Saving Sadie: 'It was over in minutes'
Capt. Pat Swaggert had no idea that the soot-covered woman his crew carried out of a burning Minneapolis house in March was his northern neighbor.
Swaggert, a 34-year veteran of the Minneapolis Fire Department, makes it a habit to call wife Lynn to let her know he's OK after every fire his crew has responded to.
In March she happened to be at the couple's resort, Camper's Paradise on Lake Belle Taine, not at the New Prague school where she works.
She already knew all about the Harriet Avenue fire and told him they'd just rescued Sadie Norlin of Nevis.
He was thunderstruck.
"How'd you know that?" he asked.
She'd read it online on the Enterprise website.
"How'd they know that?" was the next question.
Swaggert, who divides his summers between Minneapolis and Nevis, thought the prognosis for the 27-year-old Norlin was grim.
He heads Ladder Co. 5, which works out of Minneapolis' Station 17. At 6 a.m. March 21, they got the call that a house was on fire.
Norlin lived there with four roommates. She had the third floor bedroom.
Swaggert raced the mile and a half with a "first assignment crew," three engines, two ladders, heavy rescue and a chief.
"The whole front of the house was going good," he said of the fire. Black toxic smoke had pushed into the upper levels of the house, including the third floor.
Swaggert estimates the fire had smoldered a couple hours before getting enough oxygen to become an inferno.
Some of the house occupants had stayed up until 2:30 a.m. visiting on the front porch. That's where the fire started.
"It had moved into the living room," Swaggert recalled Sunday in an interview at Camper's Paradise. "Every window was fully involved. It looked like the whole porch was going good."
Firefighters made a rear entry since fire engulfed the front.
Swaggert said the time of day and the occupancy in a residential neighborhood, made forced entry, search and rescue a paramount goal.
"We saw a girl on the roof," he said when firefighters got to the back of the house.
"We asked, 'How many others are there?'
"We threw up ladders and got her and her boyfriend out," Swaggert said.
Firefighters then found 25-year-old Adam Briesemeister on the second floor.
He was deceased. The roommates said he'd died trying to alert his housemates of the fire.
As crews raced to the third floor, they found Sadie Norlin asleep in bed, black as coal from the soot that had seeped into her bedroom.
So many firefighters and emergency medical technicians were on scene, Swaggert said they basically handed the comatose woman down the stairs from person to person.
"Nobody was optimistic about her survival," Swaggert said.
Then miracle after miracle occurred. Sadie was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center, where doctors put her in a hyperbaric chamber, then slowly began cleaning out her lungs.
One month later, she returned to Nevis to continue what is anticipated to be a full recovery. She is back living in the Twin Cities now.
"They do an A-1 job," Swaggert said of the hospital's trauma unit. "They're the best in the country.
"We just got her out," he added of their role in saving a life.
He praised the ladder and engine companies that responded. He said the "C" shift he is on is the most experienced of the city's three work shifts, with the most seniority.
"Everything was over in minutes," he said of the rescue of Harriet Avenue.
Engine Companies 8 and 17 and Ladder Companies 5 and 11 fought through zero visibility to get the four survivors out.
But the man who responded to two tours of Vietnam, numerous Twin Cities shootings, stabbings and mayhem, and is a second-generation firefighter, held back a tear when he talked about saving a neighbor. He met with Sadie's parents Saturday, Steve and Betty Norlin of Nevis.
They all shed tears.
"We were just on the front of this thing," he said, deflecting credit. 'It didn't look good but they (HCMC) did a heck of a job."