Scott Irwin pinches the pink elastic on his left wrist and gives it a snap.
He’s thinking about that night again. The horrific sight. The distinctive smell.
He’s thinking about May 1, when he used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames that were engulfing a tenant at the Mariposa Place apartments on Fittons Road.
“I didn’t think it would affect me like this,” Irwin, the building’s superintendent, said Wednesday afternoon. “I was in the military for four years, but I never had post-traumatic stress disorder.”
At about 8:30 p.m. on May 1, Irwin was in his apartment, watching Survivor, when he heard a noise.
“It wasn’t loud. It sounded like someone was asking for help,” he recalled. “I muted the TV and heard it again, and that’s when I got up.”
As soon as he stood up, the fire alarm sounded. He headed toward the front entrance of the building to check the panel to see where the alarm originated. The main entrance was filling with smoke. He grabbed the extinguisher and headed outside, where he saw flames.
“I didn’t know he was out there on fire. I knew it was a fire and it had to go out. That’s it,” Irwin said.
What he saw traumatized him. It was a man in a wheelchair, in flames.
After Irwin put out the fire, he told his wife to call 911. Firefighters, paramedics and police rushed to the scene.
Orillia’s deputy fire chief later said Irwin’s actions likely saved the life of the 73-year-old man, who caught fire while lighting a cigarette using a piece of paper and a stove element.
“There’s nothing exceptional about what I did,” Irwin said. “It’s what people do.”
Those few harrowing minutes were a blur. Irwin was running on adrenalin. It wasn’t until emergency crews took over that the reality of the situation hit him. He broke away from the crowd that had formed, found a spot for himself, and cried.
“I’m 57 years old. I guess I was raised not to cry,” he said.
North Simcoe Victim Services was at the scene. A representative told Irwin to call if he needed anything.
“I never thought I’d call them to talk about it,” he said. “I’m so glad I did.”
The conversations he has had with victim services volunteers have helped him to understand why he still has some sleepless nights, why certain sounds trigger anxiety.
It’s the trauma, and those reactions are to be expected given what he experienced.
“We saw someone get hurt when I was in the military, but it was from a distance,” he said. “This time, I saw it, I smelled it.”
He was also told it’s not uncommon for someone to “freeze up” in a situation like that.
“I’m so glad I didn’t freeze,” he said, relief in his voice and on his face. “I don’t know how I’d live with myself.”
The tenant, who has lived at Mariposa Place for about two months, is in Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. In an email to OrilliaMatters, the man’s daughter said he had undergone two surgeries, with more to come.
“(He is being) sedated on a breathing tube and a feeding tube with a lot of different IVs,” she said. “He is a fighter and (I) hope he comes through this.”
She described her father as “a good guy, funny, honest, loving.”
She had a message for Irwin: “God bless you for saving my dad. I still need him.”
Irwin was relieved to hear the man was still alive.
“When I saw him get put into the ambulance, I saw his head drop to (the) right and I thought he was gone,” he said. “To hear that makes me feel good.”
While Irwin is back to work after a few days off, he knows it will take a while to get back to normal. It’s the little things that take his mind back to that night.
“I thought I was OK, and then I walked past his apartment and heard his phone ringing and I just broke down,” he said.
In moments like that, he remembers what victim services told him. He looks for a distraction.
He snaps the elastic against his wrist and carries on.