firefighter Curtis Scott of the Knoxville Fire Department’s (KFD) Station 4.
Three young children were outside and told them their 5-year-old brother was still inside. The parents were not home.
“We went in and after about a minute my captain’s air pack malfunctioned and he couldn’t breathe,” said Scott, now a captain at West Knoxville’s Station 18. “I got down and crawled to find the door and then I went back, found my captain and got him out. He had no air at all.”
Once McLain was safe, Scott grabbed the hose and went back in to find the little boy. “When we first got inside, I thought I heard someone screaming. When I found the fire room I started yelling ‘Are you in here.’ It was still blinding smoke. There was no reply. I was about to look elsewhere and all of a sudden I see a silhouette in the corner of the kid. I snatched him up and got him out of there as quickly as I could. The kid had covered himself with about 10 blankets and didn’t have any burns or injuries or even smoke inhalation. The blankets were a filter.”
Scott changed three lives within a span of perhaps 10 minutes – he actually saved two lives. And then his life changed forever.
“I didn’t grow up in church and several of the guys at KFD had tried to talk me into going to church, but I didn’t go. When I was in the apartment I thought the kid was probably dead and then the silhouette suddenly appeared and I saw it through the smoke somehow. I thought then and there that there’s got to be something more going on here than just me finding the kid. That’s when I started going to church.” And he’s still going today.
Scott, 45, was at Station 4 – then called Squad 4 – for 16 years before moving to Station 18 in 2018 when he was promoted. He is the Green Shift commander.
He and wife Lisa live in Cleveland, Tennessee. Both commute. She is an elementary school teacher in Dalton, Georgia. Theirs is a blended family of six daughters, a son and six grandsons. “My commute is about 70 minutes and I really enjoy it. I get up at 4 a.m. and the ride is my prayer time. No interruptions. I’ve even stopped on I-75 to help people in accidents. But I like to get to the station early.” He has rolled up some 200,000-plus miles on his 2006 Toyota Avalon. “It needs to hold up for a few more years, too.”
Scott is KPD’s only Asian American employee, born in Las Vegas to his Air Force father and his wife, a native of Thailand. His mother, Monica, moved to Cleveland into her own home and lives near them. Part of being an “Air Force brat” as he calls it meant moving around and his father was stationed at the famous Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu during Scott’s early years. His call to a life as a firefighter began there, he says, when he was just 7 years old.
“I was a third grader at Hickam and playing ball with a friend when a house close to the field caught fire. We ran towards that house and you could see the firemen in there, working together, fighting that fire and I watched everything they were doing. It was that day I knew that’s what I wanted to do – be a fireman.”
The family’s next stop after Hickam was Las Vegas. After high school Scott attended Southern Nevada Community College and earned his Advanced EMT, fire science and swift water training certifications. He’s also a hazardous materials technician. He needed work and landed a job as a parking attendant at the New York New York Casino.
“It’s hard to believe, but that job paid me $90,000 in salary and tips and I left that to move to Knoxville in 2002 to be a fireman,” he says. “I applied to a lot of places and the KFD was the first to give me a chance and have faith in me. I’m very loyal to the KFD for taking a chance on me.”
This man is driven by his passions for families. “Family first and we have a big family. My wife, the kids, my mom.”
Then he mentioned that “other” family. “One of my big things is building relationships. Our job at the station is not a normal job and when we come in here there are different personalities and we’re juggling the alpha personalities. My job as a captain is making our workplace one where everyone is important and works together. Making the KFD proud.”
Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia.