The blaze Sunday that killed two Toledo firefighters seemed like a routine call — the same kind of heavy fire the city’s bravest deal with regularly — until a shout for help snapped over the radio.
“Mayday, mayday,” a firefighter can be heard over his radio shouting to a command officer standing outside the apartment building at 528 Magnolia St. in North Toledo.
A panicked-sounding inquiry came a short time later from the same officer, trying to learn the whereabouts of two missing firefighters under his command.
Ultimately, both men — fire department Pvts. Stephen Machcinski, 42, and James Dickman, 31, were rushed to Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center, where despite attempts to save them, they died. The two had entered the burning building with other firefighters after a dispatcher had advised, “Two-story apartment building — reported people are inside.”
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“There were rapid changes, rapid deterioration of conditions,” Fire Chief Chief Luis Santiago said during a news conference on Monday.
The chief and Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins acknowledged the public’s desire to know why the two firefighters died, but they asked for patience and also privacy for the men’s families.
“We have as many questions as you have today,” Mayor Collins said. “The average person would run in the opposite direction than they do, but that is their profession and that is what they basically take in their oath of office to do, and they fulfilled their oath of office unfortunately because of the tragedy that occurred.”
Chief Santiago said officials have not determined an official cause for the fire but that an investigation would continue.
Firefighters headed toward the burning building spotted black smoke from blocks away. The call for help arose shortly after the first crews arrived and entered the structure.
“Mayday, mayday,” a voice shouted.
A commander responded: “Get out of the structure. Let’s take a defensive approach.”
A short time later, the commander on scene asks over the radio: “Do you have the firefighters with you?”
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‘They are missing’
The answer that came back was the second sign of trouble: “Negative. They are missing.”
Fellow firefighters worked their way around the smoke-filled two-story building.
“Is everyone accounted for?” a firefighter from Toledo’s Engine 7 asked minutes later about his colleagues from Engine 3.
The commander responded with more bad news: “I have no accountability on two members from Engine 3.”
As firefighters finally pulled one of the missing men out of the still-burning building, Chief Santiago arrived on the scene. The commanding officer there believed at that point that both missing men had been brought out, but then a firefighter from Engine 7 said he would re-enter to continue searching for the second missing man. Instead, the command officer sent in firefighters from Engine 19.
About 3 minutes later, the second firefighter was carried out to a waiting ambulance.
Autopsies were performed on both firefighters on Monday. Dr. Cynthia Beisser, a Lucas County deputy coroner, said afterward that she needed to talk to fire investigators about the incident before ruling on the cause of death and expected to have more information today.
Chief Santiago declined to say Monday how long Privates Machcinski and Dickman were stuck inside the six-unit apartment building or where they were found. A recording of firefighters’ radio chatter suggested the first man taken out had been missing about 5 minutes, while the other was missing for about 8 minutes.
Investigators on Monday were searching for what might have caused the midafternoon fire. Participants include Toledo fire investigators, Toledo police, the FBI, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the State Fire Marshal, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Toledo police have remained at the fire scene and will until the fire’s cause is determined, police Sgt. Joe Heffernan said.
The area of Magnolia and Huron streets is still closed.
Private Machcinski, a 15-year fire department veteran, is survived by his parents, a sister, and brother. His brother, Richard Machcinski, is a 10-year veteran of the Fort Wayne Fire Department, according to a statement released by the Fort Wayne department. Fire Chief Amy Biggs declined to comment further.
Attempts Monday to contact Mr. Machcinski’s relatives or neighbors were unsuccessful.
Firefighters met Monday morning at Nick & Jimmy’s Bar & Grill, on Monroe Street in West Toledo — one of Mr. Machcinski’s favorite haunts.
“He was a really fun guy,” said manager Brian Miller, who knew Mr. Machcinski for 15 years. “He was quiet, laid back. Probably the most of all his friends.”
Mr. Miller said Mr. Machcinski — who they called “Steve-o” — liked to talk about baseball and was a diehard Detroit Tigers fan, always showing support by wearing a baseball cap.
Having heard of the fire casualties, Nick & Jimmy’s employees had been exchanging text messages Sunday in hopes Mr. Machcinski wasn’t one of the victims, but they were aware it was possible because of his assignment.
