By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
MIDDLEFIELD – By the time the explosions began – “a ball of white fire,” according to one witness – that came from inside the burning garage in this hamlet on Wednesday, Feb. 26, it was too late.
“It started as this small white ball, and then it became this massive white flame that shot 100 feet out of the building,” said Cooperstown Fire Chief Jim Tallman. “The flames just came straight at us.”
In all, five firemen, including Tallman, were injured in the blast.
Two of them, CFD’s Jon Roach and Scott Monington, were transferred to the burn unit at Upstate Medical Center, Syracuse. Tallman, as well as Middlefield firefighters John Sears and Ryan Smith, were treated at Bassett Hospital and released.
“In 42 years on the job, I’ve never seen injuries of this magnitude,” said Tallman.
The call came in at 8:45 p.m. The Middlefield Fire Department was dispatched to 3679 Route 35, which leads into the hamlet from Route 166. They were soon joined by Cooperstown, Westford, Cherry Valley and Milford, with Springfield and Mount Vision on standby.
Upon arrival, firefighters discovered a two-story garage and a car engulfed in flames.
“Info was conveyed to us that there were explosives” – perhaps propane or acetylene tanks – “on the property,” said firefighter Victor Jones, the county’s deputy Emergency Services coordinator. “But that was right about the time of the explosions.”
He clarified that the garage was a home workshop. “We were caught in a spot where we were vulnerable,” said Tallman. “The fire must have touched some oil or something.”
Tallman received second-degree burns on his face. Roach and Monington were treated for more extensive second-degree burns on their faces and airways.
“The last time we had this multiple injuries at a fire was the Colliersville train derailment” in 1974, said Jones.
“We feel very fortunate,” said Tallman. “And we’re thankful all our guys are on the road to recovery.”
The garage was owned by C.R. Jones, the retired NYSHA curator; his son, Graham, lives in an adjacent home.
GoFundMe drives were set up for Roach, a patient-care technician, and Monington, a correctional officer at the Otsego County Jail. As of this writing, Roach’s has raised $12,125; Monington has raised $6,410.
In addition to the GoFundMe campaigns, the Cooperstown Farmers’ Market set up a “Fill the Boot” drive to collect donations for the fire fighters.
“People have really been stepping up,” said Tallman. “They’re dropping food off for them, different departments are offering to send their members, we even had a fire fighter from Minnesota making a trip out here to see them. As soon as it happened, he emailed me.”
And on Sunday, March 1, Roach and Monington were welcomed back to the Village with a fire truck parade, which took them over Murphy Hill, up Route 166 and past the site of the fire. Cooperstown EMS leaders Eric Pierce and Joel Bostwick, who picked up the injured men in Syracuse, even shaved their heads in solidarity.
“Jon had so many facial burns, including his ears and his forehead, that they had to shave his head to make sure there were no burns on top,” said Tallman.
Tallman has returned to service; Roach and Monington are still recovering. “We’re just happy to have them home,” he said.
The cause of the fire is under investigation with the Otsego County Office of Emergency Services and the state Office of Fire Prevention & Control.
“Once we have those findings, we may look at what we could have done differently,” said Tallman. “You just never expect anything like that.”