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Firefighters recall horror of inferno PDF Print E-mail
Written by Tony Rayl, The Yuma Pioneer   
Struckmeyers overrun by flames of Heartstrong Fire

It has been a busy year for Jennifer Struckmeyer.

“It’s crazy that it’s been that long,” she said.

In fact, the past year probably seemed like it went by quicker than the 60-90 seconds she spent being overrun by the towering flames during the Heartstrong Fire, which occurred one year ago March 18.

“To me, it seemed like a lifetime,” Struckmeyer said. “I know I had time to say several prayers.”

Jennifer Struckmeyer, along with her husband Del, their son Austin, brother- and sister-in-law Damon and Pam Struckmeyer, and mother Dorothy Marie Lattimer-Hixson were recently interviewed by 9News at the site where Jennifer, Damon, Pam and their nephew Darren Stewart got stuck in the sandhills in the Wages Volunteer Fire Department truck they had been using to attack the huge fire.

It was early afternoon on March 18, 2012, when winds gusting up to 60 m.p.h. downed a power line on Yuma County Road 26, about 12 miles south of Highway 34 and County Road M.

The winds and extremely dry conditions quickly fueled the fire into a towering inferno. It had traveled in a matter of minutes three miles north to Road 26, where it destroyed the long-time home of Dwaine and Lucy Eastin and continued northward, also spreading to the east and west, destroying the long-time home of Florence Pletcher, while moving rapidly northward.

Jennifer, Pam and Damon Struckmeyer, pictured from left, were on the Wages Volunteer Fire Department truck that got stuck in the sand and was overrun by flames during the Heartstrong Fire, which occurred one year ago on March 18, 2012.  —Yuma Pioneer photo

Eight volunteer fire departments responded to the blaze, including the four-person crew on an attack truck from Wages, located in extreme north-central Yuma County. They weren’t far from the Pletcher home, in a field off of County Road M and County Road 33, when their truck got stuck in the sandy soil.

“It was five seconds from the time we got stuck to when the flames were rolling over us,” Pam said. “I turned to scream and the oxygen just got sucked out the cab.”

Damon had been in the cab with Pam, while Darren and Jennifer were working the spray nozzles on the truck. Damon got out to get a “fog stream” going over the truck to help fight off the flames. He bumped into Jennifer, tried to yell instructions to her, then went to help Darren with the fog stream.

“It was incredibly loud,” Damon said. “You had to scream and still couldn’t hear.”

He said he thought Jennifer had gotten into the cab with Pam. However, Pam knew better; she saw survival instinct had taken over and Jennifer took off running. She said she tried to go get Jennifer, but the flames showed up, and the door slammed as the oxygen was sucked from the cab.

“It was like a hand pushed her down, and then the flames rolled over her,” Pam said.

It seemed to them the fire stuck around for a minute to a minute and a half, before moving on.

“It was so hot I thought I was going to step out into glass,” Pam said, explaining that she thought the sand would be heated into glass.

Damon went to the cab and discovered Jennifer wasn’t in there with Pam, who told him she was in front of the fire truck. However, the wind was howling so loud it was hard to hear, and the visibility from the flying dirt and ash dropped visibility to near zero. Damon walked around the truck’s perimeter and could not find her.

Pam insisted Jennifer was out in front of the truck. Damon kept looking and finally found her about 30 feet away from the truck.

Meanwhile, Jennifer was wondering where her family was.

“My first thought was they all died, and I’m out here alone, injured, with no communication,” she said, “then I heard them screaming for me, and I was breathing, so I knew everything was going to be OK.”

However, all was not good. Her right boot had come off in the sandy soil, and she was suffering from some pretty severe burns. As mentioned above, the visibility was only a few feet, the GPS in the fire truck had not been turned on, and it took fellow firemen 45 minutes to finally find them.

“The guys in the Yuma truck that found us figured they had circled us five times,” Damon said.

Jennifer had severe burns, but Damon and Darren also were hurt; Darren with burns around the eyes and hand, and Damon with burns on the neck, ears, back and elbow.

All three were transported to Yuma District Hospital. Damon and Darren were released by the next day, but Jennifer was transported from Yuma to the burn unit in Greeley by ambulance (the winds prevented a helicopter coming out) and was conscious until they arrived in Greeley.

Then came all the surgeries and the long, arduous rehabilitation. She has undergone close to a dozen surgeries, including one on a finger last Monday. Most of the procedures came during her two and a half months in the burn unit in Greeley and the long-term acute care facility in Johnstown.

All of her toes on her right foot had to be amputated, and her lungs slowly had to be cleared out. She still was not able to walk nearly two months after the fire, having to be hoisted in and out of bed to be taken anywhere.

However, progress started coming rapidly in May. Jennifer said she knew the Wages Volunteer Fire Department’s annual big fundraiser was set for June 10.

“I said I had to be home by the 10th,” she said, adding that when her caregivers seemed a bit skeptical she told them, “You don’t know me.”

“In 20 days I went from not walking to walking out of there,” Jennifer said.

She has not returned to her firefighting days.

“I still have the urge ... I want to be part of the action, but I don’t want to be on the truck,” she said. “I can’t be involved if I don’t want to be on the truck.”

However, she is EMT certified and plans on staying involved on the ambulance side of things. She said she knows some people have been critical of her running away from the fire truck, but she did what her instincts told her to do.

It has been a tough year, but also one full of blessings.

“I don’t regret anything,” Jennifer said. “What happened, happened, and I’m OK with it.”

Holyoke Enterprise March 28, 2013