“The devil was the reddest reds and the brightest yellows we had ever seen. The noise she made was tremendous, almost like a freight train going by next to you. We heard the new guy now, praying. He was praying for himself and us. There was no time left, only time to react and deploy our fire shelters, and we had 13 seconds to do so. The fire was about 1,300 degrees and it felt as if you had just crossed in through the gates of hell.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the devil had nipped at the heels of Teresa Keay. And it likely would not be the last.
“I’m not going to say I have the need for speed, but I was never your typical person, your typical woman,” she said, cracking a grin.
It is not so much the devil that scares her. In fact, not much of anything scares this fire-fighting, sky- and scuba-diving, quad-lingual (English, French, and able to sign in both), ambidextrous, horse-riding, ATV-racing former figure skating instructor, truck driver and Canadian roller disco champ.
Why would it? She has already been dead once.
“I don’t fear anything, but I’m leery – there’s a big difference,” said Keay. “My biggest fear is not being able to help someone who needs it.”
Keay – a third-generation Canadian firefighter – knows just what a fire can do, to homeowners, to families and to the men and women fighting the “red devil.”
“My dad would come home [from fighting a fire], and you could see it on his face. He had his ways of coping. But not everybody does,” she said. “Not everybody deals with it the same way.”
That’s why Keay, 52, said she is working toward a degree in social psychology – to help heroes who need a trained and caring shoulder to lean on.
“My goal-dream is to work with firefighters and service personnel, hopefully with [post traumatic stress disorder],” she said.
“It’s the way I was raised,” continued Keay, who remembered several occasions, growing up, after a fire had scourged a family’s home; her father would call on her and her mother to share what they had. “Dad would say, they have a son, he’s your size, and the mother is mom’s size, and we’d go through our closets and donate what we could.”
Keay said she finds a deep satisfaction in helping those in need. And these days, she said she is finding that satisfaction at the Trading Post Community Care Center in Springville.
“I get what I need – my sanctity – at the Trading Post.”
Which perhaps explains why she spends dozens of hours each month volunteering at the community organization, filling food donation boxes, assembling baskets to be auctioned off at the Springville Harvest Festival or hauling around pay-what-you-can pumpkins at Gentner’s.
“I’m their muscle power here,” she said, with a laugh.
Aside from working with the Trading Post, Keay has also signed up with the local fire department.
“When I came [to Springville] in May, I applied to Springville Volunteer Fire Department, they picked me up [and I] passed the medical [exam]. I’m in firefighter I class right now,” she said, which she plans to graduate in December. After that, she will work toward her Emergency Vehicle Operator’s Certificate. After all, she said has driven a total of “1 million miles without an accident or ticket,” in just about every kind of truck.
“I’ve been in all 48 states, including Alaska twice, [and] all Canadian provinces,” she said. Even though she’s driven all over North America, Keay said she still appreciates the local view. “You’re out on 219 and you’re seeing the rolling hills. Well, people here call them mountains. They don’t know what mountains are, unless you’re in Donner Pass in California, going down 40 miles, grade! Rocky Mountains are mountains! These are rolling hills,” she said. Though, she adds, the sights in Western New York are “beautiful.”
After EVOC training, Keay said whe will enroll in a firefighter 2 course and, finally, adopt a specialization. And she already knows what that will be.
“What I excelled at was forcible entry. It don’t matter what kind of door it is – I can get in that door. You size up the door – is it inside? Does it open towards you? Does it open away from you? Is it a steel door? Is it a door on a commercial building? Is it a door on a bank? Doesn’t matter – I can get in that door.”
But before she was kicking down doors, Keay was working with a wildland firefighting outfit in Michigan.
There she was a “digger,” using hand tools to dig out and cover up pine needles and other combustibles, in advance of raging wildfires.
“I was on a fire line with up to 300 guys. We had sawyers with 4-foot-long saw blades,” she said, who used their tools to fell trees and remove timber before the fire could reach it.
It was in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Park, with her team out of Escanaba, Mich., that Keay met the “red devil” that she would later write about in “Fighting the Red Devil” – the story excerpted above. She and her team survived the fire – with the help of an air drop of fire retardant – with a few minor burns.
And it was in Escanaba, Mich., that she said she’d been “kicked out of hell” in the first place.
In 2008, she said, “I was trying on spring and summer shoes. The heel of one shoe got caught in the berber carpet; into grandma’s antique mirror I went ... In a split second, I threw my arm up.”
The next thing she remembers is calling her best friend, then 911, seeing the face of a fellow scuba diver, blood and sirens.
“I called my best girlfriend and I said, meet me at the emerge’, because you’re not going to believe this, and I don’t know if I’m going to live! I called 911, talked to the dispatcher. The ambulance rampart was six streets from me. When they got to me, I had lost 2 1/2 pints of blood – all over the kitchen floor, all over the living room floor; I got on the gurney. I used my hip as a pressure point.”
The EMT who treated her was training on the same sheriff’s dive team, which she remembered, despite the loss of blood.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘what I’m seeing, Matt, is, I’m dying.’ [He said,] ‘No, you’re not; you’re not leaving us!’ ‘Yes I am!’ I said, ‘We’re going to go out this door and I’m going to be gone.’ Sure enough, I was gone. Took them six miles, and I came back.”
“What I saw in that six miles,” she said, “was a life-changing experience.”
“I honestly believed I danced with God. I know this may sound funny, and I don’t know that for sure, but the man was tall. Silhouette man, and all I saw was his hand coming at me. [He] took my hand and I was on this cloud. I saw everything flash back – a life.”
Three surgeries, a severed nerve, a nicked artery and a waltz with God later, Keay’s injury would keep her from making the sheriff’s dive team, although she now has the full use of her arm.
Nevertheless, she is a certified diver – scuba and sky.
“The highest jump I’ve had is 12,000 feet. Loved it! God’s world – I was just hanging there, looking out at absolutely everything. It was just totally amazing,” she said of her diving experience.
At one time, she wanted to be a “smokejumper”: A firefighter who parachutes into hard-to-reach areas to fight wildfires.
“I was headed for smokejumper with wildland firefighting when I was in Michigan, but the cutoff is 53 [years old],” she said.
In May, Keay, a Canadian citizen and permanent resident of the U.S., moved to Springville for a fresh start. She said she signed up with a local wildland firefighting outfit after arriving in New York, and keeps her wildland firefighting gear bagged and ready.
“My red bags are always ready to go,” she said, but notes she has had to sit out the last few calls. These days, “homework comes first. I am a full time college student.”
Keay is currently enrolled at Post University, where she is attending online courses, four classes away from a bachelor’s degree in human services.
“My dream is to be fulfilled working with these firefighters, [emergency medical technicians], policemen, service personnel ... that need help now.”
Always on the move, Keay said she’d like to go sky diving again, and take up ice skating instruction.
Keay was once a skating instructor in Escanaba, teaching wealthier residents, as well as disadvantaged and disabled skaters.
“A lot of times, if people wanted to skate but couldn’t afford instruction, we had three outdoor rinks – I would be there at 40 degrees below 0!” she said.
Keay said she learned skating from her mother in small-town Ontario. She entered several competitions, over the years, eventually amassing what she estimates are some 200 medals – 40 of them gold – in singles and doubles figure skating and roller skating, as well as an appearance at the Canadian roller disco championships.
“One thing I’ve always taught myself and my kids at skating: Quitters never win, and winners never quit. Don’t give up trying.”