Salute the Badge: Past tragedies help instructor train for the future

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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) May 5, 1981 is a day that will live with Mike Cook forever.

“The call came that morning, and just from the tone of the dispatcher, you could tell it was going to be a very urgent call," said Cook.

Around 7 a.m., Cook and other members of the Abilene Fire Department responded to reports of a house fire in the central part of the city.

“We went up and started doing some ventilation, and at that time somebody screamed that there could be some kids inside.”

Without thinking, Cook slid down his ladder, kicked in the front door and started searching. What happened next would be a series of events that are just as clear today for the long time firefighter as they were 36 years ago.

“We found the first victim, and I hollered at somebody to come over and help me get him outside. Then, I went immediately back in and started searching for the second, because if one was inside I figured the other one would be in there too. We found the child, got her outside, got her out on the ground, and at that point in time when I was taking my stuff off to take a break I looked across and I realized that I had knew the family and I knew the kids.”

13-year-old Timothy Dick was pronounced dead at the scene. His sister, 11-year-old Michele died two days later at a Wichita hospital. It was a tragedy that rocked the entire community.

“I would wake up in the middle of the night and I'd see the kids. I'd see their faces. I would be sweating. I would go through that whole thing. And it really tore me up. To this day I can still tell you if I walk in that house where the children were and I could tell you exactly what I did when I did it.”

For a time, Cook said it seemed like every fatality that happened in and around Abilene occurred while he was on duty.

"And so there was one incident where four kids died up on a hill. It was a head-on collision and killed all four of them north of town."

"I know one where a pickup truck a guy took off down Main Street. He had actually committed a murder at the south end of town and he jumped in the truck and then hit a Union Pacific train stopped on the tracks."

In 1982, Cook moved from the Abilene to the Ft. Riley Fire Department, where he soon found himself literally knee-deep in a different kind of danger.

It was November of 1983, Cook was one of the firefighters who responded to an overturned fuel tanker on the range. The driver was trapped inside.

“I got down there and got down on my hands and knees in this fuel and I'm talking to the guy inside. I got him lifted up and got something underneath him so I kept his head and shoulders up out of the fuel. All the while we are kneeling in a diesel fuel and gasoline mix. So a spark could have been bad."

Cook was given the Commander’s Award for his bravery that day. It was just one of many of the close calls Cook endured during his time at Ft. Riley. He retired as the post’s Fire Chief in 2010.

But that didn’t last long.

“I retired on a Thursday. Two days later, I’m doing my first class for the Kansas Fire and Rescue at Ft. Riley," said Cook.

In 2013, Cook was promoted to his current position as Firefighter Training and Transportation Manager for the Kansas Fire and Rescue Training Institute. It was a perfect fit according to the agency’s director Glenn Pribbenow.

“Mike's abilities and skills that he developed throughout his fire service career apply directly to training. With excellent experience and knowledge as well, Mike is a leader, not just a trainer," said Pribbenow.

With over three decades of lessons learned, Cook often looks back to that crisp morning in the spring of ’81 as a major turning point for him as a first responder.

“I just decided that I didn't do enough for those kids. I was going to take and get my medical training and I did. A year later I had my EMT training and I vowed that I was going to help people the rest of my career and whether it was fellow firefighters get training to do what they needed to do.”

And Cook continues to make good on that promise, 40 years after breaking the news to his wife that his plans to work in the Ag industry had changed.

“I came home and told my wife I wanted to become a firefighter and she told me to go to bed. I woke up the next morning and said I’m serious. She said she was scared.”

Thankfully, Cook’s firefighting career came to a happy ending. While it’s impossible to tell how many lives his knowledge and training have saved, it’s safe to say that is impact has been substantial.