Fire, Explosion & Collapse: Firefighters Trapped - Part 2

Last month, we began a report about an incident involving the Salem and Pennsville fire departments in New Jersey in which firefighters were trapped after a backdraft occurred during a structure fire. We continue the report this month with accounts by two...


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A female bystander said she thought someone might be upstairs, so another firefighter brought me an SCBA from one of the arriving units as Battalion Chief Charles Wygor kicked open the door to the second-floor apartments. Firefighter Brandon Palmer and I proceeded to the second floor with a 1¾-inch line from Engine 6-1. Once we reached the floor landing, Palmer experienced a problem with his SCBA and we returned outside. I grabbed another crew of Captain Walt Cooper and Firefighter John Traini and returned to the second floor. I had the nozzle, Traini was backing me up and the captain was monitoring us while humping hose.

Smoke was relatively light near the ground level, but it grew thicker as we proceeded up the stairs. At the landing at the top of the steps, visibility was absolute zero. The heat was very intense, seemingly more so than usual. I tried to call for ventilation on my portable, but didn't hear a reply. I felt around at the top of the stairs; we were in a hallway and to the left I could feel a doorway. Then, to our right, fire breached through the wall near the floor. We repositioned to extinguish that fire, but it wouldn't go out. It was blowing with the velocity of a blow torch. Every time I hit it and stopped, it just came right back as hard as if I hadn't put any water on it. In what felt like about two minutes, the heat suddenly became so intense that I thought my SCBA was on fire. I asked Traini to check under my harness to see if burning debris was lodged underneath and burning me. My air became very hot to breathe.

Captain Cooper directed me to fire that breached the wall to our left, between Traini and me, in the stairwell about two feet back from the stair landing and about two feet above the last step from the top. As we backed up a little bit in attempt to reposition for attacking that new fire spot, the ceiling plaster and lath and embers fell on us. I knew something had just happened, but I didn't know what it was. It felt like the pressure changed. Captain Cooper ordered us to retreat. I started to slide down on my butt, but lost my balance and fell on top of Traini. As we were about halfway down, we heard the air horns outside alerting us to evacuate.

Once outside, many firefighters were assisting me to my feet and out of my gear. This is when I found out what happened. I had all of my gear on, head to toe, but my Nomex hood wasn't tucked into my collar, nor was my collar up and fastened. I had what equates to very bad sunburn on the back of my neck. My hood was black carbon, it was discolored and there light red over most of it. And my facepiece was peppered and slightly melted.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this close call:

As I stated last month, flashovers, backdrafts and smoke explosions are all hazards to firefighters. Sometimes they are predictable, but sometimes they are not, but we have to know the "warning signs." For a more detailed understanding of these events, check out websites such as www.VincentDunn.com and www.FireTactics.com, consider a course such as Dave Dodson's "The Art of Reading Smoke" (www.readingsmoke.com) or attend formal training such as at the National Fire Academy or through your local college program. According to Chief Dunn, retired FDNY deputy chief and noted veteran expert in fire behavior, untrained firefighters often confuse the terms "backdraft" and "flashover." These two dangerous violent events are different and knowing the differences helps us understand each one better. There are four main differences.

First, backdrafts do not occur often. You may experience only one or two during your entire career. Flashovers — sudden full room involvement in flame — occur often. Second, a backdraft is an explosion; a flashover is not. There will be shock waves during a backdraft that will break the confining structure around the explosion. Windows may break blasts of smoke and flame may blow out a doorway or a part of the structure may collapse. Flashover is rapid fire development, but it stops short of an explosion's speed of chemical reaction. Third, air sets off a backdraft explosion. As firefighters enter a confined smoke-filled area and bring fresh air with them, sometimes a backdraft or smoke explosion occurs. The trigger or cause of a flashover is heat, not air. The theory of flashover is that heat, which is reradiated back into a burning room from the ceiling and upper walls, raises the gases and furnishings in the room to the auto-ignition temperature and triggers a flashover.