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Off-duty Tinker firefighter reacts to off-base apartment fire

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Lt. Sean Barnette said he didn't do anything spectacular. In fact, anyone would have done the same thing.

Would they?

On the afternoon of Nov. 12, the off-duty Tinker firefighter ran into a burning building saving occupants and taking measures to prevent further spread of the fire.
"It wasn't that big of a deal," Lieutenant Barnette said. "I was just at the exact right place at the exact right time."

On that afternoon as the fire broke out, the lieutenant and his wife were returning from a veterans' luncheon at a local restaurant. The lieutenant had previously served in both the Army and Air Force. While driving northbound on Sunnylane Road in Oklahoma City, Lieutenant Barnette saw a large, thick black column of smoke coming out of an apartment complex to the west.

He turned into its parking lot, instructed his wife to call 911 and parked the vehicle. The lieutenant said he exited his vehicle and assessed the area. There were eight units separated into two floors in the building. The smoke came out of a particular unit.

"I ran to the door of the unit that had the heaviest amount of fire coming from it and tried to open the door. It was locked, so I then kicked open the door," he said. "Heavy smoke started pouring out of the doorway and I loudly yelled three to four times to ask if anyone was in the structure. I did not hear a response and determined that due to the heavy fire conditions that it was too dangerous to enter without protective equipment."

Lieutenant Barnette said he ran upstairs to the unit directly above the one with the fire. The door was unlocked. As with the first unit, he yelled to see if anyone was inside. When there was no response, he entered in search of occupants, fearing if they didn't soon exit, the floor would collapse.

After determining there was no one inside, he returned to the first floor and searched nearby units. He found a family of three -- two women and a man -- and ushered them outside.

"The older male started to gather personal effects and I stated to him that there was no time to gather any items and they needed to get out immediately," he said.

The women exited the front door, while the man left through the sliding glass door, but needed help getting over the railing. Lieutenant Barnette helped him.

The lieutenant said when he returned to the second floor, he found a woman with her cat in another residence and within seconds of entering her unit, the smoke alarm sounded. The woman and her pet safely exited the apartment.

Once everyone was out, he walked around the structure and found residents had hooked up a garden hose. The lieutenant took it and sprayed a tree that was between the burning building and another apartment structure.

"I was trying to avoid the embers from traveling through the tree to the other unit," he said.
Around that time, Oklahoma City Fire Department firefighters arrived on scene.

Lieutenant Barnette briefed the captain on what he had done and soon acted as a go-between for the firefighters on the south side scene and the captain at the north side.
"Within the first two to three minutes that the firefighters were fighting the fire, there was a floor collapse from the northwest second-story apartment," Lieutenant Barnette said.

Following his report to the captain, the lieutenant said he took that as his cue to leave. He walked back to his vehicle, where he found his wife standing on the sidewalk and noticed the acting Oklahoma City district chief from Station 25. He promptly briefed him on the occurrences.

"He did what I would've done," said Mark Davis. "He made my job a lot easier. I think he did an awesome job. He didn't have to do it and he did it anyway."

Terry Ford, Tinker Fire and Emergency Services chief, said that's just a reflection of Lieutenant Barnette's character.

"We're very proud to have Sean as a member of our team," he said. "Sean is an enthusiastic, hard-working firefighter that gives it his all."