KFD captain breaks his back saving a life

Tom KingNorth Knoxville, Our Town Heroes, Union

One woman died. A second woman lived. She was trapped in a second-floor room, scared for her life, the first floor and stairway on fire. Her only escape route from the fire and smoke was the window.

  • “I can’t do this,” she yelled.
  • “You do not have a choice,” he yelled back. “This is your only way out.”

“He” is Knoxville Fire Department (KFD) Capt. Chris Patterson. He saved her life. And in the process, he broke his back. He and his Station 6 crew on Engine 6 were the first responders to that Friday morning fire on December 23, 2022, at a wood-framed house at 314 Dallas St. Temperatures that morning were near single digits.

Chris Patterson

Working the fire with him were senior firefighters Ian Slagle and Kara Wilson.

The alarm sounded at 10:30 a.m. Within three minutes Engine 6 arrived. Patterson saw the smoke a few blocks away and knew they had a working fire. Patterson had his two firefighters begin their jobs. He then did a quick “360 A to D” assessment of walking around the four sides of the house – “A” being the front of the house. When he was on the D side, he saw the window on the second floor. Through the smoke he saw the woman trapped there.

This is the second-floor window where Capt. Chris Patterson saved a woman’s life and both fell from the ladder, breaking his back

Patterson, 47, called for a ladder and it was quickly rested against the burning house at the window. Up he went. Once at the top of the 20-foot ladder he told her to take hold of his arms and get on the ladder with him. After their very brief conversation and her reluctance, he grabbed her arms and guided her onto the ladder. They started down. Then it happened.

He does not know exactly why it happened – but they both came off the ladder and fell 20 feet to the ground, barely missing a fence. Patterson was wearing a 40-pound air pack canister on his back. He landed on his back and the canister. The woman landed on top of him, which probably spared her from other injuries besides a broken ankle.

“I knew immediately that my back was broken,” he says. “I heard it and I felt it.” He never lost consciousness. And luckily had no paralysis. “I felt a strong burning sensation in both legs and a lot of pain from my bellybutton to my lower back. At that point I was more worried about the woman.”

An AMR ambulance was at the fire. Patterson was placed on a board, loaded in and taken to the UT Medical Center’s emergency room. It didn’t take long for doctors to diagnose the injury. He had a burst fracture, described as “an injury in which the vertebra, the primary bone of the spine, breaks in multiple directions. Burst fractures account for only 14% of all spinal injuries.” His is a lower back burst fracture.

That evening he spent four hours in an operating room as doctors repaired his back with fusion surgery. “They also found some spinal fluid leaking and fixed that too,” he said. “The doctor did an incredible job.” He’s talking about Dr. Stephen Lowe, a neurosurgeon at Neurosurgical Associates.

On the third day following surgery, Patterson was using a walker. On the fourth day he was discharged to his home in Maynardville he shares with his parents, Stuart and Paulette. He began physical therapy this past Thursday. He remains in a lot of pain, gets around on a walker and can’t drive. He’s looking at six to eight weeks for a full recovery and intends to be back on the job at some point.

“Sleeping is hard. I’ve got a lot of metal and hardware in my back now and it feels like I’m sleeping on a mailbox. And I’m still having spasms in my back and feet.”

Patterson has been with the KFD for 19 years and in the firefighting profession for 28 years, having spent nine years on the job in Michigan in Auburn Hills and Rochester Hills. He moved to East Tennessee to join his parents, who had moved here in retirement. He’s a third-generation firefighter after his father and grandfather.

Patterson’s had injuries before – burns to his face, neck and ears, a broken leg when he stepped off an engine awkwardly a few years ago and 10 years ago he survived a roof falling on him. “Things happen. It’s part of what we all do … taking risks,” he says matter-of-factly.

Investigators have ruled the Dallas Street fire as accidental, started by items pushed up against a wall heater that caught fire when the unit was turned on. It’s also officially listed as a fire fatality fire.

The captain has another, less risky, job at KPD. Being of Scottish heritage, he plays the bagpipes at all department ceremonies and whenever he’s needed. He also plays the guitar. His other “love” away from work is his daughter, Lauren, 19. She’s studying psychology and playing volleyball at Johnson University. And he’s hoping to be back on his Harley Davidson Road Glide Special as soon as he can.

As the cliché goes, he lives and “breathes” his work, literally, as he came away from this fire with some smoke inhalation as well. “I do love what I do and the biggest part of that is hanging out with my KFD buddies, the camaraderie we share, the brotherhood, the family bonds we have,” he said. “We see and experience a lot of bad stuff and talk to each other and that’s really important.”

Bad stuff? Like falling off a ladder and breaking your back … and saving a life in the process … the work of a hero!

Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia.

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