O'BRIEN: Palmyra firefighters put training to good use

Posted: Dec. 11, 2012 9:31 am Updated: Jan. 22, 2013 10:15 am

Mark Heidbreder planned to get work done outside his house, getting it ready for the upcoming winter weather. Devin Nelson had planned to do things at his church.

What figured to be a routine day in Palmyra, Mo., a week ago Saturday turned out to be a life changer for both men.

The members of the town's volunteer fire department teamed up to save a life that morning.

They were among a group of people from the Palmyra Fire Department who raced to a structure fire in the 100 block of West Ross just before 9 a.m.

While others did their jobs on the outside, Heidbreder, 37, a lieutenant who has been volunteering with the department since September 1995, and Nelson, 26, a Palmyra firefighter since November 2009, went inside the residence to find a woman. Each credited the training they have done over the years in helping them come out of the house with Darlene Von Thun.

"In 17 years of doing this job, what I've always wanted to do was have that opportunity to give someone a second chance at life," Heidbreder said. "Not that I want to ever do that again, but I was glad that we were able to do it. All of the training we've done we put to use to help a family out."

Nelson said it only took about two minutes for him and Heidbreder to find Von Thun.

"I've been inside burning buildings before," Nelson said. "But this was our first search and rescue. I knew we were looking for someone, but we didn't know who we were looking for. Mark was following me during the initial search, and then we came across her in the bedroom. That's when it struck me that it wasn't a training dummy that we were looking for."

The duo quickly scooped up Von Thun and got her to safety.

While they are getting the limelight in the wake of the rescue, the department's first since 1987, both were quick to credit the entire department.

"It's kind of like a football team," Nelson said. "The whole football team does the work, but most of the time it's just the quarterback that gets the credit. We are the quarterbacks here, but we have to remember that without (the team's) efforts, we would have been in peril inside. Those people aren't getting the recognition they deserve."

Palmyra Fire Chief Gary Crane called the fire in, seeing it on his way back from an earlier service call. Nelson wanted to make sure others got their due for their work that day, citing the efforts made by Ron Kraft, Robert Harper, John Lewis, Ron Peter, Jonathan Thomas and Troy Gard.

Von Thun was initially taken to Hannibal Regional Hospital before being airlifted to the University of Missouri Medical Center in Columbia. Her health has continued to improve as she recovers in Columbia.

Both Heidbreder and Nelson said they've always wanted to be firefighters. Nelson does so even though he is allergic to smoke. Both have other full-time jobs -- Heidbreder works as an EMT for the Marion County Ambulance District, and Nelson is a mechanic for UPS.

All members of the Palmyra Fire Department put their lives on the line without financial reward.

"I enjoy have the opportunity to help people," Heidbreder said.

The Palmyra City Council honored them last week for their work in saving Von Thun's life.

While he didn't plan to work that morning, Nelson did have a date with the fire department that Saturday night. Seventy children waiting for him and others in the department to give them fire truck rides with Santa Claus.

Despite the long day, Nelson wouldn't miss his chance to help cart the kids around.

"That's kind of a big deal with Santa," he said.

The Palmyra firefighters are kind a big deal around the Flower City these days, too.