Mihail Shevchuk is being hailed as a hero in the wake of the fire set March 20 by an apparent arsonist on Vei 222. The resourceful 35-year-old from the Ukraine in all likelihood prevented a large-scale blaze in a housing complex with 18 apartments, according to officials.
"The time had passed 11 p.m., and my wife and I had gone to bed," Shevchuk said. "But suddenly there was a fire alarm."
"I went out into the hallway and checked, but saw nothing. On the way back to the apartment I went back to the storage rooms on the second floor and there was a smell of smoke."
Under a window, a mattress on fire. The flames were licking up the wall and into the roof of the tinder-dry wooden house.
"There was a powder extinguisher there. I took out the safety catch and emptied the contents over the mattress," said Shevchuk, who has been a firefighter in both Barentsburg and the Ukraine.
"I notified my wife and a friend who was visiting, and they got to knocking on the other rooms and getting people out of the building," he said.
Shevchuk, who now performs snowmobile maintenance work for Ingeniør G. Paulsen in Longyearbyen, said he found another powder extinguisher on the ground floor, but the walk back to fire scene was difficult.
"At this point there was a lot of smoke and powder in the air," he said. "Visibility was poor and I had to go on my knees to avoid breathing toxic fumes."
He eventually emptied the second apparatus over the mattress and extinguished the flames.
"I went out of the building and then had the first car from the fire department arrive with one man," Shevchuk said. "I told him that the flames were extinguished, so we checked to see that everyone was out. Shortly after this the big fire truck came while the evacuees were taking shelter from the cold in a neighboring building."
Shevchuk, who has lived in Svalbard since 2011, said he was not afraid.
"I have worked as a firefighter before, so I knew what I had to do," he said. "My first thought was to extinguish it as quickly as possible and make sure people got out. This is a large wooden house and a firm grip had to be taken immediately."
"I was just in the right place at the right time," he added.
Longyearbyen Fire Department Chief Jan Olav Sæther offered warm praise to the 35-year-old for his efficiency during the very critical minutes after the fire started.
"It was simply amazing," Sæther said. "We are very glad that he was there and did everything right. Such mattresses are close to petrol in solid form and extremely flammable. We are talking only about minutes before it could have developed into an unwieldy and catastrophic situation with proliferation."
Shevchuk said he has received a considerable amount of positive feedback from people in town after the incident, including a letter of thanks posted on his door.
"I feel grateful," he told Svalbardposten.
Woman facing charges
A Longyearbyen woman was arrested and charged with aggravated criminal damage shortly after the incident. The woman has acknowledged she started the fire, according to investigators, and was sent to the mainland with restrictions imposed on her as an alternative to incarceration. How the case will be pursed legally is still being determined.
"We will have a meeting this week, and see what we have and how the investigation should proceed," said Lt. Gov. Jens Olav Sæther. "A key point is the report coming from the fire department."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini