It was two degrees outside...
On the morning of Dec. 11, 2010, but Trent Borchers, a firefighter at Station One in the Lincoln Fire and Rescue Department, was far from cold.
Underneath the fire-protectant suit, Borchers was sweating. Whether that was from the heat of the fire above him or the adrenaline rushing through his veins, he wasn’t sure.
Black smoke billowed from the rooftop of Romantix, a Lincoln adult novelty store, accompanied by 40-foot flames that lashed out at the morning winter air from the second and third story windows as if they too wished to escape the burning brick building.
This was what Borchers and the other firefighters called “the big one.”
This was the fire that every firefighter dreams of.
On the top of Borchers’ right shoulder marked in black ink is a Maltese cross tattoo. Below the cross are three initials inscribed in swirling font: R.B., D.B. and T.B.
Reinhardt Borchers, Dennis Borchers and Trent Borchers. A grandfather. A father. A son. Three generations of firefighters.
Trent Borchers was raised in the firehouse. He grew up playing with toy fire engines and stealing rides on the fire truck. He grew up watching his dad leave for work wearing a navy blue shirt with the words “Captain” on front and “Lincoln Fire and Rescue” displayed in thick white letters on back. He lives, breathes and speaks firefighting.
He is a man born for the job.
But if it were up to his dad, Borchers would be an accountant.
“He always told me, ‘you’re smarter than that. Go find something else to do,’” Borchers said. “My comeback always was, ‘hey, you did it. You obviously did what you love, and now it’s my turn.’”
Despite his reservations, Borchers’ father couldn’t have been more proud to pin a medal on his son at the Lincoln Fire Department graduation ceremony.
“That was one of the proudest moments I’ve had to share with my dad,” Borchers said.
Curt Faust, a captain of Station One, has been on the Lincoln Fire Department since Borchers was a boy following his dad around the fire station.
Faust said Borchers is impressive for his age and experience.
“It took me about 15 years to really know what I was doing,” Faust said. “But I can just set him loose, and I know the job will get done.”
A firefighter at station of investigates a smoking elevator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the fall of 2015.
* * *
Borchers and Dan Ripley, a fellow Station One firefighter, broke in the window and unlocked the front door of Romantix. Two other firefighters, Engine Three’s captain and Truck One’s captain, followed Borchers and Ripley into the building equipped with a two-and-a-half inch hose line.
“Go in. See if anybody is inside. Find the fire,” Borchers said. “That’s the goal.”
The fire alarms blared from all directions, and the room was hazy from smoke, but the firefighters could still see across the darkened warehouse. A 30 mile-per-hour wind caused by the draft of the open door pressed against their backs like a hand urging them forward.
The team zigzagged past a checkout counter to their right, a video room lit up with still glowing screens to their left and racks upon racks of DVDs. The men passed a display of inflatable dolls in the middle of the room. Borchers led the way using a thermal imaging camera to track the source of the heat.
Borchers and the crew of firefighters reached a closed office door at the back of the warehouse. As the men opened the door, Borchers knew they were getting close to the source of the fire.
“The conditions in the office were horrible,” said Borchers. “The heat in the room was double of that in the hall, and there was thick black smoke to the ground.”
Dallas Fletcher, a firefighter at Station One, rides in the back of the fire engine on the way to a call in the fall of 2015.
Borchers called into their boss on their radio to report their findings. He could see the stairs to the second floor straight ahead on his thermal imaging camera.
Ripley held out his arm to stop Borchers from entering the office. He warned him to wait and listen for a second.
“The biggest thing you can do as a firefighter is use your instincts,” Borchers said. “Use your look, listen and feel.”
As far as the men knew, the fire had just started, but the office crackled like old logs on a fire. It was a sign that the fire might have been burning longer than reported, Borchers said.
Somewhere in the distance, the men could hear debris falling against a metal surface.
Ripley and Borchers entered the room to investigate. Searching for the source of the falling debris, Borchers lifted the thermal imaging camera to the ceiling. The LCD screen lit up bright red. 1,200 degrees. Ripley and Borchers were directly underneath the fire.
And then the ceiling began to collapse.
Andy McLaughlin loads up equipment after responding to a two-car collision in the fall of 2015.
“You have to put your life in danger for somebody you’ve never met in your life,” said Borchers. “No matter if they’re rich, poor, purple, green, whatever color they are, whatever race they are, whatever type of person they are, no matter who they are, you’re the one putting yourself up for that person.”
In 2014, a total of 64 firefighters died while on the job in the U.S. according to the National Fire Protection Association. In 2013, firefighting claimed 97 lives.
