Syracuse, N.Y. — Choking on the black smoke coming into her room, Anne Woodlen struggled to breathe as firefighters rushed to rescue her, put out an apartment fire at 501 S. Crouse Ave., and save the life of a man having a massive heart attack.
Woodlen, 67, had been beaten back by a wall of smoke in her hallway Sunday that made it impossible to see one foot ahead, much less escape.
Woodlen, who uses a power wheelchair and suffers from pulmonary fibrosis, managed to call 911 and let emergency crews know she was trapped.
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But firefighters were still dealing with the blaze just a few rooms over. The man in the apartment had apparently gone into full cardiac arrest.
Woodlen started gasping for air. She began to cry. The lone firefighter assigned to stay with her took his oxygen mask off and held it out to her.
“It’s really sweaty,” he said. “I don’t care,” she replied.
The firefighter wiped the mask down and held it over Woodlen’s face.
That helped, but the mask didn’t fit correctly and it was still hard for her to get air. A few minutes later, another firefighter flung open the door holding a large red tote bag.
He had an oxygen tank and a mask that fit. She had air again.
“That was enormously helpful,” Woodlen, who asked not to be photographed during an interview on Monday. “I was OK once I could breathe.”
The other firefighters started checking on their colleague who had brought in the oxygen at the crucial moment. He leaned against the wall and put his hands on his knees, gasping for air.
“A fireman who knew nothing more than that there was a woman trapped on an apartment in the 8th floor and needed oxygen — he ran up eight flights of stairs,”
Woodlen thanked the firefighters for what she called their extraordinary response to the blaze. She’s not sure what would’ve happened without it.
“The fire department performed perfectly, as far as I’m concerned,” Woodlen said. “And that was a blessing.”
Firefighters escorted Woodlen downstairs. Hoping to get away from the mayhem in the lobby, Woodlen went on her wheelchair to the Ronald McDonald Charities at 1100 E. Genesee St. and asked if she could rest.
There, she was turned away. The charity’s mission is to provide a space for families of children being treated in Syracuse area hospitals, said Beth Trunfio, executive director of the Ronald McDonald Charities of Central New York. There’s a screening process to prevent potentially sick people from infecting children at the charity, she said.
The charity’s volunteers offered to help Woodlen find a CNY shelter she could stay with, but she left, Trunfio said.
Woodlen said she was still angered at not being able to stay in the building. The charity should have let her because that’s what good neighbors do, she said.
“It’s important to take care of the people in your neighborhood who need help,” Woodlen said.
Woodlen has been back and forth between a hospital and a nursing home for the last eight months.
501 S. Crouse Ave., also known as the McCarthy Manor, is a high-rise apartment building with 176 units mostly occupied by elderly and disabled people — a “firefighter’s nightmare,” Woodlen said.
Woodlen was sitting in her apartment when she heard the fire alarms go off in her hallway around 3:21 p.m. Sunday. She put on her coat and gloves, got in her wheelchair and opened the door.
“I said, ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!,'” Woodlen said. “I have never seen anything as black as that hallway … It was heavy, acrid smoke that just choked. It was really terrible.”