A firefighter’s survival story

Pictured, left to right: Brian Foster, Shannon Arnold and Ashley Lilly pose outside the Rapidan Volunteer Fire Department. 

At the Rapidan Volunteer Fire Department’s annual banquet in March, the room went still when the time came to honor Shannon Arnold. 

Ryan Smith read a tribute by Brian Foster describing the day a year earlier when Arnold survived a huge jolt of electricity while fighting a fire.

“March 2, 2018, was a day I will never forget. Mother Nature was at her finest, not to mention it was banquet day, with the wind destroying everything it could,” Smith, a young firefighter, read on Foster’s behalf.

A somber Foster stood behind the teenage boy and held on to a wooden Maltese cross symbolizing a firefighter’s courage and willingness to put his life on the line while battling a fire. The carving, which Smith had made for Arnold, was signed by every member of the Rapidan Volunteer Fire Department (RVFD).

Ashley Lilly, president of the RVFD and Arnold’s fiancee, looked on while Smith read and Foster wiped his eyes. A few moments later, the crowd erupted in applause when Arnold, smiling and looking sharp in his dress uniform, stepped forward to receive the cross and a round of bear hugs from his fellow volunteers.

“A good day for brush fires”

Arnold, Lilly and Foster sat down in the fire hall recently to recount the dramatic day that started out happily and then swerved perilously close to tragedy.

On that bright March morning, Arnold and Foster were working at the fire department on Route 614 and looking forward to the tight-knit group’s banquet that night. Lilly was getting her nails done in Culpeper.

Arnold, 34, had a feeling he and the rest of the gang would get a workout before they sat down to a bountiful meal and a night of awards and fond tributes.

“It was a good day for brush fires,” said the Unionville resident.

The ground was wet with rain, but now the sun was out, the temperature was rising and the wind was strong. It was the sort of day trees knock against power lines and fall to the ground. The next thing you know, a spark catches and a fire breaks out.

Arnold’s instincts were right. Inside the fire department, the tones signaling a call to the Rapidan unit sounded. There was a brush fire in Indiantown, between True Blue and Flat Run.

Friends since elementary school, Arnold and Foster jumped in Brush 10, the two-man truck the company uses for brush fires, and headed out.

They extinguished the fire in Indiantown and then got a call to River Road in Rapidan. Before they arrived, word came that other firefighters had that blaze under control.

The next call came from Lake of the Woods. Arnold and Foster sped toward the eastern end of the county and helped put out a major fire there.

“I lost where I was”

Dressed in protective outerwear called bunker gear, Arnold was drenched with sweat and water that had blown back on him from the fire hose.

“I was wet to my drawers, and my gloves were wet. Everything was wet,” Arnold recalled.

Desperate for dry underwear, he asked Foster to stop at Walmart in Locust Grove. The brief shopping trip gave him the last lighthearted moment of the day.

“I walked in there with my bunker gear on, and they looked at me like I was crazy, but I went in there and got me a pack of underwear,” he said with a grin.

He and Foster were headed back to the station when another call came in. Someone at a home on Rapidan Road, not far from Cedar Mountain Stone in Mitchells, had spotted billowing white smoke.

Foster and Arnold went to the residence, but the fire was some distance away. Their fire chief, Mike Smith (Ryan Smith’s father), told them to take a road near the quarry.

That road gave them the access they needed, but they still couldn’t get their truck close to the blaze. After assessing the situation on foot, they returned to Brush 10 and gathered up their tools.

It was on this second trip, as they walked along the edge of the woods, that Arnold was struck. Although he was not close to the downed power line that had started the fire, a forceful current surged through the ground and hit him.

“I didn’t fall to the ground, by no means. It kind of buckled me a little bit, not much. But then I lost where I was. I was kind of dazed,” Arnold said.

“I hollered for Brian. He was talking to Chief [Smith] on the radio, so I hollered for him again. I said, ‘Brian, I think I just got bit.’”

By “bit,” he meant electrocuted.

Foster, an electrician by trade, responded forcefully.

“I said, ‘Get out. Just drop what you got. I’ll handle it; get out of here.’”

