Robinson and Westrup walk into flames

Tom KingOur Town Heroes, Powell

Rural Metro professionals walked into a small apartment full of flames, heat, heavy smoke, no visibility, electrical wires and melted metal objects hanging down to find the woman who lived there.

It’s what they do. It’s what they’re trained to do. And when they have to, they do it. Michael Robinson Jr. and Kyle Westrup had to do it on June 29, 2021, at the Autumn Landing Apartments, 6331 Pleasant Ridge Road. The complex’s original name was the Virginia Walker Apartments.

This was no fire academy drill. In trying to save the resident, they easily could have been the victims.

Mike Robinson

Robinson, a 19-year Rural Metro veteran, is a captain working out of Station 10 on Parkside Drive. Westrup, 43, is a master firefighter at Station 31 in Powell. The alarm came in at 9:30 p.m. to Station 31. Westrup was taking a shower at the station. But within a minute or two their engine was en route with firefighter/paramedic Caleb Tuell driving.

Robinson, 37, was off-duty at his home in Powell, less than a mile from Station 31. He heard the alarm on his cell phone, hustled to his truck and met Westrup’s engine at the fire. He always carries his fire gear with him.

The first Rural Metro personnel to answer the call were Capt. Jeff Bagwell, the agency’s public information officer, and four Explorers, who Bagwell put to work pulling hoses and working in other support roles. They had finished training and were at a Clinton Highway restaurant close by when they heard the call.

Bagwell’s call indicated this was a heavily involved fire in progress with visible flames from windows and front door with a victim inside.

Kyle Westrup

“We knew it was serious and bad going in,” Westrup said. “As we got closer, we heard Capt. Bagwell’s BIR (brief initial report) and it was definitely not normal. It wasn’t the standard report. We knew it was bad and we had to be ready.” BIR’s are always given by the first unit on a fire scene.

Once “geared up” with full gear, these two firefighters – with Robinson carrying the water hose – went in, dousing flames, clearing debris and searching. “It was really impossible to see anything almost as soon we started the search,” Robinson said. “It was high heat and zero visibility.”

A neighbor had told firefighters the woman usually slept on a couch in her living room. Westrup searched there and found only burned furniture and couch springs. No body. Robinson made his way to the kitchen and found the woman, face down on the floor, unconscious and badly burned. Her clothes were burned off. He yelled “victim” to Westrup.

“We struggled getting her out. We had to use the push-pull method to get her outside,” Westrup said. “We tried picking her up twice and couldn’t. Plus, we had to dodge flames, electrical wires, copper piping and then step up and over the front door and a screen door plus the debris on the floor.”

Once outside, Robinson said the woman was barely breathing. He began chest compressions for several minutes before turning it over to Westrup. “I got out of my gear and I was gassed from the fire and getting her out, but we had to work to save her,” he said. They also shocked her twice with an AED (automated external defibrillator).

The ambulance rushed her to the UT Medical Center. Shortly after arriving, the woman, Connie Jones, 65, was pronounced dead. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office Fire Investigations Unit, along with TBI and agents from the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), determined that the cause of the fire was a cigarette and ruled her death as “accidental.”

Here is what Westrup wrote in his account of the fire, and it vividly shows what these professionals have to deal with: “… After this I reported to rehab, hydrated and tried (without success for like 3 days) to get my adrenaline to subside. …

“One thing I do know, I still have a bitter taste in my mouth that she didn’t make it. I know time wasn’t on the victim’s side. We couldn’t have gone in any quicker and we had what we needed to efficiently complete the job. That’s all you can ask for. Outcome still sucks.

“I do want one thing clearly stated – if I could brew and then bottle this part of the job up, I’d have a warehouse full of this stuff. I want nothing more than a chance to do it again.”

This happened more than six months ago. Westrup still has not re-read his report of the fire and tries not to think about it. To say it matters to these men and women simply isn’t enough. Westrup, Robinson, Bagwell and Tuell wanted the outcome to be what they call “a save.”

Robinson said he’s seen a lot of “bad stuff” in his career and says he can’t afford to dwell on it. “I try not to let it get to me. I can’t let it affect me. I almost have to be numb about this. We can’t save everyone, and like this fire, we did everything we could to save her,” he said.

He is a member of the Rural Metro Safety and Risk Committee and says the mental health of firefighters is something not to be overlooked. “As an officer, after every incident we work I always have a debrief and a critique about the call. What we did right, or what we did wrong or what we should have done,” he explained. “Talking about it and getting it off your chest is a huge thing. We also talk to our chaplains.”

He also teaches at Rural Metro’s Training Academy and one thing he tells recruits about the work: “I teach them to prepare for the worst. It’s the nature of the job. It’s hard sometimes, really hard.”

But, it’s what they do, when they have to do it.

Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. Suggest future stories at [email protected] or call him at 865-659-3562.

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