On Friday, Sept. 19, 2008, the Pottstown, PA, Fire Department was faced with heavy fire emitting from two apartment buildings, six occupants needing rescue from the second floor and a jumper who was on the ground, critically injured.
The Pottstown Fire Department was dispatched to a report of flames coming from the main entrance of 538 High St. at 5:22 P.M. It was also reported that the building was being evacuated, followed by a report of a victim jumping from the building. Quint 69, a 75-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump; Ladder 69, a 100-foot rear-mount aerial ladder with a 1,250-gpm pump; Heavy Rescue 69; Squrt 69, a 1,500-gpm pumper with a 55-foot articulating boom; and Advanced Life Support (ALS) EMS Unit 329 responded with five career firefighters and 20 volunteer firefighters under the command of Fire Chief Richard C. Lengel. Rescue 69, Quint 69 and ALS EMS Unit 329-2 arrived at 5:24, with Ladder 69 arriving next.
Both structures were built prior to 1900. The building at 538 High St. consisted of three sections: the front was two-story brick, the center was a three-story Victorian house and the rear was a three-story cement-block structure. This building was 37 feet wide and 140 feet deep, and 30 people occupied its 27 apartments. A beauty shop was on the first floor. The building at 540 High St. was constructed of brick and was only five feet from the other building. This building was 27 feet wide and 140 feet deep, and 17 people lived in its 12 apartments. Local smoke detectors were in each apartment and a monitored alarm system was in the common areas of the buildings.
The Pottstown Fire Department is a combination department made up of 13 career and 45 volunteer firefighters operating out of four stations. The department is comprised of the Goodwill Steam Fire Company Number 1, Philadelphia Steam Fire Engine Company Number 1, Empire Hook and Ladder Company Number 1, and North End Fire Company Number 1.
Upon arrival of the first crews, the rear third of 538 High St. was fully involved from the ground level to the roof. Fire had also extended to the third floor and roof of the B-side exposure at 540 High St. Quint 69 was positioned at the A/B corner of 538 High St. and Ladder 69 was positioned on the A/D corner of that building. Rescue 69 was staged west of the scene. Quint 69 was fed by a 250-foot, five-inch hydrant supply line. Squrt 69 arrived at 5:26 and was assigned to the rear of 538 High St. This unit was supplied with a 600-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant on Washington Street.
The ALS crew immediately started care on a female victim who was found lying on the sidewalk at the A/D corner of 538 High St. She had jumped from a third-floor apartment window and initial exam found possible multiple trauma. She was packaged and transported to Hahnemann University Hospital by University Medevac helicopter. Ladder 69's and Quint 69's aerial ladders were placed into position for the rescue of the five occupants trapped on the second-floor roof of 538 High St. Firefighters also placed two 14-foot ground ladders to the front porch roof to aid in the rescues. All rescues were completed by 5:33 P.M. Thirty-two other occupants escaped through doors and windows, with some being assisted by other residents.
Lengel requested a second alarm at 5:33. Pottstown Squad 69, a 1,500-gpm pumper, and Air 69 responded. The mutual aid response included Sanatoga Fire Company (of Lower Pottsgrove Township) Engine 58, a 1,500-gpm pumper; West End Fire Company (of West Pottsgrove Township) Engine 57-3, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Royersford Fire Company Engine 84, a 2,000-gpm pumper, and Ladder 84, a 100-foot aerial ladder; and Collegeville Fire Company Heavy Rescue 34.
As the rescues were being completed, additional firefighters stretched two 1¾-inch attack lines from Quint 69 and two 1½-inch attack lines from Ladder 69 to the alleyways on sides B and D to protect the two additional exposures. The front of 540 High St., the B exposure, was laddered with ground ladders and firefighters advanced two 1½-inch lines to the second and third floors from Squad 69. As these lines were being charged, the pre-piped ladder pipe on Quint 69 was put into operation to knock down the roof fire. The two crews then entered the building to extinguish the fire extension within the building. Due to the heavy involvement of 538 High St., no interior operations were initiated. Four three-inch monitors were placed into operation between the B and D exposures to replace the handlines at these locations.
