Josh Montague and Rebecca Budnick realize it could have been a lot worse — the fire in the home on North Stepney Road this week could have been roaring — but that didn’t make it any less scary when Montague fell into a hole in the steps and couldn’t get out.
He didn’t know what was below him in the basement, he wasn’t completely sure the fire was out and he was afraid something might spark it back up again.
Even with Budnick holding on to him, the assistant chief of Aberdeen Fire Department couldn’t pull himself up, and if he fell, Budnick was going to fall, too.
Montague sounded a mayday call and within minutes he was pulled to safety early Monday morning by members of Aberdeen’s Rapid Intervention Team.
For both of them, though, those few minutes felt like an eternity, they said Wednesday afternoon at Aberdeen Fire Department, two days after their harrowing experience.
“It was definitely a scary experience. I hope we never have to experience it again,” said Montague, 30, who works for Baltimore County Fire Department at Station 15 in Eastview.
Montague and Budnick were among the volunteers who responded to the fire just before 3 a.m. Monday in the 1300 block of North Stepney Road in Aberdeen.
When they arrived, the fire was through the roof. Ninety minutes later, the fire was contained, but firefighters still weren’t sure no one was in the house — there was a car in the driveway, an indication someone could be inside.
Montague was inside the housing “hitting what fire was left” when Budnick and another firefighter came into the room he was in.
Because the two are relatively new firefighters, Montague, who’s been with Aberdeen for 11 years, was trying to point things out to them, make it a learning experience.
Montague could see fire still burning in the basement and after feeling around, found steps and decided he would go down and put it out.
He gave Budnick a piece of webbing which she clipped to his breathing apparatus, in case he were to fall it would give her something to help her hold on to him.
Montague did what he was supposed to do, feeling around and kicking the floor to make sure it was sturdy before he moved downstairs. He got to a landing and when he shifted his weight, “the floor went out from under me,” Montague said.
He caught a step and part of the landing. With Budnick pulling on him, Montague was able to get up to chest high on the landing — but that’s as far as he got.
“I glanced below me to make sure there was no fire,” Montague said. “My biggest fear was my legs would burn up.”
When it first happened, Montague said he started to panic and remove his gear, “but something stopped me” and he kept it on.
Budnick and Montague tried to figure out how to get Montague out, but realized they couldn’t. Budnick couldn’t reach her radio, though, because she was using both hands to hold her partner.
“I called a mayday, because I couldn’t get myself up any further, and [Budnick] couldn’t pull me up,” he said. “If I fell though, then she was coming down with me.”
Budnick remembers reassuring Montague.
“I told him ‘I’ve got you, you’re not going to fall. If you fall, we’re both going down,’ ” she said.
Within minutes of Montague’s mayday call, members of the Rapid Intervention Team were in the basement and pulling himto safety.
Before the intervention team arrived, thoughts raced through both of their heads.
“A lot of things flashed in my mind really quick, my family, kids, that I could get hurt on this fire,” Montague said.
“It felt like forever,” he said.
“It happened so quickly, but it took forever,” Budnick said.
She wasn’t sure what had happened once the RIT members got to Montague.
“All of a sudden, he was gone. One minute we were hand in hand, the next minute I couldn’t hear him, feel him,” Budnick said. “I thought he had fallen, I started to panic, to freak out.”
As she quickly exited the house, someone told her Montague was safe.
“It made me feel better knowing he was alive,” Budnick said.
It isn’t often Montague, as the assistant chief, is inside fighting fires. He’s usually outside directing the crews.
“He and I are pretty good friends. He’s one of the people in the department I look up to most and I learned a lot from him – things I know to do I learned from him over the years,” Budnick said.
Montague, as the veteran firefighter, wanted to make sure Budnick, who’s been with Aberdeen for five years, was OK.
Both have replayed the ordeal over and over in their heads.
“I’ve spent Monday and Tuesday thinking about it, how it could have ended very differently, or if we were in a different part of the house where there was active fire,” said Budnick, who manages Spa on the Boulevard in Abingdon. “I thought about how we didn’t get to say goodbye to our loved ones, that my husband was at work.”
Montague wondered if he did something stupid or made a wrong decision that put them in danger. But they both realize they relied on their training did the right things and Montague is “wholeheartedly grateful” for the rescue team members and everyone else who was there.
“I’m grateful it wasn’t worse, I know it could have been,” Montague said. “I hear similar stories of firefighters falling through floors who aren’t here to tell it, others are telling it for them.”