Fire captain told he can’t return to job 9 months after battling blaze

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When Providence Fire Captain Joe Fontaine was released from the hospital in early April, he had one thought in mind.

“I’m going to get better. We’re going to get back there. They’re going to have to force me off the job,” he told Eyewitness News.

Now, nearly nine months later, Fontaine is still feeling the effects of the cyanide poisoning he contracted while battling a huge fire on Eaton Street.

The wind-swept fire on March 31 gutted three triple-deckers, leaving 21 firefighters with injuries and 19 Providence College students without a place to live.

Fontaine still suffers from a persistent cough and low stamina, but that’s not the worst part of it.

“The doctor says you’re not going back,” said Fontaine. “I asked him when I was going back to my fire truck, and he says, ‘you’re not doing any more fire duty. You’re all done.'”

Photos: Wind-driven fire on Eaton Street »
Photos: Wind-driven fire on Eaton Street »

Cyanide poisoning happens when common household products like paper and furniture burn, releasing toxic gas into the air.

“I, with a lot of regret, had to put my papers in for the disability, which was probably the hardest thing to do after 32 years,” Fontaine added. “Especially having a chance to be a battalion chief. Really really hurts, but I’ll come to grips with it one day.”

Fontaine got poisoned after he took off his oxygen mask. He said his tank was running low.

He had advice for fellow firefighters.

“Wear your air packs a little bit more. I’m very old school,” he said. “Even though I did wear it, we got it cleared out. You might think it’s clear, like right now, you think this is perfectly good for my health, but there still might be something left over.”

The three triple-deckers have since been torn down and rebuilt.

Investigators say the fire started accidentally in either one of two ways: careless disposal of smoking materials or electrical service feed touching the aluminum siding, causing a spark.