Ithaca, N.Y. — Lt. Tom Basher of the Ithaca Fire Department puts it simply.
“We have a fire; we have an accident; we need to rescue people,” he said.
But the task for firefighters and police responding to Friday’s crash at Simeon’s on the Ithaca Commons was anything but simple.
Basher had the day off and was on the phone with someone from the firehouse around 4 p.m. on Friday.
“It sounds like a truck crashed into Simeon’s,” firefighter Pete Snow told Basher over the phone.
Basher dropped everything he was doing and got ready. By the time he got to the scene, the first round of firefighters in the building was just starting to “tap out” — or run out of air to fight the blaze — he said. (The bottles of air used by the firefighters last about 20 minutes, according to Basher.)
It was a particularly difficult scene to handle, Basher said. But when it came time to act, Basher said, the Ithaca Fire Department went in unfazed.
“When things like that happen, you try and take in the magnitude and scope of it,” he said, “you default to your training.”
“We do a lot of training where we do some ridiculous and incredible scenario and people laugh, but when things like this do happen, you go back to your training.”
Basher put his emotions aside and entered the crumbling building.
After putting the fire out and ensuring that there was no one left to be rescued, Basher and other emergency responders pulled out and went into “defensive mode” to make sure the business didn’t collapse.
“When you put the fire out, things get better,” he said, “but, then again, you have a tractor trailer in a building that wasn’t made for a tractor trailer to be in.”
So firefighters still had several crucial questions to wrestle with.
“Can we safely get in there and do work? Will the building come down?” he said, “how far back should we keep people? How long can we operate in here?”
The building did not collapse. But the crash claimed the life of Amanda Bush, 27, of Lansing and her unborn child, and also sent several others to the hospital. (All were released later with non-life threatening injuries.)
Basher expressed his appreciation for those who immediately began helping those hurt in the crash.
“There were hundreds of people trying to help,” Basher said, “immediately, the restaurant workers … ran in to help. People do that a lot and we appreciate that.”
Still, Basher stressed the importance of keeping bystanders safe — and letting emergency crews do their work.
“We’d rather not people run in; we’d rather have people stay out and not become a part of the problem,” he said, “this was a unique situation, for sure. But, in general, we don’t want the population thinking it’s safe running into a burning building that may collapse.”
Basher noted that nurses from the hospital came to the site, bringing food and water for responders. Several restaurant owners also helped, he said.
Basher stayed at the scene until after midnight — eight hours after he came in on his day off.
“It’s humbling,” Basher said, “when things like this happen, they call us. There’s no one else to call.”
After Basher went home that night, he went right to bed. About five hours later, he woke up to begin setting up a press conference for Mayor Svante Myrick and the other members of the fire department and police department.
“I got a little rest, we came into work, and we went right back down to the scene,” Basher said.
Basher said that this is “by far the worst accident” he’s seen in some time, but that local firefighters will learn from it and only improve their emergency management.
“These things we go through only serve to make us stronger,” he said, “they put new sets of tools in our toolboxes.”