Captain Yells "Run," Firefighter Yells "Collapse!" A Close Call for 10 Firefighters

So much of what is happening "right now" and what happened just a few minutes ago is viewed by millions via websites and other media. On June 5, 2008, many of us "watched" a video of firefighters in California dangling and bailing from the roof of a burning commercial structure. While "instant media" provide a great value in many respects, they let viewers see the event while sometimes not fully understanding what they are seeing. It is our hope that we can share with you the facts as to what happened - and specifically what happened to those firefighters - at this fire.


Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District and Sacramento Fire Department crews responded (mutually due to an automatic aid program) to a commercial fire in south Sacramento County. (It should be noted that Sacramento City staffs companies with four members and Sacramento Metro staffs companies with three members. Additionally, as of this writing, the city is struggling to maintain its existing staffing through the budgetary/political process.)

The fire involved an 8,000-square-foot commercial structure that was well involved upon arrival. Several crews initiated fire attack operations on the interior, while ventilation operations started on the roof. During fireground operations, the roof suddenly collapsed, resulting in a close call for 10 firefighters.

Nine minutes after the first company arrived, there was a total catastrophic failure of the open-web truss system while crews were working above and below the fire. Interior crews evacuated without aid, but the truck company required rescue by ground ladders. A Mayday was called by the incident commander and a personnel accountability report (PAR) was conducted. No members were injured and the incident was classified as a close call/near miss.

Our sincere appreciation goes to all of the Sacramento City and Sacramento Metro firefighters and officers who were involved in this close call with the understanding that many outside of those departments will learn from this event. We also thank Deputy Chief of Operations Geoff Miller, Sacramento Metro, and Deputy Chief of Operations Lloyd Ogan, Sacramento Fire Department, for their help. Additionally, thanks to Sacramento Metro Fire Chief Don Mette as well as Sacramento Fire Chief Ray Jones for their support and cooperation.

These statements and descriptions are from fire department documents:

At 12:30 P.M., the Sacramento Regional Fire/EMS Communication Center (SRFECC) received a 911 call reporting a business on fire. This was followed by several additional calls within minutes. A first-alarm commercial assignment of two battalion chiefs, two truck companies, three engines and a medic unit was dispatched. A roll call was conducted by Battalion Chief 9 on the assigned radio tactical channel. Truck 10 responded with a crew of three. Engine 53 and Medic 53 arrived at 12:35.

Captain 53 reported that he had a single-story commercial structure with heavy smoke and fire through the roof. He assigned Medic 53 as "two-out" and directed them to pull a backup 1¾-inch line and assist with interior fire attack upon arrival of the second engine. He then requested the second engine to secure a five-inch water supply. Captain 53 then assumed interior. (Note: Captain 53 told investigators that he was surprised at the amount and intensity of the smoke so early in the fire, and stated that he thought this was probably going to be a defensive fire. However, he wanted to give it one good shot to try to save the business.) Firefighter 53 pulled a 1¾-inch handline, advanced it to the front and prepared to initiate interior operations. (Note: Firefighter 53 told investigators that he knew he should have pulled a 2½-inch line, but said that he did not think that he and his captain would have the mobility to advance the line effectively in the structure.)

Captain 53 stated that upon entering the structure, there was moderate heat and no visible flames, but heavy smoke. They were six feet inside the structure and visibility was near zero. He then used a thermal imaging camera to assess the ceiling and found heavy fire and heat overhead. Medic 53 pulled a 2½-inch line and upon arrival of the second engine entered the structure to assist with fire attack. (Note: Medic 53's change from "two-out" to interior fire suppression was never announced to command.) Six feet inside the structure and slightly to the left of the door, Medic 53 made contact with Engine 53. Captain 53 informed the crews of significant fire overhead. Water was played into the area in short bursts (penciling) with no change in conditions. Lines were then opened up in an attempt to control the fire. (Note: Captain 53 told investigators there was no change in the conditions overhead with heavy application of water, but did not report this to anyone. Interior did, however, inform the immediate crews that there was significant fire overhead and ordered them to not advance.)

