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Marines, soldiers save lives as fire scorches camp

7 Jul 2004 | Sgt. Jose L. Garcia

A fire ripped through tents here July 7, burning the belongings of more than 100 Marines just days before they were slated to return to the United States.

There were no injuries or fatalities.  The cause of the fire is under investigation.

The blaze was brought under control by Marine and Army firefighters from Marine Wing Support Squadron 273 and the Army's 767th Engineer Team.

"We saw smoke in the distance so we came just to see what it was and turns out we made a good call," said Cpl. Joseph J. Giasson, 21, from Harlan, Iowa, and the P-19A crew chief with MWSS-273.

By the time firefighters arrived, two huge tents used by Marines as a berthing area burned and more were in danger.  The smoke was a 1,000 feet wide and the flames licked the sky at 75 feet high.

"We had to hurry and get the water lines out to fight the fire close to the other tents," Giasson said.

"Tent fires are dangerous because they burn fast," said Army Sgt. Obie A. Myers, 27, from Dallas Center, Iowa, and a firefighter with 767th Engineer Team. "You have to have respect for it and the first thing to do is find the base of it."

Adding to the danger was ammunition left inside the tent.  Rounds cooked off in the searing heat, raising the stakes of gaining control of the fire. 

"We had to protect the burning assets and cool of the ammo first," Myers said.  "Everyone on duty came as fast as possible and time was a huge factor.  Responding quickly helped us control the fire."

"There was a little confusion at first but once we got together on the strategy, we took care of it and did a good job," Giasson said.

Firemen fought the summer desert heat even as they battled the flames.  Some paused for water to cool off and hydrate. 

"I considered my self in great shape but the heat made it difficult," said Lance Cpl. Matthew D. Richerd, 23, from Covington, La., a firefighter with MWSS-273, "This was definitely the hardest fire I have ever dealt with in these circumstances." 

Marines from 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment scurried alongside the firefighters to gather their gear as the flames crept closer.  The battalion recently arrived in Iraq and the blaze threatened to consume their gear as well.  The flames were as close as 10 feet from reaching their tent. 

"I grabbed as much as I could and left.  I just ran and got out of the way," said Pfc. Donald A. Bills, 22, from Orlando, Fla., and a machine gunner with the battalion. "I feel bad for the other Marines whose stuff got lost."

Not everyone was fortunate to recover their gear, left standing with just the clothes on their backs.  A total of 141 Marines from 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment lost it all.  

"I'm glad all the Marines made it out safely and no one was injured despite of all the loss," said Cpl. Cedric C. Jordan, from Abbeville, La., an embark logistics specialist with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. "That's all that matters right now.

"I just feel relieved," added the 21-year-old.  "It could have been a chaotic situation if someone would have been injured.  Materials can be replaced but Marines can't.  Our brother companies came together and put in extra gear they had - including cammies - to share with everyone who lost everything in the fire, the way it's supposed to be."