Firefighter William P. Hennick remembers arriving in Govans Wednesday night and thinking it looked simple enough to knock down: just a fire in a small, two-story frame building.
That was shortly before the floor beneath him collapsed, sending him and two other firefighters plummeting. The simple fire in Govans, on Winston Avenue just off the 5100 block of York Road, had changed.
The other two firefighters managed to extricate themselves from the debris, but he was trapped in the burning building, wedged between a bed, a wooden beam and remains of the roof.
Forty minutes later, he was rescued with the help of an inflatable air bag that lifted the debris sufficiently to free him. He escaped with minor injuries: bruises on his sides, back and neck.
Yesterday, resting at his Towson home, he was feeling sore but grateful.
Being injured on the job was nothing new for Firefighter Hennick, 51. In nearly 27 years with the city Fire Department, he has broken bones three times and seriously injured both legs, a shoulder and his back.
"You don't have to be accident-prone, it's just part of the job. Because you just don't know what to expect when you go out on these things," he said. "But last night was close."
Firefighter Steve Barnaba, who had been kneeling just behind Bill Hennick when the floor collapsed, stopped by yesterday to check on his buddy.
They recalled looking at a photo of Bill in his rookie year, just before they were called to Wednesday night's fire, and joking that he looked the same.
Steve Barnaba said he'd suddenly had a premonition that something might happen to his friend that night. "That's all I could think about, 'Is this it?' " he said.
The firefighters of Company 56 on Harford Road received the call at 11:05 p.m. on the second alarm. There had been three other calls that night.
Firefighter Hennick said he entered the old frame building from the rear, with two colleagues in front of him and Steve Barnaba behind. They climbed a staircase and entered one of the apartments, dragging a 1 1/2 -inch hose with them.
They had just gotten word that the roof was in danger of collapsing. Bill Hennick told the man in front of him that they had better leave and was about to tell the lead man when the floor sank about 3 inches. "It was like quicksand," he said.
Seconds later, the floor collapsed: "The roof, floor, furnishings, everything came down all together."
The smoke was so thick that Steve Barnaba heard the crash but was unsure of what had happened. "I said, 'Bill, Bill,' and I didn't get an answer. I felt around and the floor was gone," he said.
He ran to tell the battalion chief.
His friend had crashed partly through the first floor, but his air tank caught on something and arrested his fall. Steve returned with a floodlight, Bill Hennick pushed an alarm on his belt, and the light picked him out.
Rescuers faced two difficult tasks. First they had to reach him through the pile of debris, then they had to free him. Meanwhile, Firefighter Hennick was worrying about an additional collapse that might bury him or send him under the water that had accumulated in the basement.
As he looked up, he said, he could see a ring of fire at the top of the building and beyond, the stars in the clear night sky. "At least I had something to look at," he said.
Finally, he was freed and carried on a gurney to a waiting ambulance. He was taken to Mercy Medical Center for treatment, then back to the station house to finish his shift. He forgot to do one thing: call his wife.
"A friend of hers woke her up at 6:15 [a.m.] and told her she was sorry about what happened to her husband. And not much else. I hadn't gotten in touch with her yet. That didn't go over too well," he recalled.
The experience has not changed Bill Hennick's love for his job. He will use a couple of vacation days to recover, but expects to be fighting fires again next week.
And he said he does not expect to dwell much on his brush with death.
"I figure the Lord has a will for things to happen at a particular time," he said, describing himself as a religious man. "And this just didn't happen to be my particular time."