Hurricane Florence and the memories of Mercer Avenue (”1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)

Hurricane Florence and the memories of Mercer Avenue (”1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
Lester Holt, anchor of NBC Nightly News, took this picture on September 14, 2018, showing Wilmington, NC firefighters praying together following a rescue attempt during Hurricane Florence. Holt calls it one of the most poignant images he has ever witnessed. (Source: Lester Holt)

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The Wilmington Fire Department answered thousands of calls for help in 2018, but one particular call that crossed the dispatch frequency at 7:03 a.m. on Sept. 14 will stay with them forever.

“Engine 2 respond to 24 Mercer Avenue. 2-4 Mercer Avenue. Cross street Market and Wakefield. Reference entrapment, tree fell on back of the house. People are trapped in the room including a newborn and two adults.”

Hurricane Florence had just made landfall a few short miles away on Wrightsville Beach and WFD crews were “on discretion,” meaning they didn’t have to respond to calls for their own safety. The nature of this call, though, far outweighed thoughts of self-preservation.

“There’s dispatches you hear, and it sounds like there may be some substance to it,” Battalion Chief Patrick Campbell explained. “Then, there’s dispatches you hear, and you go ‘that house is on fire!’ There’s no question by the way that came out. The way this one was put out, I don’t think there was any question in anybody’s mind that there was people trapped in that house. That wasn’t a, ‘We’ll go see what’s going on,’ that was a, ‘We’ve gotta get there!’”

Crews began heading to the Mercer Avenue home from different locations. Driving fire trucks and rescue vehicles in hurricane conditions is difficult, but navigating streets littered with fallen tree limbs and other storm debris proved to be even more of a challenge. Teams used radio frequencies to provide Waze-like directions.

Watch the railroad crossing. One of the arms was sheared off!”

“Do you know if Market Street is clear?”

“Oleander Drive is clear, few trees down if you want to go that way.”

“Oleander is cut off”

“Engine 1, Hawthorne is not an option. Trees are down bad.”

“Okay, we’re going to make our way back on 16th and try Market Street.”

“The route to get there, everything was cut off,” Master Firefighter Carmen Delia said. “There were trees down everywhere. We did our best to get there. The winds were high, and rains. It just felt like it took forever.”

The situation worse than they expected when crews arrived. A massive tree had crushed the bedroom of the Johnson family’s home. Engineers on the scene later estimated it to weigh at least 80,000 pounds.

The stormy sky and early hour forced the first firefighters to make entry into the cluttered room with flashlights. Delia, Master Firefighter Adam Cumbo and Firefighter Eli Venecia were among the first to try to reach Adam Johnson, his wife Leesha and their son Adam, Jr.

Members of the Wilmington Fire Department spoke with WECT's Jon Evans, reflecting on the call during Hurricane Florence, and their memories of trying to save a father, mother and infant trapped in their home by a fallen tree.
Members of the Wilmington Fire Department spoke with WECT's Jon Evans, reflecting on the call during Hurricane Florence, and their memories of trying to save a father, mother and infant trapped in their home by a fallen tree. (Source: WECT)

The only contact they had was with Mr. Johnson, and they found him on the bed, pinned by the tree and other debris.

“He was pinned from his waist down,” Delia said. “We were asking him questions, ‘Who was in the room with him? Where are they?’ He was telling us that his wife and baby were in there. We just did our best to keep him calm while we worked.”

The firefighters’ inside team began cutting away smaller limbs, while outside crews fought the conditions to lift and stabilize the fallen tree. They used nearly every device and tool at their disposal, trying to raise the 40-ton load, while trucks brought in to help in the effort sank in the rain-soaked yard.

As quickly as the work paid off to gain an advantage, it would slip away with the rain that continued to fall.

“There’s a few times we had to step back and away from it because everything was shifting,” Captain Shannon Provencher said. “We didn’t want to injure ourselves, because obviously if we injure one of ourselves, we just added to the problem, and we had a very big problem at that time.”

“I remember, there were four of us in there, and we were on top of each other trying to get out,” Cumbo said, recalling the tense moments. “It’s time to leave. That 80,000 pound tree inches from our head was moving.”

As the work continued to find the inches needed to free Mr. Johnson, calls went out for a medical team to help treat his unknown injuries, and in case amputation became the only way to free the man.

“With a crush injury, we didn’t know if once that tree was lifted, if he was going to have a lot more problems,” Battalion Chief J.J. Norwood said.

After nearly four hours of painstaking work, Firefighter Eli Venecia communicated to the trapped father there might be enough room to strategically pull him from underneath the tree.

