On The Job: New York City

Sunday, April 11, 2010, was a beautiful spring day in Manhattan. Temperatures during the day reached a pleasant 76 degrees and that evening was promising to be mild as well. At 10:15 P.M., the FDNY Fire Alarm Office at MetroTech in Brooklyn began receiving calls reporting a structure fire at 285 Grand Ave. near Eldridge Street. Units were dispatched and quickly rolled to the scene.

Newspapers later reported the building had a history of neglect and more than two dozen open violations for hazardous conditions, including lead paint and missing smoke detectors. Throughout the winter, the building had been plagued by boiler problems and residents might have delayed calling the fire department when smoke was first smelled, believing it to be the oil burner again.

Grand Avenue is in the section of lower Manhattan known as Chinatown. A historic neighborhood, Chinatown is nestled between Little Italy, north of Canal Street, and what is considered the Lower East Side just east of the Bowery. Chinatown is a true working-class neighborhood bustling with activity and filled with people. It is a tightly packed, yet sprawling neighborhood. The historic section of Chinatown centers at Mott, Bayard, Pell and Mulberry streets and is filled with restaurants and souvenir shops. Fish and fresh produce are found along Mott Street between Grand and Hester, and along Grand Street.

First-due FDNY units found the reported address of 285 Grand St. to be a six-story brick commercial/multiple-dwelling building with stores on the first floor. A working fire was evident and a 10–75 signal was transmitted two minutes after companies were dispatched. The first-due pumper, Engine 9, prepared for operations and stretched a 2½-inch hoseline. The first hydrant proved defective, so two lengths of four-inch hose were immediately stretched around the corner to a good hydrant on Eldridge Street, securing a source of water.

Ladder 6 began searching the building for trapped occupants and the seat of the fire. The stairs leading to the upper floors were filled with people fleeing the heavy smoke on the upper floors and these occupants were directing firefighters to locations above. The officer of Engine 9 quickly checked the second floor and found heavy smoke, but little heat. He believed the fire was possibly below him and returned to the hose to await confirmation of the fire's location from the search teams before committing the first attack line.

An extra engine and ladder were requested at 10:25. Initial size-up reports were given as: heavy smoke conditions, trucks were opening up and that the exact location of the fire was yet to be determined. As the search continued, civilians were being removed down fire escapes and through the interior stairs. Command was also receiving reports of smoke issuing under pressure from the corner building. Units were sent to that location, 92 Eldridge St. No fire was found in this building, but extremely heavy smoke was present in the shafts and rear of the structure.

Reports to command continued stating that searching companies were encountering extremely heavy smoke and high heat, but still could not locate the specific areas of fire. The chiefs in the street knew they had a difficult and dangerous fire on their hands with many occupants still inside their apartments. A second alarm was transmitted at 10:34. This would make a total of eight engine companies, six ladder companies, a squad company and a rescue company at work or responding to the scene.

The first floor of 285 Grand St. was a fish and fresh produce store with five floors of occupied apartments above. Next door, at 283 Grand St., a novelty store with a steel roll-down gate locked in place occupied the first floor with five stories of apartments above it. Truck companies moved in on the roll-down gate, forcing the locks and raising the gate to reveal a raging fire in the novelty store.

The first-due engine's 2½-inch line immediately pressed into action attacking the fire. Crawling several feet into the raging store, firefighters directed the line above and all around in an attempt to push the main body of fire back and advance the line. It was a tough fight, but members were reluctant to slow their attack, realizing the number of occupants and firefighters in the rooms above them. The initial attack team advanced the line until air supplies were depleted. Relief members continued the attack as the nozzle team handed off control without shutting the nozzle down. After pressing the attack about 30 feet into the store, the relief nozzle team was out of air and another company took its place, again without stopping water.

Conditions above were deteriorating rapidly. Fire officials later surmised the fire store (283 Grand St.) and the store in exposure 2 (the original address reported, 285 Grand St.) had been connected at one time and then later separated again, and that these alterations allowed the rapid hidden spread of the fire. Flames that raced up pipe recesses, shafts and hidden voids were now breaking out in several different locations on separate floors in both buildings. As one fire officer explained, "We were behind the eight-ball from the get-go."

Things were bad and getting worse. A unit sent into the second floor of 283 Grand St. encountered fire in the walls and a line was operated in hopes of controlling vertical spread in that area. As this was going on, in an adjacent room a member was checking for fire spread and searching for possible victims when a section of the floor he was crawling on collapsed beneath his hands, plunging his arms and shoulders through the floor and into a raging fire below. Luckily, he was able to transmit a Mayday and extricate himself. He returned to his officer and reported the fire extension and his injuries. (The firefighter reported to FDNY EMS and was treated at the scene for his burns before being transported to the burn center.)

