Despite suffering second and third-degree burns to 41 percent of his body, Vancouver firefighter Lt. Massimo Cerantola describes himself as a lucky man.
The 19-year veteran was recognized by the City of Port Moody on March 25, receiving the Medal of Merit from Mayor Meghan Lahti at the Port Moody fire hall.
Cerantola said he was honoured, but is resistant to the word hero, which he referred to as the “H-word.”
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“I did nothing that 95 percent of firefighters or first responders wouldn’t have done,” Cerantola said. “As lousy as the incident was, I’m a very lucky guy, extremely lucky.”
The city awarded Cerantola exactly one year after the life-changing explosion.
At approximately 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, 2022, a vehicle linked to a Coquitlam shooting was set ablaze across the street from the 49-year-old firefighter’s house, located on the 2200 block of Hope Street.
Cerantola, who was off-duty and doing yard work, said he heard a bang and saw a black SUV take off.
He said he heard a panicked commotion from his neighbours as he rushed to the front of his house, initially thinking a hit and run had occurred.
Cerantola said he directed onlookers to back away from the vehicle and wait for first responders to arrive.
He quickly dashed up to check whether anyone was inside. Finding it empty, he backed off and tried to assist other neighbours using hoses to cool off a nearby fence.
At the last moment before the explosion, Cerantola said he was lucky to glance over at the now fully-engulfed vehicle.
“I just remember seeing orange and grey coming at me rapidly, and so I kind of turned and tried to shield myself with my hands towards my face,” he said. “I thought I was dead, to be honest.”
The blast, which occurred less than five minutes after the fire was set according to Cerantola, blew out of the driver-side door. It was captured on video by several neighbours.
Cerantola said he was at least 25 feet away from the vehicle. He’s never seen a vehicle fire result in an explosion before, he said, and neither have his firefighting colleagues.
“They’ve all said, ‘I’ve only seen that in Hollywood,’” he said, adding he suspects there was a jerry can or some other form of incendiary in the front seat. “Cars don’t explode.”
The blast didn’t knock him off his feet, but Cerantola said he immediately knew he was seriously burnt as he pulled the remnants of his shirt from his body.
He said he told his neighbours to bring him water, and to keep his two kids indoors.
“I didn’t want my kids to see me,” Cerantola said, adding that “shock was kicking in.”
Port Moody firefighters arrived shortly and took charge of his care, followed by paramedics who transported him to the Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) burn unit.
Coun. Callan Morrison, speaking at council on March 28, described Cerantola’s actions that day as: “truly a selfless act.”
“I just want to thank Massimo Cerantola for putting himself in the line of danger and protecting others,” Morrison said. “He truly is a gold star in Port Moody.”
While Cerantola doesn’t remember any immediate pain following the blast, he said he was thankful to have a large support system during the painful recovery.
Cerantola spent the next six weeks in the burn 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 needed to be cleaned and rebandaged three times a week, and he had to be readmitted to VGH a month after his release for a round of antibiotics due to an infection.
Cerantola said that lunch and dinner were dropped off to him daily from his firefighting colleagues, and the VGH “angels” (nurses) would feed him when he couldn’t move his arms or hands.
“When I went through it, I literally had an army behind me,” Cerantola said. “Right from our chief, down to our junior firefighters. It was just incredible.”
He added that his wife has been “a rock” rallying the family together.
The incident would not even knock Cerantola off duty for a full year – he returned to the fire hall in mid-October, 2022, and started regular shift work before 2023.
He said he also feels lucky to have no PTSD following the incident, though many people have checked in on him, including family, friends and a psychologist.
“I’m a firm believer in the saying, ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do,” Cerantola said. “With my job experience … I’ve seen a lot, and I know there’s no guarantees in life. Sometimes there’s things that are beyond our control.”
What Cerantola said he could control was getting his strength and cardio back up following his recovery.
He said he has a realistic view of what occurred, and that if he had his firefighting equipment on, he’d only have suffered a minor singe.
Cerantola said another lucky factor was that he was wearing a pair of work pants, otherwise he could have been left with burns over 80 percent of his body.
The blast occurred a block away from Port Moody Secondary School, and Cerantola said it was fortunate nobody else was injured.
He said that while he can’t be certain, he likes to think his actions may have prevented onlookers from getting too close prior to the explosion.
“It could have been so much worse.”