Despite suffering second- and third-degree burns to 41 percent of his body, Vancouver firefighter Lieutenant Massimo Serentola called himself a lucky man.
The 19-year veteran received the Medal of Merit from Port Moody Mayor Meghan Lahti on March 25 at the Port Moody Fire Hall.
Cerantola said he was honored but disgusted by the word hero, which he called the “H word.”
“I didn’t do anything that 95 percent of firefighters or first responders wouldn’t do,” Cerantola said. “As bad as it was, I’m a very lucky guy, very lucky.”
A full year after the life-changing explosion, the city honored Cerantola with its award.
On Saturday, March 25, 2022, at around 4 p.m., a vehicle associated with the Coquitlam shooting was set alight across the street from the house of the 49-year-old firefighter in the 2200 block of Hope Street.
Cerantola was working in the yard after get off work when he said he heard a loud bang and then saw a black SUV take off.
He said he heard panicked commotion from neighbors as he rushed to his door and initially thought there had been a hit-and-run.
Serentola said he directed bystanders to stay away from vehicles and wait for first responders to arrive.
He rushed up quickly to see if anyone was inside. Finding it empty, he stepped back and tried to help other neighbors use hoses to cool a nearby fence.
Celentola said he was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the now completely engulfed vehicle in the last moments before the explosion.
“I just remember seeing orange and gray coming at me so quickly, so I turned around and tried to cover my face with my hands,” he said. “Honestly, I thought I was dead.”
According to Cerantola, the explosion came less than five minutes after the fire started, blowing out the driver’s side door. It was caught on video by several neighbors.
Cerantola said he was at least 25 feet away from the car. He said he had never seen a vehicle catch fire leading to an explosion before, and neither had his firefighting colleagues.
“They all said, ‘I’ve only seen this in Hollywood,'” he said, adding that he suspected there was an oil drum or some other form of Molotov cocktail in the front seat. “Cars don’t explode.”
The explosion didn’t knock him out, but Cerantola said he knew immediately he was badly burned when he tore what was left of his shirt from him.
He said he told neighbors to bring him water and kept his two children indoors.
“I don’t want my kids to see me,” Serentola said, adding “the shock started.”
Port Moody firefighters quickly arrived and took care of him before paramedics took him to the Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) Burns Unit.
county. Speaking in Parliament on March 28, Callan Morrison described Serentola’s actions that day as: “A truly selfless act.”
“I just want to thank Massimo Cerantola for putting himself in danger and protecting others,” Morrison said. “He’s truly a gold star in Port Moody.”
While Cerantola doesn’t recall any immediate pain after the blast, he said he was grateful to have a large support system during the painful recovery.
Cerantola spent the next six weeks in the burns unit under the care of Dr. Anthony Papp, requiring two skin grafts to treat burns covering his head, face, arms, hands and back.
His burns required cleaning and re-dressing three times a week, and he had to be readmitted a month later for a round of antibiotics due to an infection.
Cerantola said his fellow firefighters brought him lunch and dinner every day, and VGH “angels” (nurses) fed him when he couldn’t move his arms or hands.
“When I went through it, I literally had an army behind me,” Celantola said. “From our captains, to our junior firefighters. It’s been incredible.”
He added that his wife had been the “rock” that held the family together.
The incident won’t even suspend Cerantola for a full year — he returns to the fire hall in mid-October 2022 and will begin regular shift work until 2023.
He said he felt lucky that he did not develop PTSD after the incident, despite the fact that he was examined by many people, including family, friends and a psychologist.
“I’m a firm believer in the saying, ‘The hard times don’t last, the strong do,'” Celantola said. “Based on my work experience… I’ve seen a lot and I know there are no guarantees in life. Sometimes there are things that are out of our control.”
Cerantola said what he can control is getting his strength and cardio back after rehab.
He said he had a realistic view of what happened and that if he had firefighting equipment he would have suffered only minor burns.
Another element of luck, Serentola said, was that he was wearing work pants, otherwise he would have suffered burns over 80 percent of his body.
The blast happened a block from Port Moody Middle School, and Serentola said it was lucky no one else was hurt.
He said that while he couldn’t be sure, he thought his actions may have prevented bystanders from getting too close before the blast.
“It could be worse.”