August 4, 2013 in Features

Firefighter vows return to duty after sudden fall at funeral

By The Spokesman-Review
 

On July 8, longtime Spokane firefighter John Knighten was laid to rest in Spokane at a funeral attended by hundreds of firefighters. One of Knighten’s pallbearers, firefighter Mike Rose, walked with the coffin as flag-bearer, a folded American flag against his chest.

Suddenly, Rose collapsed next to the coffin. Spokesman-Review photographer Colin Mulvany caught the look of shock and concern on the faces of the other pallbearers and on the face of Brian Schaeffer, assistant fire chief, who rushed over and thought: “Mike is dying, and it’s happening with an audience of several hundred of his friends and colleagues.”

Rose did not die. The photograph of his collapse did not run in the newspaper, because the focus of the coverage was Knighten, a beloved firefighter, felled by cancer at 45.

But the photo of Rose collapsing – and the concern surrounding him – captured our imagination. Who is this guy? How is he doing now?

Turns out, he’s a guy determined to return to firefighting with the Spokane Fire Department, a determination that sometimes baffles even those who know and love him best.

The call

Mike Rose grew up in Moses Lake. Unsure of what to do as high school graduation loomed, his buddy, the son of Grant County’s fire chief, said: “I’m going to be a fireman, maybe you should think about it.”

So Rose volunteered for the fire department, and the first time he rode the fire truck, he thought: “I can get paid for this?”

He was hooked.

Rose did his firefighting training at a vocational school in Tacoma, and he was hired by the Spokane Fire Department in March 1977.

He worked at several stations in the ensuing years, loving the work, the camaraderie, the excitement.

He married Sheryl Rose in 1985; they eventually had a daughter, Michelle, now 25, and a son, Kelly, now 24.

In August 1988, Rose fell 24 feet through a roof while fighting a warehouse fire in east Spokane. His jaw splintered into 20 pieces; his right leg shattered, too. A tracheotomy was performed on his throat.

He was 32. No one expected Rose to return to firefighting. Except Rose.

He did Jane Fonda workout tapes every day. His jaw was wired shut for eight weeks, but through a straw he drank high-calorie concoctions of chocolate ice cream and peanut butter. He still lost 35 pounds.

His wife, Sheryl, begged him to leave the profession; he was eligible for disability retirement.

She told him: “I can’t lose you.”

But her husband returned to the job after a six-month recovery.

“I knew his heart would break if he didn’t,” Sheryl Rose says now.

The career

This firefighter has battled blazes big and small.

Twice, Rose felt as if he might die while battling flames.

In 1980, he fought the Zukor Building fire in downtown Spokane; a fellow firefighter lost his life.

“I was on a roof next to (the building), and I thought I was going to burst into flames.”

Then, two days before Christmas in 1998, Rose and his colleague, Brett Hatcher, now a Spokane deputy fire marshal, got trapped in a burning basement after arriving first on the scene and rushing down the stairs with a hose that turned out to be kinked.

“The fire lapped over the stairwell and our escape route was gone,” Hatcher remembered. “We sat at the bottom of the stairs together, and the hose would give a little water, and we sprayed the ceiling above us to keep cool. I was pretty resolved that we may not be able to get out of there.”

The men had about seven minutes of air in their tanks. The friends waited together, eerily calm. Hatcher thought if he was dying, Rose was the best person to be with at the end.

As the last of the air was draining from their tanks, firefighter Grant Cragun burst through another door in the basement and saved them.

“Not many people experience something like that,” Hatcher said.

Rose was eventually promoted to lieutenant, and then promoted to captain nearly four years ago and assigned to Station 7, 1901 E. First Ave. He became the head cook, famous for his veggie-filled salads and his “bacon explosion” – a pound of chopped, fried bacon, stuffed into a sausage meatloaf and then wrapped in more bacon.

Rose was a founding member of the critical incident response team that helps Inland Northwest first-responders process the psychological effects of trauma.

When Schaeffer was hired from Yakima as assistant chief eight years ago, he was treated with some distrust from many in the department because he was an outsider.

