By A.M. Sheehan
COUNTY — It is just before 2 a.m. and the Oxford County Regional Communications Center is quiet.
Candace Jack, an 11-year veteran dispatcher, is the call-taker for the shift. She is the one who answers 911 calls to dispatch, determines if it is medical, fire or police and routes to the appropriate dispatcher.
The 911 line rings. On the other end of the line is 78-year-old Irene Maberry. She lives in an apartment on the second floor of Oxford Meadows.
She tells Jack she is trapped in her apartment, on oxygen and she smells smoke.
“She said she didn’t know what time it was or where the fire was,” recalls Jack.
Jack calmly, albeit firmly, engages her in conversation and learns she is on the second floor, all the while, Jack is typing into her computer alerting both fire and law enforcement dispatchers to the situation.
Jack and Maberry continue to talk while in the background as dispatch tones can be heard as fire and rescue are dispatched to the scene.
Maberry is scared. She doesn’t want to unlock or open her door.
Jack directs her to put a rolled up towel along the bottom of the door to keep smoke out and a damp washcloth over her face. Maberry hangs out her window to get fresh air and await rescue.
Jack and she keep talking. Some of it is banter and some real time reports as to what Maberry can see, where the smoke is coming from and what she can hear. Maberry worries she hasn’t shut off the water she used to wet the washcloth.
“I asked if she could see flames,” recalls Jack, “and she told me about the smoke next door.”
“Boy, this isn’t how you want to wake up in the morning!” Jack jokes with Maberry.
“Tell me about it,” Maberry laughs.
Finally ,Jack hears from firefighters that they are outside Maberry’s door. Now Jack just has to convince Maberry to open her door.
“She was scared,” says Jack, “but she didn’t panic and that was awesome.”
Maberry unlocks her door and she is escorted out of the building through blinding black smoke.
“They put a sheet over my head,” she says, “and we slowly walked out … we were bouncing off the walls, we couldn’t see a thing.”
Jack says all she could think of was to get Maberry out. Instead, she kept Maberry on the phone for 19 minutes until firefighters could find her and get her out.
“She kept me going!” Maberry says last week at the county dispatch center.
Maberry and Jack met Tuesday, June 28. Jack presented Maberry with flowers. Maberry gave Jack a huge hug. Jack wiped tears from her eyes.
Normally, dispatchers don’t get to meet their callers nor do the have any idea how the calls turn out. They are simply the lifesaving intermediary between the caller and help – quickly forgotten as the caller focuses on the responder.
OCRCC Director James Miclon brought them all together.
Last week, Jack, her mom and daughter, dispatchers Tamara Bisbee and Teresa Grenier, Maberry, her daughter, Diane Jack (no relation), OCRCC Deputy Director Geff Inman, EMA Director Allyson Hill and Deputy Director Theresa Glick all gathered in the dispatch conference room, exchanged hugs and took pictures.
In addition, Miclon presented Jack with a plaque recognizing her “exemplary performance of life saving techniques during the Saturday, May 21 ‘Oxford Meadows’ apartment fire.”
It’s joyful chaos in the room.
Maberry tells bits of the phone conversation with Jack noting that Jack made her laugh. She talks about her neighbor, Virginia Brown, 65, who ended up in the hospital in critical condition, but recovered.
Then she thinks better of talking about her neighbor, grabs her phone, dials a number and hands the phone off saying, “Tell her your story.”
“I don’t remember anything after opening the [apartment] door,” says Brown after pulling her car off the road to speak on her cellphone.
“I got up and felt the door, it didn’t feel hot.”
So she opened it. She says she could see fire reflected on the wall but not the actual flames because of the smoke.
“But it was so hot, so, so hot, I closed the door quick and tried to open a window and the rest I don’t remember.
“I recall saying, ‘Help,’ and a fire guy said, ‘We are here’.”
Brown was rushed to Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway and not released until the following Friday.
She says the doctors have told her they think, when she passed out, she may have fallen on something because she has hip and leg pain, but is going to physical therapy for it and, perhaps, get cortisone.
“I am also seeing a therapist for emotional trauma.”
“But,” she says, “I can breathe better and I am not spitting up blood any more. I have a nebulizer I use every so often.”
She says she is staying with friends until her apartment “is finished.”
Maberry is “floating,” she says.
“I stay with my daughter, my son and my granddaughter.”
But she is going back when her apartment is ready.
Maberry says she lost everything in the fire.
“They couldn’t save my belongings. … I had a brand new recliner and my TV is gone … the cleaning company says, ‘Don’t expect to save much,’ because they say although something may look clean but once a damp day happens, it will smell,” she says.
But she says confidently, “My insurance will cover it.”
Maberry is looking forward to celebrating her 79th birthday this week.
“We never find out what happens to the people we talk to,” says Jack, who seems a bit overwhelmed from meeting Maberry.
Recalling the 911 call, she says, “We had banter to take her mind off [the situation]. We are trained to keep them [the caller] calm.
“We are trained to take a call and treat [the caller] as if family. At that moment she [Maberry] was family.”
“We talked about the weather. As a dispatcher you come up with anything to take their mind off it.
“But,” she quickly injects, “I could not have done it without the team.”
The team she is referring to includes Bisbee, Grenier and team supervisor Melissa Adams (who was unable to attend last week’s event).
Grenier notes, “We all woke up our husbands [when the call came in].”
Jack’s husband, Oxford Police Sgt. Rickie Jack, was not on duty, his wife says, but jumped up and raced to the scene.
“Melissa called her partner PACE Paramedic Adam Petrie who arrived [at the scene] to assist with EMS,” says Grenier.
“The teamwork,” says Jack, “couldn’t have been more family dynamic.
“That night was sort of … magical … ,” she says, struggling for the right word.
“It didn’t matter what you wore for a badge that night, or headset or uniform, it was one team. It showed what this community is together.
“We have done these mass casualty exercises and have always had issues but when it was real … it worked beautifully … it made me proud to be part of this community … everyone stepped up and took care of our own … I love to live and work in this community.”
Grenier agrees, adding, “Officers, EMS and fire all get sight, sound and touch.” “For us it is only our imaginations and we foresee worst case so we have to plan for that when dispatching.”
Jack admits that the call was a hard one for her.
“That call bothered me … inside of me I wanted to drive down and get her out myself.”
When asked what she thought of what her mom does, Jack’s 12-year-old daughter, Kaylin Bashaw, simply says, “My mom’s amazing.”