Firefighter dies in fire, but responders' heroism helps more than 100 escape
It is minutes into Tuesday on Lake Street in Spring Valley, and the fire is shooting from every opening of the sprawling assisted living facility.
The old building begins to sag and buckle. A firefighter shouts, “Collapse! Collapse!”
Then, the dreaded words, captured on dramatic eyewitness video: “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”
They're heard again.
It means a brother or sister firefighter is in trouble beyond their extensive training, that somewhere in the pouring smoke and the fire strong enough to warp iron girders, something has gone horribly wrong.
A Spring Valley firefighter died after fighting a stubborn fire at Evergreen Court Home for Adults. The blaze also left one resident dead and injured multiple others.
The fallen firefighter was 35-year-old Jared Lloyd, his father, Calvin Lloyd confirmed Wednesday. A native of Flushing, Queens, Jared moved to Spring Valley as a boy and played football for the Spring Valley High School team.
Lloyd, a member of Columbian Fire Engine Co. No. 1, on West Street in Spring Valley, went missing in the flames. Fellow firefighters searched for him for hours Tuesday before his body was found early Wednesday.
The fire could be seen from the New York State Thruway and drew crews from nearly every one of the county’s 26 all-volunteer fire departments, and from New Jersey.
Rockland County Fire Coordinator Chris Kear said 20 residents were hospitalized, a figure that was later corrected to fewer than a dozen. Two firefighters were taken to Westchester Medical Center: One was released; the other was admitted for smoke-inhalation symptoms. A resident later died at another area hospital.
As details from the early morning fire emerged Tuesday, so did a portrait of heroism. Officials said police, fire, EMT and ambulance workers managed to evacuate more than 100 elderly residents of the home, even as the building was being consumed by flames. They were loaded onto buses and swept to safety, many still in their nightclothes.
Later, another resident, unaccounted for and feared lost in the fire, was found safe.
First responders' efforts praised
"It’s a sad day on many fronts," Kear told a crush of reporters, including many from New York City outlets. But he noted that first responders "saved numerous, numerous lives here" through actions he called heroic.
"Today is a moment of great pain for the village of Spring Valley and for the entirety of Rockland County," Rockland County Executive Ed Day said.
Mondaire Jones, a Congressman from the 17th District who grew up in Spring Valley, expressed his sadness.
“I’m horrified to learn of the deadly fire that tore through the Evergreen Court Home," he said in a statement. "I am deeply saddened by the death of a resident of the Evergreen facility, and I am praying that the firefighter who bravely risked his life to save dozens of individuals trapped inside will be found safe and alive."
The fire burned throughout the day, filling the neighborhood with smoke and haze. Smoldering embers were seen on the ground as people from neighboring apartments sat on their lawns to watch the scene.
Thiells firefighters poured water on the building from a ladder truck as other firefighters stood by, waiting for their turn to search for the missing firefighter. All of Rockland's fire departments are volunteer, which Kear emphasized in his praise of first responders' efforts.
"We’re some of the best trained in the state, if not the nation," Kear said. "We pride ourselves on the work we do here as volunteers. Spring Valley is the busiest fire company in Rockland County by far. They’re very experienced. That company and all the mutual aid companies, when they get on the scene and there are people trapped, they know what to do, and the priority is to rescue those residents."
Lost on the third floor
Lloyd, the fallen firefighter was one of the first people on the scene and was helping rescue residents. Officials believe he got lost on the third floor while he was working to rescue people and could not find his way out in a section of the building that eventually collapsed.
"We have numerous teams digging through the rubble," Kear said early Tuesday. "We are currently going to bring in a mini excavator to start pulling apart the remaining large pieces of rubble piece by piece so we can locate this firefighter and bring him home."
The firefighter had made a mayday call, which firefighters make when "they're in a perilous condition," Kear said.
The search began right after the "mayday" call, but the fire — which melted the vinyl siding on the apartments across Lake Street — was too intense.
"The conditions were just too unbearable. They had to back out," Kear said.
Mark Lieb, a former TV news producer who is now a subcontractor for local TV stations and national networks, was on the scene and captured stunning video footage.
"It was one of the biggest fires I've covered," he said. "You could really feel the flames coming toward you."
When the blaze was called in at 12:52 a.m., there were reports of residents trapped and flames shooting from the building. The fire spread from the first floor up through the roof and burned for more than a dozen hours. Smoke was still rising from the debris at noon, as firefighters continued their work.
"This is a very old building," Kear said. "It’s a frame building. It’s had numerous additions on it. I believe it was a partial sprinkler system in the building. The sheer size of the building and the amount of the fire is what’s making it take so long."
No cause of the fire has been determined yet. In addition to Spring Valley police and firefighters, the Rockland County Sheriff's Office, state police and state emergency services are helping investigate.
The director of Evergreen Court issued a statement.
“This is an unspeakable tragedy at Evergreen Court Home, and our hearts and prayers go out to all individuals and families who have been impacted. We join the community in mourning the loss of our resident who passed away and pray for the safety of the missing firefighter," said the statement, attributed to Denise Kerr, director of Evergreen Court Home for Adults.
The statement added that Evergreen Court will cooperate with the investigation and will conduct its own internal investigation as well.
"We are forever grateful to the first responders whose actions undoubtedly saved lives. All 112 residents at Evergreen Court Home are accounted for and have been placed in a new home," the statement said.
A lonely vigil
On Tuesday afternoon, just over a mile away from the place where first responders searched through ash and ruin for their missing comrade, a man with red eyes paces in front of his firehouse, Columbian Fire Engine Co. No. 1 on West Street in Spring Valley.
He's still dressed in his firefighter's turnout pants and boots, a T-shirt beneath his suspenders as crews from the Hillcrest Fire Co. No. 1 idle in their ladder truck nearby.
A woman drives by and shouts through her open car window, “Thank you for your service!” He gives a slight nod.
A county worker in a massive orange truck stops in front of the firehouse. The worker reaches down from his seat; the firefighter reaches up; and as they clench arms the county worker starts to sob. Even when he wipes away the tears, he doesn't let go.
The firefighter declines to comment to the press. They're not ready to talk just yet, they said.
In front of the firehouse is a dark granite slab beneath a flag flying at half-staff. It bears the names of fallen members of the Columbians company on it.
A reporter could take a picture, he says, but it should wait until it reflects the newest loss, the one that has his eyes brimming with tears.
"It'll be better," he says, voice soft, "with his name on it."
Staff members Matthew Spillane and Ryan Santistevan contributed to this report.
Peter D. Kramer is a 32-year staffer at The Journal News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @PeterKramer. Read his latest stories. Please follow the link on the page below and become a backer of this kind of coverage. It only works with you as a subscriber.