Matt Bruno's head hung from exhaustion Thursday night as he walked back from the blaze for another air bottle and brief respite.
The fire looked innocuous enough, nonexistent even, from the outside. The outer row of storage units in back of the Fred's shopping center was only smoking, but deeper within, the fire continued to rage, building its fury inside several tin ovens.
"It was intense, crazy," said 25-year-old Covington firefighter Matt Bruno. "That's probably one of the biggest, most demanding fires I've ever been on."
Loaded down with 50 pounds of fire suit and equipment and heaving a 25-plus K-12 rescue saw, Bruno and others had to cut through several metal doors to get to the fire.
"If you took the heaviest coat you own and put it on over two sweatshirts, then did heavy exercise for 30-40 minutes, you'd have a good idea of what if feels like to work in that suit, but we're doing it in 1,000-plus degree temperatures," said Jesse Rollins, a driver and engineer who, along with Bruno, was one of the first fighters on the scene.
"The heat bounces off of the tin walls and amplifies. You can't escape it," Bruno said. "You try to rip out some of those doors, and as soon as you get them open, you get that blast of heat. Like when you take cookies out of the oven, you feel the heat on your face through your gear and you have to back out."
The fire took more than six hours to fully contain, but the firefighters managed to make a stand in the middle of the Budget Self Storage building, preventing the fire from spreading to the other half of units, where, among other things, heavy ammunition was being stored. They also managed to save a blue Ford Mustang.
Because of physically demanding work, firefighters were rotating through more frequently but resting less. Normally, when an air bottle runs out, after 15 to 20 minutes or so, firefighters go back to get another bottle and "rehab" for an equal amount of time. Thursday night, the rest periods were down to around five minutes.
"For every air pack breath in, you lose a liter of body fluid. Dehydration is one of the most pressing concerns," said Rollins. "You try to sip as much water without throwing up. With the dehydration and hard work you tend to get nauseous, weak, dizzy and have headaches, but you have replace electrolytes and go back in."
Emergency medical workers were on hand providing cold towels, while Newton County firefighters were called in to assist.
"It was an intense fire, not like your average structure fire where you go in and knock it down and that's it and everybody goes home," Bruno said. "After cutting the doors, even late (Thursday) night we were still spraying foam before going home, because we still had flare ups in there."
In his 11-year career, Rollins has seen more intense fires, but not many and not recently.
"Those guys (Bruno and relief driver Matt Isom) worked hard; they wouldn't give up. They were already packing up (putting back on gear) before they even told us to and were ready to go again," Rollins said. "That goes to training. Those guys don't even have to be told what to do. They have the knowledge in their mind from training; it's automatic."
Covington Assistant Fire Marshal Tony Smith said fire officials are following up on a couple of leads and haven't yet determined a cause.
Total damages added up to around $50,000 and everything in the storage center suffered some smoke damage, Smith said, but firefighters' efforts likely allowed several items to be salvaged.