WHITING FIELD, Fla. (NNS) -- As a fire blazed through the downtown section of Milton, Fla., Jan. 6, members of the Naval Air Station Whiting Field team were some of the first responders to the emergency.
More than 75 firefighters from 15 departments responded to help contain the blaze that consumed nearly a full block of Milton's historic district. At least 17 firefighters from the base, either from Fire and Emergency Services Gulf Coast or base personnel serving in volunteer firefighting capacities, were among the teams combating the fire.
Whiting Field's fire department has a mutual aid agreement with the county and city to lend aid as necessary. Fire and Emergency Services Gulf Coast responded with Truck 24, from Fire Station One, located at Whiting Field, and Truck 3416 located at Saufley Field, near Naval Air Station Pensacola. The team also covered one of the Milton Fire Department's areas of responsibility so they could respond to the fire.
"Those mutual aid agreements are so important in ensuring you have backup during a major casualty," said Milton Mayor Guy Thompson. "Our guys could not have contained that fire by themselves and we probably would have lost the whole block which would have included homes and churches."
The team reported to the on-scene commander and offered assistance. When Truck 24 arrived, they were positioned, by the on-scene commander, behind the buildings to attack the fire from above and help prevent it spreading to other buildings.
The tragic conflagration caused an estimated $2 million in damages, destroying several businesses, but the 100-year-old historic Imogene Theatre was saved. Although it also suffered smoke, water, and fire damage, fire marshal reports have declared it structurally safe.
"A loss like that is tough for the community," said Fire Capt. Daniel Chiappetta, the lead firefighter for the truck from Whiting Field which responded to the call. "But I am glad we were able to contribute to keeping the fire from spreading farther than it did."
Chiappetta's crew also included Firefighter Bryon Smith, Firefighter Alan Sapp and Lt. Brian Waits. He also says that members of the unit are active as volunteer firefighters in the community as well, and at least four department members were on site as volunteers with other fire departments. Assistant Fire Chief John Williams was stationed at the fire's command post and helped supervise the team's actions.
No one was injured in the fire, although one volunteer firefighter, Aviation Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Dustin Mericle suffered heat exhaustion and was pulled from the scene by his co-worker, Aviation Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Brandon Dow and members of Station One.
"It was truly gratifying to be able to help another firefighter," said Chiapetta.
As members of Crash Division, Mericle, Dow, Aviation Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Christopher Mohrmann, Aviation Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Bradley Johnson, Aviation Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Aaron Wetzel, Aviation Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Adam Ziminiak, Aviation Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Caleb Stewart, Aviation Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Matthew Newell, and Aviation Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Robert Moore train for firefighting as part of their job protecting the base's and the 13 outlying landing fields in the event of an emergency. Dow says that doing that job as a volunteer in the community gives him a chance to put that training to use to help protect the community.
"I wanted to be a firefighter since I was little. I always wanted to be someone people could count on to be there when they need help," he said. "I am glad we were able to help to community save a part of their history - something that has been here such a long time."
All nine Sailors are members of the local volunteer fire departments with responsibilities over portions of the Milton area. Most of them serve with Skyline Fire Department which was the second department to the scene. By the time they arrived, flames were already leaping from the tops of the buildings.
Dow and Zimniak said it was the largest fire they had seen and both responded the same to the sight.
"It's going to be a long night."
And it was. Fire teams were combating the blaze for more than seven hours. Hot spots were still being put out by firefighters the next day.
Zimniac was part of the team that accessed the Imogene Theatre. His hose team accessed the second story doorway about 15-20 minutes after the initial call. He says they caught the fire just in time. The area was filled with smoke, and the balcony was already in flames. Despite the size and immense heat of the fire, his team put out the fire inside the theater and kept others from starting.
Being part of a response effort that large inspired Zimniac and it is that memory that will stay with him.
"It [the teamwork] was outstanding. With the amount of fire departments and firemen, it was just an amazing effort."
The same can be said of the Whiting Field team that responded to the emergency call, said Thompson.
"Whiting Field was a major part of the response to the fire," Thompson said. "They have good equipment and extremely, well-trained people, and that's just what you would expect from Navy people and a federal installation."
According to fire station statistics, Station One at Whiting Field responded to more than 60 mutual aid calls in 2008.
For more news from Naval Air Station Whiting Field, visit www.navy.mil/local/naswf/ .