This Carbondale firefighter’s story takes him through the agony of injury on the job and the frustration of rehabilitation

By Gus Bode

“I’m mad at the workman’s compensation people for looking at me as a dollar sign and not as a human being,” Palmer said.

“Until they found this out, they almost had compassion and now it seems they don’t want anything to do with me and that’s not fair. I did not do this.”- Pull quote

On March 28, Carbondale Fire Captain Dennis “Dap” Palmer went to work like any other Sunday.


Responding to a call about a house fire around noon, Palmer was one of the first on the scene.

From all accounts, firefighters say it was a routine house fire that the department had basically put out when the accident occurred.

“It was pretty much normal routine, nothing out of the ordinary,” Assistant Fire Chief David Keim said. “It was going pretty smoothly.”

The firefighters working inside the house were taking care of spot fires.

Palmer was in an area between the kitchen and living room.

“I remember going to my knees and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to have to go pick up my head and put it back on my body’,” Palmer explained, while demonstrating how he slowly leaned back to rest his head.

He recalled that as he gradually started to lay his head on the counter he could feel glass crumbling beneath his head.


“I said, ‘Let me lay here and sleep for a while and I’ll be okay’,” Palmer said.

“That sounds crazy to say in a fire.”

From what he remembers, he walked out of the building that Sunday afternoon. However, Palmer did not walk back out.

Fellow firefighter Mike Rishel, who was down the hall taking care of spot fires, came to Palmer’s side shortly after another firefighter had found him lying down.

“We stood him up and he said was going to walk out, but he picked his feet up and didn’t walk, so we carried him out.”

“I laid him on the ground outside and paramedics took over,” Rishel said. “We thought he over heated. We didn’t think it was serious as it was. He just seemed dazed and disorientated.”

According to Palmer, he did not even realize what had happened to him and was more concerned that paramedics not cut the new shirt he had put on that morning.

In fact, no one realized what had exactly happened and how bad it was until well after Palmer was taken to the Memorial Hospital of Carbondale.

At the hospital, once Palmer’s injuries became more apparent, officials pieced together the accident.

The house the firefighters were working in had intricate cathedral ceilings.

Because most of the fire had been put out, firefighters had already knocked down dry wall from the ceiling and had left three rows of ductwork exposed.

Water from the hoses the firefighters were using to extinguish the fire was soaking the insulation around the ducts and weighing them down.

The ducts were so cumbersome that one slid down the brackets that was holding it to the ceiling and smashed into the back of Palmer’s head.

“It hit me with such force it scratched my helmet and our helmets are made of strong material like Kevlar,” Palmer said.

He was at “the wrong place at the wrong time.” One foot to the left or one foot to the right and Palmer would still be going to work every morning.

Palmer’s wife, Kerry, who was at work, received the one phone call Palmer had warned her about since they married in June 2002.

Fire Captain Randy Murray, who was a firefighter at the time, had made the trying phone call to Palmer’s wife explaining Palmer had an accident and she needed to come to the hospital right away to sign papers.

“I hoped for the best until I got there,” Kerry said. ” I cried and then Randy came in and gave me a hug.”

Kerry, comforted by Palmer’s co-workers, recalled asking over and over why this had to happen to her husband.

Kerry admits she was never worried about the occupational hazards her husband faced everyday.

“I was proud of what he was doing at work,” Kerry said. “I didn’t worry about him because he’s been in a bunch of fires and he had a good crew of guys behind him.”

“There are just things that are out of your control, but I didn’t worry about him. He knew what he was doing, he’s been doing it for so long.”

Kerry was right in believing in Palmer. He knew a lot about his profession because he had been putting his life on the line for the past 21 years.

According to Palmer, putting himself in harm’s way everyday is not the hardest part of the job.

He said seeing the tragedy fires cause, especially to children, is what makes his profession so difficult.

Essentially, the worst day Palmer had was not when he was injured, but a night when he responded to a house fire that killed several children.

He said seeing a girl about 12-years-old, who was the only survivor, standing outside with a look of bewilderment is a memory that haunts him.

Nevertheless, with all the pain, hardship and danger the job entails, Palmer wants his 13-year-old son to follow in his footsteps.

“If you care for somebody else’s life and well being and you want to make an impact on society, it’s a rewarding career,” Palmer said.

So rewarding in fact, he said if he were able to get better he would not have to think twice about returning to work.

Yet, Palmer will never be able to return to the profession he describes as wonderful.

“That makes me mad because I did not choose to leave,” Palmer said.

At the hospital, medical personnel discovered Palmer’s injuries were more complex and would need a neurologist.

However, there were no neurosurgeons in the area because recent hikes in Medical Malpractice insurance caused the only two local neurosurgeons to leave.

Palmer, who needed immediate medical attention, was taken more than an hour away to St. Louis University Hospital by ambulance. An emergency helicopter could not respond.

“It was storming that day and the winds in St. Louis were too strong for a helicopter to land,” he said.

It only got worse after that.

Doctors theorized that the impact of the duct on Palmer’s head, which was estimated to have hit him with 40 to 60 pounds of force, caused a blood vessel in his brain to pop.

As a result of his injury, Palmer no longer has a smooth speech pattern and has lost some feeling on the right side of his body.

Furthermore, lack of oxygen in the burning house the day of the accident left Palmer suffering from cardiomyopathy.

This condition occurs when the heart is isolated from oxygen rich blood, which causes part of the muscle to enlarge, stiffen or thicken, preventing it from pumping blood properly.

Because of this, Palmer’s heart can only pump out blood at 27 percent, which is about half a normal person’s rate.

“That scares me to a point because I know I am not going to have a normal life,” Palmer said.

Moreover, Palmer had developed pulmonary embolism, which is blockage of an artery in the lungs by fat, air, tumor tissue or blood clot.

In his case, lack of blood circulation while in the hospital caused him to develop a blood clot.

“As healthy as I was, I should have been able to lay in bed for several days before that happened,” Palmer said. “That kind of baffled doctors.”

This means Palmer has to take medication that causes the clot to break.

Palmer had to spend nine days in the hospital, seven of which were in intensive care and now, instead of getting up for work, Palmer gets up for cardiotherapy.

“He was always hard working,” Keim said. “He’s going to be missed.”

Several fire fighters agreed that accidents like Palmer’s do not affect the morale of the department.

Instead, it makes the team closer and more aware of the dangers their job entails.

“We know our job and that we have to depend on each other,” Rishel said. “We’re there for each other, to make sure we’re all able to go home at the end of the shift.”

“It was kind of sobering for everyone,” Keim said. “It brought everybody more together.”

Meanwhile, Palmer must continue with his therapy, which helps his heart stay as healthy as possible.

“My doctor said I should be sicker than I look,” Palmer said. “He said if it gets worse he’s going to put me on a transplant list.”

But Palmer finds it’s hard to rest his heart these days, because the company that administrates workman’s compensation for the city is denying that Palmer’s heart injuries resulted from the accident.

“They tell you not to worry and then they do this to you,” Palmer said.

Palmer said he understands this is not the city’s fault and expressed his gratitude toward city officials and the fire department for everything they have done to help him.

Beside the sentiment showed by the fire department, the city voiced its appreciation at the Sept. 7 city council meeting by creating a resolution commending Palmer for services to the city.

“I couldn’t talk that night,” Palmer said. “The city and the people that live there need to count their blessings, because off the job they really do care for the people. They put their heart and soul into it.”

Nonetheless, this can only comfort Palmer so much.

“I’m mad at the workman’s compensation people for looking at me as a dollar sign and not as a human being,” Palmer said.

“Until they found this out, they almost had compassion and now it seems they don’t want anything to do with me and that’s not fair. I did not do this.”

Yet, through all this, Palmer has managed to continue helping others.

Throughout his career, Palmer has participated in programs like Juvenile Firesetters, which is a national arson prevention initiative.

Along with this program, Palmer also helped start a burn camp for children at Touch of Nature and even though he no longer works, he still takes time to participate in fire programs and help the children, who have been injured in fires.

Palmer and Kerry have recently purchased a house in Arkansas that they are remodeling.

Once the remodeling is complete, they will move so Palmer can spend his days relaxing his heart.