Arnold did as instructed. Foster stayed in the woods and fought the fire. The whole time, he kept wondering about his friend, “What happened? What happened? What happened?”

“I couldn’t move”

The fire behind the quarry was growing. Reinforcements were called, and Lilly was aboard the next fire truck from Rapidan.

She didn’t know Arnold was injured until she got there: “When I saw Shannon, I knew something wasn’t right.”

Arnold knew it, too. “I could actually feel my heart in my chest. I could hear it, and I couldn’t get my breath,” he said.

“Then [the shock] started going down my body. Everything started getting numb and my feet—my feet started tingling. Then, by the time the ambulance got there, I couldn’t move.”

Foster later estimated the voltage of the downed power line was 19,000 volts. He said the residual electricity from the line traveled across the wet ground and found a receptacle in Arnold, whose clothes and boots were still wet.

By now, Arnold’s body temperature had plummeted. Fellow firefighters put him in a truck and turned on the heater. Suddenly, EMTs were trying to get him out of his bunker gear. The removal of his boots was so painful that he screamed in agony.

The fire raged on. Rappahannock Electric and the Virginia Department of Forestry were summoned. Heavy equipment operators and foremen from Cedar Mountain Stone pitched in with rakes and fire extinguishers.

Finally, the situation was under control. Lilly, Foster and the other firefighters from Rapidan got back on Route 615 and headed toward their station. All thoughts were on Arnold, who had been taken to Culpeper Medical Center.

From the hospital, Arnold told Lilly to stay at the fire hall and run the banquet as planned.

“That was my will,” he said, his characteristically cheerful expression turning serious.

Lilly understood. She knew she had a job to do. Master of ceremonies and RVFD treasurer Gary Jones mentioned Arnold’s accident to the crowd, but the banquet went on as planned. Lilly presented awards to firefighters at the station she has loved ever since she was toddler going there with her family. All the while, her mind was on Arnold, the father of her young daughter, Maci.

“You’ve got to keep pushing”

After the banquet ended and the crowd dispersed, the Rapidan crew went downstairs to their headquarters and waited for an update. Finally, around 11 p.m., Arnold told Lilly he was being transferred to the VCU Medical Center in Richmond.

On the way to Richmond, an exhausted Arnold fell asleep, only to be repeatedly awakened by an EMT asking whether he was OK. He said he was concerned because Arnold’s heart was skipping beats.

At VCU, the irregular heartbeat continued, and doctors asked him if he had a pacemaker. The answer was no. It turned out he was still experiencing shocks, even though he’d been electrocuted many hours earlier.

Arnold learned there was nothing doctors could do other than monitor his condition. His initial heart problems and shortness of breath eventually went away, but he still suffers from weakness on his right side—the side that absorbed the shock. Doctors told him lifting weights would not help, because his damaged blood vessels aren’t able to expand and accommodate the blood needed to strengthen his muscles.

But Arnold is a tough young man. When Lilly offered him a plate of banquet food in his hospital room the night of the accident, he ate it. The next day, he went by the fire department so his friends would know he was OK. That Monday, he was back at Marshall Dairy Farm in Unionville, where he has worked since he was 15 years old.

“That was my choice to go back and see what I can do,” Arnold said, noting he could’ve taken time off if he had wanted to. The injury “does affect my ability to work on the farm. But I keep pushing myself. You’ve got to keep pushing.”

“God was on my side”

He has learned to rely on his left arm and come up with new ways to do old chores. He still runs calls for the fire department. And he and Lilly now have a son, 3-month-old Landon, in addition to Maci, age 3.

He is grateful rather than bitter. “I tell you,” he said, “God was on my side.”

Foster said when he emerged from the fire and found out his best friend had been taken away in an ambulance, he thought, “It’s not fair.”

Arnold’s accident stayed on his mind the whole year before he wrote the tribute that accompanied the presentation of the Maltese cross. He said he wrote 10 pages before editing it down to a more manageable length.

“Even sitting there typing the whole thing, it hurt. But the good side of this is, he’s here with me today,” he said. “God was actually looking after us that day. He was. And I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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