“If you look inside any fire helmet it says that firefighting is an inherently dangerous job,” said Andy McLaughlin, a firefighter at the Station One Lincoln Fire and Rescue Department.
Firefighters face a lot of unknowns when going on call. Firefighters can’t be sure how the fire was started, whether there are any traps set by arsonists or what the building’s construction is like, said McLaughlin.
These unknowns are often the demise of many firefighters, he said.
* * *
A firefighter at Station One unloads a fire hose to prepare for the investigation of an apartment fire in the fall of 2015.
Borchers watched as a large slab of wood broke from the ceiling and onto Ripley, knocking him to the ground.
“My first thought was to help Dan,” Borchers said. “He wasn’t just my team. He was my friend.”
As he reached to help his fellow firefighter back to his feet, a piece of the ceiling crashed down, shoving Borchers onto Ripley. Dazed by his fall, the danger of his situation hit him like a pound of bricks.
“What young 25-year-old kid doesn’t think he’s invincible,” he said. “That was a big reality check.”
Within seconds, Borchers felt a hand grab his air pack, pulling him out from under the debris. He seized Dan’s pack and both men were dragged back out into the hall.
“We were incredibly lucky there were two other men with us,” Borchers said.
* * *
Firefighters at Station One sit down to watch "Family Feud' together in the fall of 2015.
Station One Firefighters tease each other during a practice drill in the fall of 2015.
Borchers grew up with the firefighters of Station One. For 56 hours a week, they live, sleep, work and play together.
Whether they’re fighting fires or watching “Family Feud” at the station with bowls of homemade popcorn, Linke said the bond that forms among the men is strong.
Many of the firefighters see the fire station as a second home.
“It’s kinda like a family away from family,” McLaughlin said. “You feel like you have a huge family everywhere you go.”
Firefighters come from all walks of life, said Linke. Each firefighter has a story and reason for being there.
Unlike Borchers, McLaughlin is the only member of his own family to have any interest in the fire department.
“I’m kinda an odd duck in my family,” McLaughlin said.
As a child, he had no interest in being a firefighter. He joined the Marine Corps. for four years right after high school and then joined the fire department after encouragement from a few friends who were in the department.
Andy McLaughlin, a firefighter at Station One, investigates the wreckage of a two car collision in the fall of 2015.
After two weeks, he fell in love with the camaraderie between the firefighters.
“It’s not what you do; it’s who you work with,” he said.
Urkoski was a broadcasting major as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He had been interested in firefighting as a child, but he was warned to go a different direction by a high school counselor.
During his senior year, Urkoski had a chance encounter with a fire truck and decided to give his childhood dreams another chance.
He was hooked after the first call.
“It doesn’t feel like a job,” Urkoski said. “The old saying goes that if you love what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s really true here.”
Despite their differences, the firefighters at Station One all have one thing in common; an eagerness to help others.
“The people who do this are wired differently,” Urkoski said. “When everyone else is running outside of the burning building, we’re running in.”
* * *
Borchers and Ripley were out of the office, but they knew they weren’t out of danger yet. The captain gave the order to “get the hell of here,” and the firefighters grabbed their equipment and began the sprint back to the front door.
Halfway to the exit, Borchers heard a floor-shaking crash behind them.
“That definitely put a little pep in our step,” he said. Referring to his captain, he added, “I’d never seen a 55-year-old man run so fast in my life.”
Only later when he was safely out of the building did Borchers learn that a bank vault had crashed through the ceiling of the office in the exact spot he and Ripley had fallen.
“Everybody always talks about a scary moment in your life, and how that made you go on moving forward,” said Borchers. “I definitely don’t take things for granted now.”
After the incident, firefighters defensively battled the fire. Borchers spent six hours on top of a 105-foot aerial ladder spraying jets of water into the second and third story windows.
When Borchers came back down, he had at least 20 pounds of ice layered over his suit.
“Water and cold definitely don’t mix,” Borchers said.
The fire was nearly extinguished by 2 p.m. when Borchers and the rest of his shift at the Station One fire department were relieved by another round of firefighters. Only the front of the building was still standing.
* * *
Borchers has been involved in more than 600 structural fires since he began working for the Lincoln Fire and Rescue department. He documents every house and every business.
Standing in front of Truck One, nicknamed the “Wrecking Crew” for its wide variety of equipment, Borchers stood tall and smiling.
“This is the best job in the world,” he said, adding that it is so much more than a job. It’s a career. “It’s my plan to see this through to the end.”
Trent Borchers, a firefighter at Station One, investigates an apartment fire in the fall of 2015.