A volunteer Cornell firefighter was operating a hose line at a recent structure fire when a sudden unexpected jolt dropped him to his knees.
At the time, Justin Fredrickson didn’t know heat from the flames had caused a loaded gun stored inside the home to fire a random shot through an exterior wall and into his gut. He and other firefighters nearby had a job to do, and that was fighting the fire. The rugged 35-year-old quickly regained his composure and his grip on the hose. As he tried to stand, he was quickly overcome by his badly wounded body. He fell again.
The bullet that pierced Fredrickson’s midsection at the house fire near Sheldon hit the volunteer firefighter hard. The gun was probably located on the floor of the home when it went off, according to Cornell Fire Chief Denny Klass.
“Justin said he felt like he got hit with a two-by-four in the stomach, and at the time he didn’t know what it was,” Klass said.
Other firefighters raced to Fredrickson’s aid. They removed his bulky turnout coat and discovered the wound. “They saw what appeared to be a bullet hole in him,” Klass said.
Firefighters quickly began relaying what had happened up the chain of command, eventually reaching Klass, who was coordinating his department from the fire hall.
“It scared the crap out of all of us,” Klass said. “I just wanted to know what happened, where it happened and what was going on.”
The fire at W7804 CTH D in south-central Rusk County was reported at 2:15 p.m. on Feb. 19.
A 911 caller first routed to the Chippewa County Sheriff’s Department, reported a water shed on fire next to the house. The home was not on fire, but flames were close. Dispatchers advised getting all animals out of the structure as a precaution as multiple fire departments were paged.
The Sheldon Fire Department was dispatched, backed up through mutual aid by more firefighters and tankers from Cornell, Jump River and Ladysmith.
Cornell sent two tenders with some firefighters running to the scene straight from work.
Fredrickson, a 16-year department veteran, was part of a hoseline with three other Cornell firefighters. They were actively spraying water on the structure, dousing the flames.
“The gun went off in the house from the heat. It was a .38 caliber pistol, and it struck him in the lower abdomen,” Klass said.
Fredrickson was rushed by Rusk County Ambulance Service to Marshfield Medical Center-Ladysmith for urgent medical care, and then airlifted to Mayo Clinic Health System-Luther Campus Hospital in Eau Claire. He underwent his first surgery the day of the fire, and has had two more surgeries since.
Fredrickson is an assistant wrestling coach for the Cornell, Lake Holcombe and Gilman high schools.
Klass called him young, tough and “a great guy” who is in terrific athletic shape “like the Rock of Gibraltar.” He added this physique “with very little body fat” might have helped save Fredrickson’s life.
Several more rounds are believed to have been fired from the gun during the incident with no other reports of injuries, according to Klass.
“I think they did find three or four more rounds that had gone off and exited the building. Luckily they didn’t strike anybody else,” Klass said. “We had three more of our guys right there, and there were a lot of Sheldon guys there.”
Firefighters often encounter numerous hazards while battling fires, as Klass cites homes where multiple 20 and 100 pound propane cylinders have been found inside. He added it is also routine to see and hear explosions at fires, noting fire departments are always participating in training with a focus on safety.
It is also common to find loaded guns at fires in this area of the state, according to Klass.
“We have a lot of people with loaded guns in their house. As the world gets crazier and crazier there are probably going to be more,” Klass said. “It is something we are definitely going to have to keep in the back of our minds. We still have a job to do when we get to a fire.”
At a department debriefing following the fire, members discussed what could be done at future fire scenes to lessen risks including contacting property owners to identify any nearby weapons. Firefighters then can focus their attention on specific areas of a burning structure, spraying water to reduce temperatures.
“In one way it is very fortunate that nobody else is injured, but it is very tragic that something like this happens. How do you defend against something like this?” Klass said.
Bullets properly stored in their boxes pose little threat in a fire, according to Klass.
