These days, it takes Dan Peterson nearly two hours to get cleaned up and dressed.
Peterson, a senior firefighter at the Chattanooga Fire Department, was one of three firefighters injured Oct. 7 while responding to a duplex fire at 2814 Fourth Ave. in East Lake. He sustained second- and third-degree burns to his head and arms.
Peterson examined his gear for the first time Friday at a fire station. His yellow helmet was charred. His face mask was crystallized and completely blackened. He gingerly picked up the jacket he had worn on so many calls before.
"When I saw the helmet, I knew I had been probably burned and had some blisters," Peterson recalled from that day at the scene, "but I was shocked. I hadn't seen my mask until today."
Firefighter Chad Williams, who was a recent graduate of the fire academy, fought his first house fire that day.
"For me, it's kind of been like a scripted warm up," Williams said. He went on calls for Dumpster fires. Car fires. Porch fires.
"This was the first real deal. This was the first time where I was like, 'This is really what it's all about.' It's a heck of a way to start," he said.
Both Williams' arms are fully covered in gauze and bandages extending down to wrap around his thumbs. His neck is marked with scabs from healing burn wounds.
More than a dozen firefighters responded to the structure fire that day. When there were reports that someone might still be trapped inside, Peterson, Williams and Capt. Dean Rogers made their way in. When they opened a door to a room leading to the fire, they were overcome with heat.
"I actually felt my hand sizzle. Of course, my immediate reaction is to grab it. I went and grabbed my hand. I could actually feel the skin move underneath the glove," Williams said. "I actually said to Peterson, 'I'm baking. I'm cooking over here.'"
All three sustained burns. With no visibility, they followed a line out of the house.
Both Peterson and Williams most likely will need skin grafts. They make weekly trips to Vanderbilt University's burn unit in Nashville. Both have to scrub the painful wounds daily.
Both look forward to returning to work, even though that may be some time.
They will think of the Fourth Avenue fire the next time they answer a fire call.
"I mean that will be different -- remembering what happened," Peterson said, before adding, "We love our job."
A neighbor said the same residence caught on fire about three years ago, and sources at the fire department confirmed there has been at least one other fire at the house. The city has not returned a records request submitted by the Times Free Press seeking fire calls to the residence.
Randy Van Hooser has owned the property for more than a decade, records show. Neighbors said one side of the duplex was used as a beauty shop owned by his sister.
A phone message seeking comment left at Van Hooser's business, All American Taxi, was not returned.
As of Friday, investigators still had not determined what caused the fire. No suspects have been identified, and evidence has been submitted for lab examination.
"Right now, there's nothing that goes one way or another," said Fire Capt. Anthony Moore, who is an arson investigator.
Contact staff writer Beth Burger at email@example.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.
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