For most people, the thought of being in a burning building is terrifying.
But 21-year-old Rehoboth Beach firefighter Khyrstyne Quigley looks at it differently.
“It’s so much fun. You get to do something no one gets to do," she said.
"You get to be in something most people are scared of. You see fire over top of you. A lot of people would be scared of that, but I think it’s the coolest thing of all."
Quigley, whose first name sounds like Kirsten, grew up around firefighters: her father, Eric, is a volunteer in Rehoboth Beach. She started with the Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Company at age 15 as a junior firefighter and is now a structural interior firefighter.
She recounts arriving on the scene of a car accident on Camp Arrowhead Road, where the car caught on fire. Her truck was the first on scene; a man and woman were trapped in the car.
“You’re just standing there, like, ‘That guy is going to burn to death.’ You’re ripping the girl out of the car, not even caring about anything else, just getting her out," Quigley said. "I was on the hose line spraying water towards the engine trying to get it to stop, and he’s screaming. It’s scary. But we got him out, and he lived,” she said.
The science of fire
Quigley's commitment to fighting fires also guided her career choice: after graduating from Sussex Tech, she enrolled in Eastern Kentucky University’s fire science program. “Once I got there, it was a total blast,” she said.
Studying the science of fire reminded Quigley of the puzzles she loved as a child. “I found myself sitting in my bedroom doing these fire reports. I’d spend eight to 12 hours on them. And I never got bored because I was into it. It was a big puzzle, and I loved it.
“I grew up playing with Legos and Connect. It just clicks," she said. "If I can sit there and solve this big puzzle, that’s pretty cool."
The Lewes native wants to become a fire investigator, which she views as an extension of her love of puzzles and fighting fires. Fire science encompasses both fires and explosions, but Quigley said fire investigations have always appealed to her more. "At a fire scene, it’s more patterns, more putting things together," she said, "whereas at a bomb scene, you’re putting really little pieces together.”
Besides the satisfaction she gets from solving puzzles, she said, she hopes what she learns from fire investigations can be used to prevent future fires.
A senior, Quigley left May 24 for Australia, where she will take part in an internship at a forensic laboratory investigating fires. She said she was recommended for the spot by her professor, Tom Thurman, a former FBI agent who performed investigations of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the Pan Am flight 103 explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Quigley is one of two students going to Australia. “I’m so excited, I can’t wait,” she said, interviewed a few days before she left.
“I want to get more fires under my belt. I want to see how they do things differently over there. It’s going to be an adventure.”
She said she is also working on a test to qualify to validate firefighter arsons. Quigley said she would like to use that experience to go to fire stations around the United States to help prevent firefighter arsons.
She said her experience as a firefighter has deepened her knowledge of investigations.
“Firefighters like to mess up fire scenes a lot. I get to see not only how we can make it better, and how we can train our firefighters not to mess up an investigation scene and mess up evidence, but I can also go in and give my opinions on what started this,” she said.
Quigley will come back from Australia Aug. 1, and will complete her final year of college. She plans to get her master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management and hopes to land a job with a fire company after graduation.