“It was a very difficult time,” Schaeffer said. “I went around to all the stations when I first got here, and the very first time I met him, I could tell there was no prejudgment from Mike.”

The heart stoppers

In 2000, Rose was fishing with firefighter buddies at Neah Bay on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula when he had two seizures. Doctors discovered a heart blockage; a stent was put in one artery.

He was off work for four months. He never doubted he would return because “they fixed me and sent me back to work.”

Rose had no other major health issues until March 22 of this year when he returned to Station 7 with fellow firefighters from a routine medical call. As an officer, he had his own sleeping room, but for some reason, he hung around with the men in the common room that night.

Suddenly, bam, he was down. No pulse, no respiration. His fellow firefighters revived him.

He spent three days in the intensive care unit, recovering from heart surgery. He now has a defibrillator-pacemaker and two more stents.

Three days a week, he does heart rehab at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute. The other days, he works out at the gym. He blames genetics, not job stress, for his heart issues.

“We have a lot of sudden cardiac arrests on my mom’s side,” he said.

The photo

Rose was still on medical leave, recovering from his cardiac arrest, the day of Knighten’s funeral, but he felt strong physically. He and the other pallbearers spent three hours practicing in the sun, wearing their dark uniforms, “to make (the service) perfect for John and his family,” Rose said.

It was a hot day; Rose admits he didn’t drink enough water.

The pallbearers were transferring Knighten’s coffin from a fire engine to a rolling gurney, while hundreds of firefighters, in dress uniform, lined the coffin’s route outside and inside the Spokane Convention Center.

And then, like that, Rose collapsed.

Schaeffer rushed over first, and then others rushed to help with CPR and Rose was whisked away by ambulance.

It wasn’t his heart this time. Though it looked like a seizure, Rose said his neurologist later described it as a fainting incident brought on by intense dehydration. After staying in the hospital overnight for observation, and being pumped full of IV fluids, Rose returned home.

One recent afternoon, Rose looked at Mulvany’s photo for the first time.

“I see concern on their faces, but they also want to continue to make sure everything goes right for the (Knighten) family,” Rose said of his fellow firefighters. The Knightens were his main concern, too.

Schaeffer said: “Rose cares more about the people in his family – both his fire family and his personal family – than he does for himself.”

The future

Rose’s physicians must clear him for active duty. If this doesn’t happen by the end of September, his six months of recovery time will be up. Retirement will then be mandatory.

Rose is 57; he has been eligible for retirement at full pension for five years now. If his physician gives the OK, Rose will return.

“I know it sounds crazy,” he said.

His wife trusts him to make the right decision; she won’t try to talk him out of returning.

“He told me at the beginning of all of this: ‘All of your people will die for you, so you need to be 100 percent. I am not going back if I can’t be 100 percent.’ He’d back out if it would put anyone in jeopardy.”

His daughter and son will respect their father’s decision, too.

“I can’t picture him retired,” Michelle Rose said. “I don’t know what he’d do with all his time.”

Son Kelly, who grew up visiting his dad at work, is a firefighter, too, for the Renton, Wash., fire department.

“He’s the reason I’ve gone down this road,” Kelly Rose said. “I just hope I can fill his boots as best as possible.”

Schaeffer said if Rose retires, the community will lose a man “with 32 years of rare experiences.”

Still, Schaeffer would like Rose to enjoy some retirement years.

“I’d advise him to retire,” he said.

Schaeffer doubts Rose will take his advice, because “he’ll leave on his own terms.”

Why does Rose want to go back? Let’s give this firefighter the last word.

“I’m just not ready to retire yet. Riding on that fire truck with the lights and sirens and there’s smoke in the distance and there’s the adrenaline – there’s nothing like it.

“I love the people I work with. I’m with them 46 hours a week. They become your second family.

“I love the work. We just started (learning) hands-only CPR. We had the class and practiced on a mannequin. Two hours later, we were dispatched to an indoor soccer field. There was a young man, under 40. Cardiac arrest. One of his friends was doing compression-only CPR on him. We jumped in. I did the compressions.

“We shocked him one time. His eyes opened up, and he said: ‘What are you guys doing here?’ We saved a person. We made a difference. And that’s the reason I do it.”


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