Squad 69 was assigned to water supply and hooked onto a hydrant at the corner of High and Warren streets. Engine 58 was positioned on High Street and supplied with a 200-foot, five-inch line from Squad 69. Squad 69 also supplied a 250-foot, five-inch line to Quint 69. Engine 58's crew was assigned to suppression operations in the B exposure. Engine 57-3 laid a 700-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant at the corner of Washington and Chestnut streets to a position on High Street and supplied Ladder 69. Engine 84 and Ladder 84 were assigned to the rear to assist Squrt 69. Engine 84 laid an 800-foot, five-inch line from Ladder 84 to a hydrant at the corner of High and Adams streets and hooked onto the hydrant with five-inch line. Ladder 84 set up and placed its aerial master stream into operation. Rescue 34 personnel were assigned to suppression operations on side A of 538 High St. Lengel assumed the incident commander position and assigned Assistant Department Chief Joseph Groff to A-side operations, Assistant Department Chief Brad Reinert to the B exposure, Assistant Department Chief Michael Campeggio to C-side operations and Company Assistant Chief Duane Brady to the D exposure.
Lengel requested a third alarm at 5:49. Pottstown Engines 69-4, a 1,250-gpm pumper; Engine 69-6, a 1,000-gpm pumper; Limerick Fire Company Squad 54, a 1,500-gpm pumper; and Norco Fire Company (of North Coventry Township in Chester County) Engine 64-1, a 1,250-gpm pumper, responded to the scene. These units were assigned to water-supply operations and their manpower was assigned as relief crews for fire suppression. New Hanover Fire Company Ladder 37, a 75-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump; Skippack Fire Company Engine 86, a 1,250-gpm pumper; and King of Prussia Fire Company Heavy Rescue 47 responded to cover Pottstown's stations as a task force. Eight members of the Montgomery County Incident Support Team responded to the scene to assist Pottstown incident commanders. North Penn Canteen Service from North Wales responded to the scene to provide refreshments for firefighters.
Engine 69-4 hooked onto a hydrant at the corner of Chestnut and Washington streets with a four-inch line and pumped to Engine 57-3. Engine 69-6 laid a 400-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant on Washington Street to a position on High Street and supplied an additional 200-foot, four-inch line to Engine 58. Limerick Squad 54 laid a 500-foot, five-inch line from Squad 69 to a hydrant at King and Warren streets and hooked onto the hydrant with a five-inch line. Chester Engine 64-1 laid a 400-foot, four-inch line from Squad 54 to a hydrant at Chestnut and Warren streets and hooked onto the hydrant with a four-inch line.
At 6:07 P.M., the rear third of 538 High St. collapsed. The center section of the building collapsed at 7:05. With the continued use of multiple master streams and interior handlines, the fire in the exposed building (540 High St.) was declared under control at 6:42 P.M. Lengel declared the fire at 538 High St. under control at 7:26 P.M. Mutual aid and standby crews were released at 10:27 P.M.
A fire watch consisting of Quint 69 on side A and Squrt 69 on side C operated overnight. During the night, the D-side wall of 538 High St. collapsed against 534 High St. This building did not suffer any fire damage, but was damaged by the collapse and by water. The last Pottstown units left the scene at 4:50 P.M. on Saturday, Sept. 20.
Seventy firefighters operated nine engines; four aerials; three rescues; one air truck; one communications unit; three EMS units and two canteen units at the scene. Firefighters used 3,450 feet of five- inch supply line; 600 feet of four-inch supply line; 400 feet of three-inch hose; 400 feet of 1¾-inch hose; and 400 feet of 1½-inch hose. Seven hydrants supplied water from the municipal water system. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries and six civilians suffered injuries ranging from smoke inhalation to serious trauma.
The investigation into the cause and origin of the fire began at 9 A.M. on Saturday. Investigators from the Pottstown Fire Marshal's Office and Montgomery County Fire Investigators and a Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal operated at the scene for eight hours. Heavy equipment was used to make the scene safe, to assist with the investigation and to allow for complete extinguishment of the fire. The cause of the fire was listed as undetermined. Damage was estimated at over $1 million.
Command noted the successes of this incident: the use of water curtains helped to protect the exposures; the rescue of five civilians from the fire building within nine minutes of the initial dispatch; and the containment of the fire to the two buildings that were initially involved. Challenges included the close proximity of the exposures on the B and D sides, which did not allow for direct fire attack from the sides, and severe arcing of the electric service. It took over one hour to get the electric service secured and a great deal of caution was necessary while operating in the area.
JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.