An Orange County firefighter who died this summer after rescuing a worker from a sewer trench had heart disease and high blood pressure, according to an autopsy.
Jeff “Stan” Holden, 32, of Rougemont, died Aug. 13 at the Orange Rural Fire Department in Hillsborough after returning from an emergency call. The assistant fire chief was found unresponsive in the station’s bathroom after going to take a shower.
The autopsy does not say the rescue earlier that day directly contributed to Holden’s death, but it notes “the conditions of the rescue itself were stressful, strenuous with significant physical exertion, and non-routine in nature.”
Online sources note trench collapses are one of the most challenging situations that rescue workers can face. Trench and excavation operations contributed to 23 deaths in 2016, according to Roco Rescue, which provides rescue training, equipment and services.
Holden and Battalion Chief Jonathan Capps responded to the call near Efland just after 11 a.m. about a man pinned under dirt in a trench on West Ten Road. The rescue required Holden to descend 20 feet into the trench using a rope rescue system, the autopsy says, then help get the trapped worker up the 20-foot rope and into an ambulance.
The temperature that day was 78, with 79 percent humidity, the autopsy notes. The rescue took about 40 minutes.
Holden was found in cardiac arrest on the floor of the fire department’s bathroom just before 3 p.m. Fellow firefighters and EMS workers tried to revive him, the autopsy says, but Holden showed no signs of life when he arrived at the UNC Hospitals Hillsborough Campus. Further attempts to resuscitate him also failed.
The autopsy notes that Holden also suffered from a Chiari malformation, an abnormality that affects the area where the brain and spinal cord connect, and other brain-related medical issues.
Orange Rural Fire Chief Jeff Cabe has called Holden’s death “devastating.”
“We sat down yesterday and tried to think about all he had done,” Cabe said. “He touched everything. We’re a small department; we depend on all our folks to do everything that needs to be done even if it doesn’t fit the job description. Jeff was one of those people. I can’t even fathom at this point what the impact is going to be on our operations.”
In addition to his post as assistant fire chief, Holden was Orange Rural’s training and safety chief, and he also served as the department’s recruiter and lead liaison for the Fire Safety and Technology Program at his alma mater Orange High School. He was certified by the Office of the State Fire Marshal to train firefighters working at every department in Orange County.
Orange County firefighters and residents, stunned by his death, responded by raising money for a scholarship fund to help his wife, Christa, and their 4-month-old son Miller.
The story will be updated as more information becomes available..