The entryway of the apartment building was all clear when Blythewood native Robert Rabon opened the door early on the morning of Jan. 1, 2000. The night shift had been uneventful for Engine Company 14 of the Columbia Richland Fire Department, where Robert was captain of the engine crew. Everyone had been on edge, however, at the very least expecting a rash of fireworks incidents for Y2K. Around 6 a.m. the station’s alarm sounded calling in an apartment fire, but an immediate assessment at the scene indicated no catastrophic situation.
“I started up the stairs to determine if the building was vacant,” says Robert, remembering the day distinctly, even though it was close to 20 years ago. “At the top of the stairway, I looked up and saw that the roof was collapsing. I started back down the stairs, and an inferno came down on me and pinned me down.”
In those few seconds, as the fire seared through his suit, Robert prayed to God, “Please get me out of here!” He had the presence of mind to jump up from where he lay at the bottom of the stairs and run through the front door. The other firefighters witnessed a Hollywood stunt-like scene as a human fireball exited the apartment building. “I was basically on fire from head to toe,” says Robert. He remembers everything: the firefighters who got him to the ground and put out the fire that overtook his body, his ride in the ambulance, and thoughts of his wife, Pattie, and his two daughters, then 18 months and 7 years old. Many months of surgeries for first, second, and third degree burns followed.
Sometime after the incident, an investigation determined that the PBI gear Robert was wearing withstood heat estimated to be around 2,000 degrees F. Despite having survived a firefighter’s ultimate peril, Robert returned to his beloved job. “I thought about retiring, but I just loved the job so much — I loved the brotherhood, the department, everything. And even though I was a little limited, I could still do my job.”
Robert retired from the Columbia Richland Fire Department in April 2012 as a battalion chief. As a tangible reminder of Robert’s faith, bravery, and resolve, the charred and melted remains of his lifesaving gear are on display at the department’s fire museum, along with other photographs and items that tell the history and heroism of firefighters.