Minneapolis firefighter Christie Nixon rode on Engine 5 as it responded to a fire alarm call on the night of May 27 at the Walker Community United Methodist Church.
Nixon's rig was the first to answer the call. The storm that evening and depleted staffing affected the response, said Nixon, an 11-year veteran of the Minneapolis fire service.
"Usually on a fire alarm, there are two engines, one truck and a chief," Nixon said. "That's 11 people. So we responded with three rather than 11."
Nixon and two other firefighters who were at the Walker church fire spoke Thursday afternoon at a hearing at the Capitol hosted by Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis. Torres Ray called the hearing to discuss how state funding cuts pose a safety risk to firefighters and the public.
Nixon did not blame funding cuts for the injuries she and four other colleagues suffered battling the fire. But she said if another rig would have responded with the engine she rode on, they would have had help.
"I can't predict how things would have gone if we would have had more people," she said. "But I know that the ladder crew would have been there with us, helping to break down the doors, make access to the attic, carry in the tools, help us lay the line and do all the things that we usually do."
However, some of Nixon's colleagues are more pointed.
"I think that had we had more resources, things would have been different," said Jerry White, part of the first ladder truck to arrive at the scene. "I believe that."
White did not specifically blame staffing reductions for the injuries his colleagues suffered fighting the Walker church fire. But he says if firefighters would have had more people on the scene faster, they could have possibly saved the church.
Nixon's hands are both wrapped in white gauze. The bandages don't completely cover her burned and blistered skin. Nixon said she was burned as a flashover suddenly burst out on the third floor of the church.
"I was just putting my gloves on. I didn't have them on yet. And so I'm burned on my hands," said Nixon.
When asked if she feared for her life when the flames roared around her, tears came to her eyes, Nixon said no. She knew she had an escape route. Nixon said she was afraid for her colleagues who didn't have a way to get out. According to the department's incident report, the trapped firefighters had to crawl through the flames.
Capt. Kathrynne Baumtrog was seriously burned by the fire and remains hospitalized. Nixon spent a night in the hospital before being released. She said that was one night too many for her. Nixon has not been able to work since the fire and will likely miss two to three more weeks of work.
Injuries to Minneapolis firefighters have increased gradually over the last decade. Since 2009, the number of firefighter work days lost due to injury has more than tripled, from 220 lost days in 2009 to 754 in 2011. That means firefighters have sustained more serious injuries in the last few years. That also means the department has had to pay out more in overtime to replace injured firefighters. Last year, overtime costs grew to more than $1 million, nearly double the overtime total of 2008.