“Nobody can believe it,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s hard to take. ... Unfortunately it’s a risk on the job. You just don’t think about it happening here.”
Chief Santiago described Mr. Machcinski as a “great firefighter. A great member of our department.”
His dream job
Private Dickman leaves behind his parents, wife, a 3-year-old daughter, and a month-old son. After speaking with the Dickman family, Chief Santiago said becoming a Toledo firefighter was “his dream job” after having previously worked 10 years for the Perkins Township department in Erie County.
His “true love and true desire was to work for the Toledo Fire and Rescue Department,” the chief said — a sentiment echoed by Keith Wohlever, the Perkins department’s chief.
“It was his ultimate dream to be with a large fire department, which he had with Toledo,” Chief Wohlever said. “He had high morals, high ethics, integrity, not only in his personal life, but his professional. He will be sorely missed by everybody.”
About a dozen firefighters from Sandusky and Perkins Township arrived at the fire scene just after 1 p.m. Monday. Craig Caprara, a firefighter from Norwalk, Ohio, who previously worked with Mr. Dickman in Perkins Township, placed a set of firefighter’s gloves and a township department shirt at the scene. The firefighters from the different departments — including one of Mr. Dickman’s former commanding officers — were visibly upset and all declined to comment.
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Mr. Dickman, who was known as Jamie, was married to a woman also named Jamie. Several friends said the couple’s son, Grant, was born Christmas Day; their daughter is named Paige.
“That was his dream job. When Toledo called him to come, he was over-the-top excited about it,” said Charles Conrad, a worship leader at The Chapel in Huron, where the Dickmans attended church. “Toledo was going to stretch him, and he was excited to take on that task.”
Selfless. Humorous. Hard-working. A man who wanted to serve others. All descriptions by friends mourning him Monday.
“He was always the person who would help another person when they were down,” said Tony Lewis, 31, a childhood friend. “He never wanted to see someone having a hard time. He was always a happy person.”
Mr. Lewis, who owns Highline Auto Works in Sandusky, said he grew up attending the same church, Faith Memorial, with Mr. Dickman and the two became close. They spent weekends swimming in the pool and horsing around at Mr. Dickman’s Sandusky home, and were in the same band together, Blemished, jamming out Christian rock tunes together at the church and other venues.
In the band, Mr. Dickman played guitar — which he taught himself to play, Mr. Lewis said. He carried the talent over to adulthood, playing at worship services at The Chapel while his wife sang, Mr. Conrad said.
Nate Meadows, 30, of Findlay also grew up going to church with Mr. Dickman. He said they bonded as teens and young adults, until Mr. Meadows left to serve in the Air Force in 2002.
He described his friend as someone who did not hesitate to help someone, with a sense of humor “I don’t think anyone else could match.”
“There were two things he wanted most in life: to marry his wife and become a firefighter. Both came true and he worked relentlessly pursuing both,” Mr. Meadows said. “He wanted to help people in any capacity. He saw being a firefighter as helping those in need. It was a perfect fit for him.”
“It’s hard to lose a friend,” Mr. Conrad said, his voice wavering. “But we have a hope that he’s in heaven, and he’s with Jesus, and I think that makes it tolerable.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich ordered flags at all public buildings in Lucas County to be lowered to half-staff until sundown Monday in the two fallen firefighters’ honor, while Toledo Police Chief William Moton issued a statement expressing his department’s sympathy and prayers for the families, friends, and colleagues “of the two heroes that tragically lost their lives yesterday.”
“We work hand-in-hand with the members of TFD and when tragedy strikes, it affects us as well,” Chief Moton said. “Even though there is plenty of good-natured ribbing between us, the safety forces in our city stand as one and we feel their pain and sorrow.”
In addition to condolences from within and around Toledo, support for the Toledo Fire Department has come in from across the globe. Outreach on social media — primarily Facebook and Twitter — has taken over the Toledo Fire and Rescue Department’s Facebook page with prayers, thoughts, and tribute photos.
Mayor Collins said the outpouring of support was humbling.
Staff writer Roberta Gedert contributed to this report.