USA — Yesterday, the 54-year-old Randall smiled, remembering. A man who believes in such things, he has long since decided that it was his fate to survive a house fire on Forest Avenue last June 26, to survive and to save a woman’s life.
The fire, he believes, “was probably the worst I’ve ever seen.”
A 21-year veteran, Randall was among dozens of firefighters honored for their courage and dedication at the Massachusetts Firefighter of the Year Award Ceremony in historic Faneuil Hall, Boston.
Gov. Deval Patrick made the presentations. “Firefighters are there for us,” he said, “ready to respond to the bell, the smell of smoke. … We owe each and every one of you a debt of gratitude.”
Two Boston firefighters, Paul Cahill and Warren Payne, killed in a restaurant fire last year, were awarded the firefighters Medal of Honor posthumously.
Among the first to be cited in yesterday’s ceremony was Beverly fire Capt. Peter O’Connor. He was recognized with the Community Service Award for his work as a training officer, dive-team member, grant writer and public information officer, among other things.
O’Connor conceded that his work stressing safety measures is literally lifesaving. Nevertheless, he accepted his award “very humbly. … I tried to explain to my wife (Kelly), ‘You’re going to hear some amazing stories today.'”
Randall’s was one of them. Arriving at the Forest Avenue fire, he was told by police that an elderly woman was still inside. At once, he entered the building, a structure that was soon burning so furiously scores of onlookers were forced to back away from the heat.
At one point, fire poured through the windows and touched the bushes along the house, setting them ablaze like so many candles. Inside was hotter, still.
“You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” Randall said. “It got worse after I got in there.” He crawled along, feeling as much heat as he’d ever experienced. “If it wasn’t fire, it was smoke.”
He located Barbara Townsend, 82, by touch. “I kind of swept my hand around to the right, and my hand brushed her head and her hair,” he said in an interview the day after the fire.
Randall immediately took off his oxygen mask and placed it over Townsend’s face, allowing her to breathe.
Next, using his own body to shield her from the heat, Randall began to carry Townsend out. The worst was getting past a section of the house blazing furiously, threatening to block their path.
“She’s really tough,” Randall said. “It was bad for me. You can imagine what it was like for her.”
“If it wasn’t for the guys on the line holding it (the fire) back, he wouldn’t have been able to get her out,” fire Chief Richard Carmody, now retired, said at the time.
Giving a solemn “thank you” to the men who covered his retreat, Randall added, “They talk about training. It’s funny how it all clicked in.”
Randall admitted he was reluctant to tell his wife, Nancy, what he’d gone through. “But she found out.”
He sometimes has second thoughts himself about trusting in fate.
“I’m getting too damned old for this,” he said, “but we don’t have a lot of guys. And I was in a position to do it.” The real reward, he indicated, was Townsend’s survival, knowing that everything ended well.
A note from Townsend’s granddaughter offered a poignant postscript, one that could apply to firefighters everywhere. The handmade card declared with gratitude and wonder, “You risked your life in order to save someone you did not even know.”