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Burning Memories: Modesto firefighters talk about fateful night

After 24 years of fighting fires, Jim Adams had become an expert with the hook.

So on New Year's night, with fire raging in the garage of a home on Modesto's Coston Avenue, the 46-year-old Modesto fire engineer climbed onto the roof and began prodding away. He used the rakelike tool to confirm structural stability, looking for the best and safest place for his partner, J.D. Clevenger, to rev up the chain saw and cut a hole in the roof.

They do this to let gases and heat escape, making it safer for the other crew members to go in to extinguish the blaze. It's a procedure normally done "100 out of 100 times" without a problem, Fire Chief Jim Miguel said.

Not this time.

"As I hit the roof, I take a step and then hit the roof again," Adams said. "(This time) it followed my swing. It was almost as if I'd knocked a structural (support) out."

Suddenly, "I felt like I was standing on an air mattress," said Clevenger, who turned 32 on Saturday.

In an instant, with no other warning, the roof collapsed. Both men landed hard on the concrete garage floor below, plunging into an inferno like neither had ever experienced.

The next 90 seconds, Adams said, seemed like "at least 90 days."

Ninety seconds, engulfed in flames and flesh-blistering heat of excruciating and unbearable pain.

"I figured it was pretty much coming to an end," he said. "I thought I wasn't going to be able to hold on much longer."

In their first interview since the blaze, Adams and Clevenger talked openly and often emotionally about the fire that left both with third-degree burns — Adams over 45 percent of his body and Clevenger over 10 percent.

These are men who do their jobs quietly and professionally, never seeking glory or attention. They spoke because they want people to understand what happened and the dangers firefighters face every day. They thank God for enabling them to survive.

They wanted to thank their comrades in the fire services who saw to their families' needs during their hospital stays. And they wanted to thank the thousands of well-wishers who donated blood, sent cards and e-mails, wrote on blogs and Web sites, and all who prayed for them.

No matter how thoroughly they tried to describe it, they are the only ones who can truly understand that perilous moment. It bonded them for life as survivors and friends.

They landed several feet apart: Clevenger on his feet in a squat and Adams on his rear end, badly bruising his tailbone. Adams got to his knees, then something fell across the back of his legs and trapped him. Whatever it was — part of the roof, perhaps — was on fire like everything else.

They saw nothing except flames. Clevenger knew the layout of the house. When he tried to find Adams and a way out, though, he came up empty.

Clevenger ran into a wall in the form of a section of the collapsed roof. His clothing on fire, Clevenger grabbed his ax and began chopping away at the barrier until it gave way. He couldn't find Adams, who hadn't been able to free himself from the burning debris across his legs.

"The part that haunts me is that I had to leave before I could get you out," Clevenger told Adams when they visited Thursday at Adams' home in Calaveras County.

Before Clevenger made it into the home and out the front door, he was hit by a stream of water as he screamed, "Jim's still inside!"

Adams couldn't get his legs free and felt the pain of his flesh burning.

"At that point, I didn't think I was going to make it," he said. He tried to cover his head and ears, which were badly burned. "I knew it was a matter of waiting for our guys to come and get me."

Clevenger was still on fire when he came out of the house, yet had to be restrained from going back in to find Adams.

"No matter how much you hurt, how can you let someone you love and respect so much die such a horrible death?" Clevenger said.

A freshly trained rescue team made sure that didn't happen.

"The month before the fire, we had a firefighter survival drill," Fire Chief Miguel said. "The drill we went through was similar to what they went into that night: Go in and find downed firefighters, supply them with air and water and get them out. The guys on the scene did exactly what you'd hoped they'd do."

They got Adams out of there, alive, in 90 seconds.

As paramedics loaded Adams into an ambulance, Clevenger came over to his friend.

"I had to see him," said Clevenger, in pain from burns on his legs, rear and ears. "I jumped in the way. Jim said, 'Are you OK?' I said, 'Yeah. How are you?' He said, 'I'm hot.' "

Clevenger went to Doctors Medical Center. Before Adams left for Memorial Medical Center, he told Capt. Greg Ewert to call his wife and give her a message.

"That's the last thing I remember about that night," he said. He later was taken to the burn unit at Sacramento's University of California Medical Center by ambulance because thick fog that night grounded the helicopter.

When Ewert called Adams' wife, he said, "Amy, this is Greg Ewert. Are you sitting down?"

The department arranged for a Calaveras County sheriff's deputy to drive her from their home to Copperopolis, where they met Modesto police Lt. Ron Cloward. He drove her to Memorial.

"It felt like forever, waiting for (her ride)," Amy Adams said. "I was walking around the house. They didn't want me to drive."

"We didn't know if she'd get to see him alive," Miguel said.

Jim Adams had never set foot inside the UC Medical Center for any reason until the summer of 2009, when his young grandson, Camden, was bitten on the finger by a baby rattlesnake on their property. The boy recovered fully. Later that year, two other relatives went to the same hospital for treatment.

Adams spent 53 days — including about three weeks sedated — in the hospital's burn unit. Clevenger joined him for about two weeks of rehabilitation.

Firefighters from Modesto and Sacramento maintained a constant presence at the hospital, bringing food to the family members and offering emotional support.

When Adams left the hospital Feb. 23, he surprised everyone — Amy and his family included — by raising his arms victoriously and bounding out of the building with an agility she hadn't seen to that point in his rehabilitation.

To tears and cheers from the 100 or so who welcomed him back to the outside world that day, Adams climbed into the seat of his Modesto firetruck, his grandsons Camden and Justin joining him behind the wheel.

Adams will know in about a year whether he'll be able to return to work as a fire engineer driving that truck.

His recovery, remarkable as it might seem so far, is still in its infancy. He likely will need more surgeries and skin grafts. Each day includes painful stretching exercises to increase his range of motion.

"You swear your skin is just going to rip apart," he said. "Then you stretch it a little further."

The worst of Clevenger's burns were to his rear end.

"Now, my son (2-year-old Conner) points at anybody's butt and says, 'Daddy's owie!' " Clevenger said.

He returns to work, albeit on light duty, Monday. He'll work on special projects before rejoining his crew a few months from now.

"I can't wait to cut another hole in a roof," he said. "The smell of a two-stroke (chain saw) engine will get me over this."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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