“We were talking to him and telling him ‘Okay, this is it, we’ve got you, you’re coming out!’” Venecia said.

They had saved Adam Johnson’s life. But they had not made any contact with his wife or child.

“Once we removed him, with just a little more digging, we saw her,” Cumbo said, referring to Leesha Johnson. “Immediately we knew she was deceased. We were able to slow down, and really get a handle on everything.”

News crews standing on the street outside the home caught the emotions on the faces of the firefighters. Many of them walked in silence, not worrying about concealing the pain of the two lives lost. As the effort shifted from rescue to recovery, they gathered in a circle to discuss plans to remove Mrs. Johnson and Little Adam. Some dropped to one knee, a comforting hand resting on their shoulder. They prayed for the two people they could not bring out alive. Video cameras and smartphones saved that moment in time and shared it across the country. It’s the image many remember when talking about Hurricane Florence.

“We had a regrouping, just kind of brought everybody together,” said Chief Campbell. “(Fire) Chief (Buddy) Martinette was on-scene. He said some words, and everybody kind of came together. At that time they (the inside team) still couldn’t make access to the mother and child. It was abundantly clear to me running that scene that these guys were not going to leave until they got them out either. That was not even an option. So, it was a kind of a regroup, a prayer was said, and then it’s time to go get them out.”

That effort took several hours. Crews had to use chainsaws to eventually cut away part of the floor and lower the bed into the crawlspace of the house to reach and secure the two bodies.

“When we got to the mother and the baby, it was almost peaceful,” Venecia said. “She was holding him. It stuck out because of where they were in relation to Mr. Johnson. They were all there together.”

When the time arrived for the mom and baby to be removed from the home, the firefighters that had saved Adam Johnson’s life paused, paying respects to the family members he’d lost.

“We asked the police to relocate the media, so they didn’t get a camera angle of bringing out these two,” Chief Campbell said, his voice slightly shaking. “These men put them into a stokes basket, they put the baby on the mother, they covered them, and we carried them out behind a blue wall of firefighters and put them in an EMS unit.”

“They put her baby with her,” Fire Chief Martinette said later, his voice trembling. “I won’t forget that. These (firefighters) are human beings. They have feelings. They have families. That was in recognition of the fact, this was a family. They didn’t know this family, but that was a family.”

“These guys had worked so hard, and to see that mom and that baby come out was amazing, but it was not the outcome we wanted,” Battalion Chief Norwood reflected. “To see the respect that was given was pretty impressive. But you knew it was going to happen, because these guys were not going to let a great job get spoiled. They did everything they could to be as respectful as possible.”

“A lot of these guys have kids,” said Battalion Chief Greg Fix. “For them to see that, especially the younger guys in the department who haven’t dealt with that their whole career, to see that on their faces and know that’s what their thinking about. They’re thinking about their kids they have at home, or their infants they have at home.”

More than a year has now passed since that call to Mercer Avenue. The firefighters who responded to that scene have answered hundreds, perhaps thousands of calls for help since that day during Hurricane Florence. They’ve saved lives by pulling people out of crashed cars, and out of burning homes. Yet, the memories from Mercer Avenue, and the ‘what-ifs?’ are still fresh in their memories as if it happened yesterday.

“It’s just a terrible, terrible shame that the child was not in the crib because the crib was untouched,” says Battalion Chief Campbell, fighting back his emotions. “The way the house came down, had the baby been in the crib, the baby would have lived. It would have been a better outcome. It’s a hurricane. Winds blowing hurricane force, plus. Baby is in the crib crying. Where is that baby going to go? In the bed with Mom and Daddy.”

He pauses and shakes his head.

“Life’s not fair.”

“That’s something that’s never going to leave you,” Captain Provencher says in a slow voice. “You remember sights, smells. You remember all this stuff. It’s weird how you never forget some things. You’ve got to move on. It’s always going to be back there, you’ve always got to move on, because you have a job to do.”

“That’s what I try to tell the guys is, what they did was a win,” said Battalion Chief Fix. “They saved a man’s life. He would not be here if it was not for what they did. But you still hear how hard they take something that happened before they got there. They still look at that as a defeat because it is a tough pill to swallow sometimes.”

You can hear my entire interview with several of the firefighters who responded to the scene at Mercer Avenue on Sept. 14, 2018, by clicking one of the links below. We talked about many other facets of the operation, and how they deal with the emotions and stresses they carry around from calls like this. I hope you will pardon the slight audio difficulties from the interview and gain a healthier respect for the work these public servants do every day.

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