Trapped in a burning basement, a teenage volunteer for New Hyde Park’s department fights a house fire. Total blackness. Then everything bright orange. Searing skin on his neck, ears, shoulders. Air tank emptying. Two or three breaths of noxious gas and smoke.
“When I took my breaths, I thought that was it,” the volunteer, James Devane, then 19, recalled Friday in an interview. “I thought I was going to die.”
He not only survived and recovered — after weeks hospitalized in intensive care, rehab and learning to walk again. He not only fulfilled his longtime dream of joining the FDNY. He then became the FDNY’s most recent class’s valedictorian.
“This was the dream to be on this job” — and follow his FDNY firefighter father’s example — said Devane, who on Tuesday recalled the 2011 ordeal to his graduating class of 301 in a valedictory address, held at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn.
“I was then told I would never be 100% back to normal again," said Devane who goes by his middle name Max. "Well, I am. While I was home recovering. I was told I would never be able to fulfill my dream of becoming a New York City firefighter. Today, I get to say I am,” Devane told the audience of department brass, classmates, and their friends and family.
There to see Devane: his grandmother, fiancee, future in-laws, mom — and the firefighter dad, also named James, who worked in Engine 73 in the South Bronx for 28 years, retiring in 2011, the younger man said.
In the academy, 27-year-old Devane's grade-point average was about 98.4, factoring in academics (knowledge of the types of New York City buildings, and how to handle jobs at each, for example), hands-on tasks and physical fitness (including an obstacle course, completed in full gear, with a mask on, with tasks such as raising up a ladder, pulling a hose and carrying a dummy), he said.
Before joining the FDNY, the younger man worked as an NYPD officer in the 101st Precinct, in Far Rockaway, for five years, he said. He resigned to join the FDNY, with the academy starting May 13.
But it’s a path that almost all went up in smoke on Feb. 4, 2011, battling a fire that earned three New Hyde Park firefighters the Nassau County Fire Commission's highest award, the Gold Medal of Valor, for the rescue of Devane and another volunteer.
Speaking Friday at an FDNY facility on Fort Totten, Queens, Devane recalled that fire, which left him hospitalized in intensive care for 21 days. He’d been at the gym working out with his dad when the call came over.
With his assignment, he crawled through the house, with zero visibility, and found the basement stairs. Conditions worsened.
“Everything went orange. The room really lit up on me. I started to feel myself get burned. It was mainly my neck and my ears and my shoulders were in a great deal of pain. I kind of kept thinking it was a dream, but it obviously wasn’t,” he said.
After his tank ran out of air, he removed his mask so as not to suffocate, he said of the fire whose cause was apparently electrical.
“I remember taking one breath in of those superheated gases and smoke and it felt like my lungs were on fire. It was a pretty awful feeling. That’s when I started coughing and choking.”
He was soon unconscious, he recalled.
He woke up in the hospital, surrounded by his family, motioned for pen and paper to write, and the first thing he asked was about the other firefighter, Sean Carton, who had survived and later received a silver Medal of Valor.
From there, it was weeks of recovery and rehab and exercise. But, he said, he was initially told he’d be bedridden for life or need to breathe with oxygen assistance. Definitely not join the FDNY.
But, being in fantastic physical shape — he played safety for SUNY Maritime College’s football team — he fully recovered, with perhaps the only visible scar left being from a tracheotomy on his neck.
In December, he’s to marry Julia Paternoster — who helped write Devane’s valedictory address.
On night Wednesday, he worked his first tour as a probationary firefighter — with Ladder 133 in South Jamaica, Queens — after 19 weeks in the academy.
It was a quiet night.