About two and a half hours into a major fire at a Northwest San Antonio strip center Thursday night, Scott Deem’s fellow firefighters could see the reflective material of his protective gear in the flaming building after the smoke had cleared.
Deem had entered the burning Spartan Gym on the 6700 block of Ingram Road a little after 9 p.m. that night with his team to search for and rescue any victims caught inside the building. The mission, which turned up no civilians, would ultimately lead to Deem’s death, after he got lost amid the heavy smoke and heat.
“We were able to identify and see the reflection of his turnout gear and his tank after the smoke had cleared, but once we decided to go defensive, we were not going to re-enter that building until we had fire control, until we had the smoke evacuated, until we made sure that that building was structurally sound, because we’re not going to lose another firefighter over a building,” said San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood at a Friday morning news conference about the incident.
Hood was joined by Mayor Ivy Taylor, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and members of City Council and the San Antonio Fire Department at an emotional press conference Friday morning during which Hood recounted the event that resulted in SAPD’s first firefighter fatality in 20 years.
The conditions in the building were “horrendous,” Hood said, as the smoke and heat, fanned by heavy winds, had increased dramatically. It was too dangerous to continue search operations and risk the lives of 10 or 15 more firefighters in the process, he said. The decision to halt search efforts for Deem was “one of the most difficult decisions of my life,” the chief said.
“We’re disappointed we did not get him out, but I could not be happier or prouder of the efforts to give him every chance of survival, and we did that last night,” Hood said as he choked up with emotion.
Deem, 31, is the first local firefighter to fall in the line of duty since Jesse F. Bricker Jr. died fighting a fire on May 4, 1997, according to the SA Professional Firefighters Association. Deem joined SAFD on Jan. 3, 2011, as part of Ladder 35. He was a father of two, and his wife, Jennifer, is pregnant with their third child.
The official cause of Deem’s death is still undetermined, Hood said, as is the cause of the fire. The chief, who was on the scene Thursday night, is leading an investigation of the incident.
Officials have not confirmed whether the Ingram Square strip mall – with tenants that include cosmetology school the Milan Institute, Computer Repair Plus, Spartan Gym, and the Texas Thrift Store – suffered irreparable damage from the fire. The 86,289 square-foot center was built in 1981.
Deem’s efforts to fight the fire, and the subsequent search efforts for Deem and another firefighter who got caught in the blaze, were heroic, said Hood.
“At the time, we were going to do anything humanly possible to go in and find our two brothers,” Hood said. It was “some of the most heroic firefighting I’ve ever seen.”
Brad Phipps, who has been at SAFD since April 18, 2006, and was on Ladder 35 with Deem, was so determined to re-enter the building to save Deem that he fought the paramedics who rescued him, Hood said. Phipps sustained serious burns and is in critical but stable condition at the San Antonio Military Medical Center.
Another firefighter on the technical rescue team, Robert Vasquez, had minor injuries and was transferred to University Hospital. Vasquez, who joined SAFD on Dec. 23, 2006, was later discharged and is currently home recovering, Hood said.
Hood knew the fire was serious when he heard the first mayday call about 20 minutes into the firefighting, he said.
“To a fire chief who’s been in the business for a long time, you don’t hear a lot of maydays and you could tell by the … tone of the firefighters that something was wrong,” he said.
Over the course of the night, a total of 83 SAFD units responded to the blaze, Hood said, and Station 35 – Deem’s station – was the first on the scene, responding in five minutes.
When the firefighters eventually were able to retrieve Deem’s body, they draped him in the United States flag from his station as they took him to the medical examiner’s office, Hood said.
“We were able to retrieve him with dignity,” he said.
Once the site is secure, Hood plans to walk the entire department through the building to see the damage and remember and honor Deem.
The tragic episode has sent shockwaves throughout the local and national firefighting communities. Gov. Gregg Abbott granted Taylor’s request to fly flags at half staff in honor of Deem.
“We certainly are blessed to have an outstanding fire department made up of some of the best and bravest men and women in the country and unfortunately last night one of our best did not make it home,” said Taylor, who visited the families of the wounded firefighters at the hospitals Thursday night.
“I was reminded last night just about the bravery and strength of the men and women in uniform, but also of their loved ones who pray that something like this never happens.”
Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), who will face Taylor in the June 10 runoff election, also was at the news conference Friday morning.
“Deem, a six-year veteran, reportedly entered the blaze searching for people to evacuate. Knowing that he was putting his life on the line, he went in anyway,” according to a statement from Nirenberg. “We will remember his sense of duty and heroism. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, his friends, and our community of first responders.”
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) also sent his condolences to Deem’s family and colleagues in a statement.
“Only a special and courageous kind of human knowingly risks their life day in and day out to keep our community safe,” he stated. “I wish the two firefighters who were seriously injured a speedy recovery. While you are saddened by the loss of your colleague, friend, and brother just know that the community, as it always does, stands ready to support their firefighters in whatever way possible.”
State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) said he is grateful for the service of all first responders.
“The entire San Antonio community is grieving for the loss of a hero,” Menéndez stated. “Scott Deem, like every firefighter, rush into danger on our behalf. It is important we honor their heroism, sacrifice, and courage.”
Thursday was the fire department’s “worst day,” Hood said. But moving forward, they’ll learn from the incident while honoring and celebrating Deem’s life.
Hood said that all flowers and other memorial items should be sent to the Public Safety Headquarters at 315 S, Santa Rosa Ave., and not to Station 35 since it is an active station.
This story was originally published on May 19 at 3:30 p.m.