A third alarm was transmitted as heavy smoke continued pumping from both buildings and fire was showing at several front windows at different locations in the two buildings. Firefighters still removing civilians suddenly found the front fire escapes almost as dangerous as the inside of the building. Tower ladders and extra ground ladders were rushed into position and several handlines, carefully directed from the street, pushed threatening flames back from exposed firefighters and civilians on the front fire escapes. Tower ladder buckets swooped in and several difficult transfers were made as the fire escapes were cleared.

Exhausted members of the initial attack had changed their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinders and sprang back into action, helping to reinforce portable ladder placement and cover exposed members on the fire escapes. Reports were also being received from members operating on the roofs of the fire buildings that a heavy body of fire was present in the rear and in the shafts, potentially exposing other nearby buildings and that fire was also burning in the cockloft.

The fourth alarm was transmitted at 11:01 P.M. and several minutes later Fieldcom (a communications unit assigned on the second alarm) gave the chief's report — "Progress report on the fourth alarm, Box 259, Car 6, Assistant Chief James Esposito reports: Heavy fire in the basement with extension to the first floor of 283 Grand St. Extensions to exposure 2 into the first floor of 285 Grand St. Five handlines stretched and in operation. Evacuation of all civilians from the upper floors of both buildings. Getting water on the fire. Primary searches are in progress. Fire is doubtful will hold."

At 11:18, a fifth alarm was sent in followed by a sixth alarm at 11:23. At 11:42, Assistant Chief Robert Sweeney, chief of operations, gave the order to pull all members from both the buildings as fire conditions had grown too severe.

Arriving at the scene, Chief of Department Edward S. Kilduff, a 32-year veteran, knew he had some very good people working ahead of him, namely Manhattan Borough Commander Assistant Chief Esposito and Chief of Operations Sweeney. Kilduff said he was "surprised to see fire in two buildings and that the first-due units were still heavily engaged after changing bottles and going back in."

The two buildings, each built more than 110 years before, featured high ceilings and apartments with large floor areas. Years of renovation and repairs added voids and chases to the already challenging fire situation. Tower ladders moved in and began to battle the fire now raging within the two buildings.

Fieldcom reported at midnight — "Progress report for the sixth alarm, Box 259, Car 3, Chief Edward Kilduff, chief of department reports: Have heavy fire on all floors and through the roof of original fire building. Heavy fire on all floors of exposure 2. Two tower ladders set up and operating on fire building and exposure 2. We have extension to exposure 2A. Two handlines operating in exposure 2A. Fire is doubtful."

A seventh alarm was transmitted by Kilduff at 12:05 A.M. on Monday and several special calls for additional chiefs were made until the 1:35 A.M. progress report, when it was stated no visible fire was showing in the original fire building. The fire was declared "probably will hold."

Fieldcom also noted civilian injuries at the time were two 10–45 code 2s and one 10–45 code 3. This relayed that at the time two civilians, elderly men, were removed from the fire buildings. The men were suffering serious smoke inhalation and were being treated at a nearby hospital. Another person had non-life-threatening injuries. In all, a dozen civilians had been treated and released. A number of firefighters were injured, luckily none seriously, and the burned member was released after a short stay in the burn center.

It was a long and difficult fire operation, but the flames had been held to three buildings when it appeared at the height of the blaze that things could grow much worse. The fire was finally declared under control at 2:12 A.M. and final overhaul operations began.

"We were feeling good," Kilduff said. "It had been a spectacular job and we saved three buildings. The members did a great job." Then word of a missing civilian came and the wind was immediately taken from their sails.

Late Monday night, firefighters recovered the body of the missing 87-year-old man from the top floor. Their recovery effort had been delayed due to the dangerous condition and collapse potential of the burned structure. Injuries to both civilians and firefighters were rather low considering the number of occupants and more than 250 firefighters on scene. (The FDNY later reported that 30 firefighters and EMTs and three civilians were injured in the fire.)

After a three-week investigation, FDNY fire marshals later determined the blaze was caused by an overheated electrical junction box that fed power into 283 Grand St. The box was in the rear of the 99-cent store, in a storage area. The fire marshals said sparks or heat from the box itself started the fire. A report issued by the fire marshals stated, "Following multiple interviews and a painstaking forensic examination of the site that included study of burn patterns at the scene, marshals traced the fire's origin to the roughly three-inch junction box. Marshals began to focus upon the box after noticing melted copper wire feeding out of it. Copper wire typically only melts because of a problem, such as a short, within the box and not as the result of an external flame."

PAUL HASHAGEN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired FDNY firefighter who was assigned to Rescue 1 in Manhattan. He is also an ex-chief of the Freeport, NY, Fire Department. Hashagen is the author of FDNY: The Bravest, An Illustrated History 1865–2002, the official history of the New York City Fire Department, and other fire service books. His latest novel, Fire of God, is available at dmcfirebooks.com.