North Palos firefighter faces long road back
By Mike Nolan firstname.lastname@example.org November 26, 2013 8:04PM
North Palos Fire Protection District firefighter Michael "Sully" Sullivan at his Evergreen Park home. He was seriously injured in an Oct. 6 fire in Palos Park when a plaster and concrete ceiling collapsed on him. A Dec. 8 fundraiser will be held for Sullivan in Worth. He is shown with an older helmet he used to wear. | Mike Nolan~Sun-Times Media.
Updated: December 28, 2013 6:24AM
Michael “Sully” Sullivan said it’s the call no firefighter wants to make and no commander at the scene of a fire wants to hear.
Trapped under a collapsed ceiling during an Oct. 6 house fire in Palos Park, the part-time firefighter with the North Palos Fire Protection District struggled to issue a “mayday” call over his radio.
“I kind of knew I was going into shock,” he said. Before passing out, he saw a firefighter’s boot, then came to after being carried to the home’s front porch.
More than two months after his rescue, Sullivan has had surgery on his right knee and faces an operation next month on his left shoulder. Herniated discs in his back make sitting and standing painful and, even after the months of rehab still to come, there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to return to the job he says he loves.
The 44-year-old Evergreen Park man applied 17 years ago with North Palos “on a fluke,” he said. At that time, he was hired as a paid-on-call firefighter and has worked part time for the district since.
Although it’s a dangerous job, he said, “I’ve never gotten hurt. I’ve always been lucky.”
His main source of income had been working as a union plumber for a company that specializes in commercial plumbing installations, but he’d been laid off from that job for some time.
“Once the economy tanked, all that commercial stuff went bye-bye,” Sullivan said.
Firefighting supplemented that income, but he insists it “was never about the money. It’s always been for the love of the job.”
His wife, Nona, works as a customer service representative for Southwest Airlines, but his loss of income has made it difficult to pay the bills.
‘Crushed like a pop can’
At the fire, his engine company was assisting Palos Fire Protection District firefighters in squelching an attic fire in the home. Firefighters learned that an elderly couple lived there, but although they didn’t know it at the time, the occupants weren’t home.
“Every time we go into a building, we assume people are inside,” Sullivan said.
He and four other firefighters were assigned to bring down the ceiling, and Sullivan said he positioned himself in the center of the living room and began jabbing at the ceiling with a pike pole.
“I remember everything coming down on me,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was. I’d had drywall fall on me before.”
The ceiling wasn’t drywall, however, but instead a composite of plaster and concrete. Firefighters later sliced out a 12-inch by 12-inch section, which weighed 35 pounds, and estimated the 12-foot by 16-foot slab that crashed down on him weighed 5,300 pounds, or the equivalent of a Ford F-150 pickup.
“I was crushed like a pop can under there,” Sullivan said. “I was in a ton of pain under there.”
His face was virtually in his lap, both legs were twisted in different directions, and his left arm was pinned. There were flames to his right, and he couldn’t get his oxygen mask up to his face.
“I called out,” he said. “I didn’t know who was under there with me.”
Sullivan said he relied on the rigorous training he’d gone through with the North Palos department, including operating in a confined space and entrapment procedures.
“That is what kept me calm,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my training, things could have been worse.”
He was finally able to send the “mayday” call through his radio, which his battalion chief heard.
“It’s (mayday) a scary word to say and hear,” Sullivan said.
It took several firefighters to lift the ceiling off him and pull him out. Two other North Palos firefighters also were injured but since have returned to work.
Two days after the fundraiser, Sullivan will have surgery on his left shoulder, then faces many more months of therapy.
“I’ve been told a year (of recovery) at least,” he said.
Fellow firefighters have pitched in doing chores such as yard work and are going to make repairs to his roof.
Friends have organized a fundraiser that will be held Dec. 8 at Krapil’s Steakhouse in Worth. More information is at http://supportingsully2013.weebly.com.
Sullivan said it’s been frustrating to rely on others because all his life he hasn’t had to, although he’s thankful. He also realizes that despite the long recovery he faces, he is lucky.
“I’m alive,” he said. “I’m not in a wheelchair.”