VINELAND, NJ – Staff Sgt. Shane Zanes, a correctional police sergeant at Cumberland County Jail, missed an appointment and saved his life.
“I was supposed to be at a meeting at 6 p.m., it was an online meeting and I forgot everything,” he said, recounting why he was on a local freeway, driving home, when tones of fire rang out on Thursday.
“I have a scanner in my truck,” said Zanes, a volunteer firefighter from South Vineland. He not only heard the call of fire, but said he spotted a plume of smoke rising.
Walking towards the fire, he was the first to be on the scene. The smoke was so thick he said he couldn’t initially determine which of the three houses clustered in rural Millville was on fire.
With no time to put on his safety gear, Zanes ran to a man standing on the steps of a burning house.
“He said his wife was inside, that she was bedridden, that she couldn’t move,” Zanes said.
Obtaining the logistics of where she was inside the house, Zanes attempted a rescue by entering the house on all fours. He was bowled over by the smoke and the heat.
On his radio, Zanes alerted Cumberland County dispatchers that there was someone trapped inside the residence. The backup was on its way, but time was running out.
“As soon as I heard her say that she couldn’t breathe, I had to do what I had to do,” he said. “I just said whatever was going to happen was going to happen.”
It was a split second decision, but a lot of things were jostling in his mind.
“Is the fire going to break out, will I be able to reach it, will I be able to get out,” Zanes said, in an interview Monday at Vineland Station 2. “Then the adrenaline kicks in. “
Zanes slowly walked away from the front door.
“She kept talking so I could hear her,” Zanes said, walking over to her bedside and taking her arms.
“I couldn’t see, I couldn’t tell how tall or short she was, I pulled slowly,” he said. “I didn’t know if she was tangled in the sheets. All I knew was when I pulled her and when I felt her fall to the ground, I started to pull her.
It was a perilous retreat at the gate.
“You couldn’t see anything, nothing, there was no visibility,” he said.
Rescue teams treated the woman.
Original story:Firefighter on leave saves woman from burning house in Millville
After:Bridgeton’s fatal fire at South Avenue home under investigation
Once outside, Zanes said he was having trouble breathing. He took the oxygen provided by Millville EMS. Then he offered some comfort to the woman he took from the house.
“I walked back to her while she was on the stretcher and held her hand for a minute,” he said.
The instant decision to enter the burning house was made possible by training and motivated by duty.
“She’s someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, someone’s wife,” Zanes said, “Absolutely yes, whatever comes to mind.”
But choosing to enter dangerous situations can have detrimental consequences when it’s time to think about what could have happened, he said.
Zanes needed time to recover from the inhalation of the soot and to “let the adrenaline subside”.
The volunteer firefighter spoke quietly and factually about what happened, calling the rescue a group effort.
“We work as a team,” he said.
Zanes began his rescue journey as a 15-year-old Boy Scout. The following year he was a trained emergency medical technician.
In 1997, he joined the Vineland Fire Department as a volunteer, but resigned for 10 years due to the demands of his job. He recertified and returned to the department in 2015.
Zanes is now posted to South Vineland, known as Fire Company 2, where he is a lieutenant.
“It’s hard to find volunteers,” he said, noting that training takes time but is essential.
“This company here, I think it goes beyond training; we took training through COVID online, ”he said. “We kept going, we kept going.”
It is essential to be prepared for all situations, he said, including those that firefighters hope they never encounter.
“We are taught from the start, the safety of people as the number one priority,” said district chief Robert Cresci. “The safety of the lives of those we serve and the safety of the lives of ourselves.”
Zanes is “as well trained, if not better, than anyone in this department,” Cresci said.
Cresci reflected on Zanes’ persistence in these difficult times.
“It’s a combination of things in my opinion what happened,” he said. “(Zanes’ training, his experience, but also fate played a big role, he was in the right place at the right time.”
The rescued woman’s family contacted Zanes to let them know that she was out of the Inspira Medical Center in Vineland and that she was fine.
Zanes thought about this dating incident.
“I could kick myself for missing it, but I won’t,” he said.
Follow Deborah M. Marko on Twitter: @dmarko_dj.