Despite being blown up by a howitzer shell, Fort Sill firefighter loves his job

By Keith PannellSeptember 29, 2023

Fort Sill firefighter Patrick Denton checks levers and gages on a fire engine at Fort Sill's Station 3. Denton survived an explosion of a 155mm howitzer shell while fighting a range fire on Fort Sill in 2013. (Photo Credit: Keith Pannell) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT SILL, Oklahoma – Ten years ago this month, Fort Sill Firefighter Patrick Denton returned to duty after being injured fighting a fire.

That may not sound like such a big deal until you learn that Denton was literally blown up when an unexploded 155mm howitzer shell cooked by a range fire exploded off his right side on Fort Sill’s West Range in May 2013.

"I heard the explosion and then it kind of knocked me silly for a minute. I went down to my knees and gained my composure back. That's when I felt all the blood," said Denton in a Fort Sill News article from 10 years ago.

Today, he said he doesn’t remember a lot about the blast itself but can vividly recount his memories afterward when his fellow firefighters reached him and got him to safety.

“Once they got me up the [Jones] Hill and started to treat my wounds, the only thing that went through my mind from the time they got to me to when they put me on the helicopter was, ‘Let me see my family one more time.”

Denton’s injuries were wide-ranging. The right side of his face was full of shrapnel. He couldn’t feel the right side of his body. His lower body was also pierced by dozens of bits of metal.

Ten years later, the now-veteran firefighter still has everyday reminders of the explosion.

“They didn’t take any of the shrapnel out because they thought it would do more damage. So, I still have shrapnel in my thigh,” he said. “I only had one surgery on my right ear. They were trying to reconstruct it, but after the first surgery, the doctor said they was nothing else they could do.”

Denton wears hearing aids in both ears, but still meets the minimum standards to remain a firefighter and he said he’s grateful for his fellow firefighters.

“Coming back to full-duty was awesome,” Denton said. “The guys on the floor [in the fire station] were the ones who took care of me. I can’t express that enough. You couldn’t ask for a better group of guys.”

Denton and the rest of the crew fighting that fire in 2013 were in what at the time was called a “buffer zone” between range land and the impact zone. Firefighters were allowed to enter the buffer zone to fight fires.

Denton believes the round that exploded was in the buffer zone but was buried just under the surface where they couldn’t see it. However, the heat from the fire made it explode.

Fort Sill Fire Chief Dwayne Harris said that’s exactly why firefighters let impact zone fires burn.

“For more than a hundred years, Fort Sill has been shooting things out on those ranges. And, not everything that gets fired or dropped explodes like it’s supposed to,” Harris said. “Grass is not worth a firefighter’s life. Our motto is, ‘Everyone goes home at the end of the day.’”

One of the most visible fire mitigation efforts to control range fires is prescribed burns. Throughout the year, the Fort Sill Fire Department will set the burns to “lessen the fuel available for a wildfire.” They’re very visible and can cause concern with surrounding communities and on social media. However, Fort Sill does put out notices on official post social media outlets.

Other safety measures have to do with the areas around impact zones, including additional zones to keep firefighters safe.

Also, Harris said every impact zone is now bordered by a gravel or dirt road. The road provides a place for firefighters to put water on a fire, start a backburn to get rid of fuel for a wildfire and to provide a natural barrier the fire must cross to continue burning.

That doesn’t mean firefighters like Denton like to wait before putting water on the flames.

“Every time I’m at a range station, you see the fire (he points) right there. You can see it,” he said. “It takes everything I have to not say, ‘Let’s go put water on it.’ You can’t because it’s not worth somebody’s life.”

After 14 years, Denton is now one of the veterans of the department, complete with handle-bar mustache. Like fire stations anywhere, he makes sure younger firemen and women learn from his experiences.

“I don’t talk about [the accident] much, but that’s one of the first things with a new person…I sit them down show them our maps,” he said. “I tell them if it’s in this area, we don’t go and this is the reason why.”

In a show of what his fellow firefighters think of Denton, he was recently elected as shop steward for the local chapter of the Firefighters Association.