“Over the years we hear ammunition all the time going off in a house. As long as it is just ammunition, we do not get too concerned about that. It isn’t going to be directed at anybody. It is just blowing up,” Klass said. “Every fire department has heard ammunition going off. I am sure about that.”
The reason this weapon fired, Klass believes, is because there was live ammunition left in the gun’s chamber and cylinder. Local fire officials are expecting to receive a full report from the State Fire Marshal’s office that investigated.
Klass is retiring later this year after 50 years with the Cornell Fire Department, the last 34 years as chief. He remembers an incident about two decades ago, when a loaded gun also discharged due to heat during a Cornell structure fire. That weapon fired a bullet through the exterior wall of a burning house and through a neighbors house before lodging under a kitchen table without hurting anyone.
“We had people working that fire in-between the two buildings at the time. I knew it happened, but it is something you don’t think about when you go to a fire,” Klass said.
Klass said Fredrickson still can’t believe he was shot, adding the firefighter at first thought something inside the house had exploded and a blast had knocked him off his feet. He added Fredrickson remains in good spirits, but still is in a lot of pain. “Justin said he couldn’t believe it. When they told him he was shot, he said that was the last thing that entered his mind,” Klass said.
Klass knows the outcome could have been much worse if the trajectory of the weapon had been different even in the slightest.
“Four inches to the left it would have missed him. Four inches to the right, or up a little more, it might have done a lot more damage. He is lucky in one way, but of course being shot is never lucky. It could have been worse. Let’s put it this way. He is still alive and talking to us,” Klass said.
Fredrickson remained in critical care days after the incident with a third surgery successfully completed last Wednesday.
“From what I understand everything with the surgery went well,” Klass said. At that time, Klass believed the firefighter still faced at least one more week in the hospital. By Feb. 26, he was moved out of the ICU and was able to walk a bit.
“The bullet is still in him. They didn’t remove the bullet. Evidently, it is in a place where it isn’t worth going in,” Klass said. “I am not a doctor, but if it were me I would want the bullet out.”
Fredrickson is engaged and has a 14-year-old son from a previous marriage. He is receiving an outpouring of support from his fire department and the community.
Fredrickson is eligible for insurance coverage through the fire department due to his injury happening in the line of duty, helping cover medical bills associated with an expensive helicopter airlift and extended hospital stay.
The fire department also is assisting with workers compensation, which is based off the closest full-time staffed fire department and its pay scale for a fulltime journeyman firefighter.
A fund also is set up at Northwestern Bank, P.O Box 398, 201 Main St., Cornell, WI 54732. Phone 715-239-6414. Any of the bank’s branches will accept donations, and identify on mailings the donations are for firefighter Justin Fredrickson.
The Cornell Area Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary has put together an apparel fundraiser with proceeds going to Fredrickson. The link is https://justinfredrickson.itemorder.com/sale.
Fredrickson has been an avid part of the Lake Holcombe School and community, according to School District Administrator Kurt Lindau, citing the firefighter’s coaching of wrestling and youth football. The school is challenging staff and students to fill a pair of firefighter boots with change, also accepting cash and check donations.
“Justin is always willing to help where needed. He is a valuable part of our children’s lives,” Lindau said.
The fundraiser will take place from March 1-5. If you have any questions or would like to drop off a donation, contact Shelley Lee at the Lake Holcombe School 715-595-4241 ext 254.
The department also raised funds by passing a boot among firefighters at a recent meeting, helping Fredrickson with any family bills and travel costs driving to and from the hospital.
The community is tight-knit and Fredrickson is from the area, according to Klass. He added the firefighter also recently started a new job at the chainsaw, lawncare and small engine repair business, Lake Holcombe Sales & Service, north of Holcombe.
“At this time financially, I think he is going to be OK,” Klass said.
Klass believes Fredrickson eventually will return to the Cornell Fire Department despite strong objections from his fiancée.
“Yes I do. Yes I do,” Klass said. “I am guessing Justin will be back. He’s a good young man.”