While interior operations were beginning to take place, Truck 10 arrived six minutes after initial dispatch. Upon arrival, crew members stated that they were unable to gain access with the truck as the driveway was blocked by hose. Truck 10 laddered the roof with a 24-foot ladder on the B side of the structure near the B/C corner. Truck 10 stated that they accessed the roof and did not see any fire through the roof. Crew members stated that they saw smoke coming from the vents and lighting off. Firefighter 2 from Truck 10 sounded the roof and all members said they felt it was solid. Firefighter 2 continued to sound the roof and identified what he thought was a beam. As he continued to sound the roof, crew members made their way along the B wall toward the middle of the roof. (Note: The crew told investigators they felt they had identified the supporting beams and purloins and that the roof was solid.)

Near the middle of the roof, between two large air conditioning units, the crew made their way toward the D side of the building. Twelve 12 feet from the B wall, they made their first cut. Firefighter 2 cut a four-by-four-foot hole while Firefighter 1 sounded the roof around him. The roof covering was pulled back and an attempt to louver the cut was unsuccessful. They then rolled the roof material back and found little smoke coming from the hole. (Note: Video footage shows large amounts of smoke coming from the location where Truck 10 was operating.) Firefighter 1 then pulled a vent cover off and had significant smoke. (Note: Neither the Truck 10 captain nor Engine 53 captain ever reported their conditions to each other or to command. However, the Engine 56 captain, identifying himself as interior, later reported the conditions to incident commander.)

Engines 56 and 57 arrived seven minutes and 30 seconds after initial dispatch. Engine 56 worked on water supply and Engine 57 assumed command. Engine 56 crew members stated that upon arrival they saw heavy smoke blowing out the front of the structure. Firefighter 1 described what he called "extreme fire conditions" (Note: The Engine 56 engineer told investigators that he saw heavy "ugly" smoke and that things didn't look right. He thought this was going to be a defensive fire.) Firefighters from Engine 56 then prepared for forcible entry, but determined it wasn't needed. The crew then entered the structure to support interior operations. Engine 56 met up with Medic 53 on the 2½-inch line.

At this point, it was determined they had an attic fire and attempted to pull ceiling, but their hooks were too short. Once longer hooks were retrieved, they pulled ceiling. Firefighter 3 from Engine 56 stated that he did not find any fire above them and wanted to advance the line toward the rear. Medic 53 informed the firefighter from Engine 56 that heavy fire was above them and they were directed to not go any farther into the structure. Engine 56 Firefighter 3 stated that he never heard a report on the conditions above him, but he did not find fire above and wanted to advance the line farther to the rear. He took the 2½-inch line from Medic 53 and advanced it by himself another five feet. (Note: This exchange between the two firefighters, although short in duration, delayed the advancement of the 2½-inch line farther into the structure. Within moments, the roof collapsed.)

While this was taking place, the Engine 57 crew entered the building and began assisting with fire attack. The Engine 57 captain, who assumed command, took a look at three sides of the building. Captain 57 stated that he did not see any fire, but had significant gray smoke coming down. He stated that at this time he was not sure if operations should remain offensive or go defensive, but knew he had a significant fire. Thirty seconds after Captain 57 assumed command and started his size-up, Battalion Chief 4 arrived on scene and assumed command from Engine 57's captain. The Engine 57 captain proceeded to the front of the structure at the point of entry and made contact with the captain from Engine 56. (Note: Captain 57 told investigators that he would have liked to have had a face-to-face in order to pass on the information he had.) Captain 56 asked Captain 57 if the building had vented. Captain 57 stated that he couldn't see due to the smoke. He stepped back and walked around a car toward the A/B corner when he heard a "swoosh."

Battalion Chief 4 arrived eight minutes after initial dispatch. Upon arrival, he positioned on 65th Street and assumed 65th Street command. Truck 16 was directed to the C side of the structure. Truck 16 announced on the tactical channel that they were going to the C/D side and were going to set up to go defensive. Battalion Chief 4 stated that he had dark-black/gray smoke that was lying across the roadway. He also stated that he heard a report that there were three occupants inside and only two got out. Battalion Chief 4 stated that he felt there was no possibility of survivors based on the conditions. (Note: Battalion Chief 4 told investigators that upon his arrival, he estimated that at least 50% of the structure was already involved and 80-90% within a few minutes of his arrival. He thought "get on it quick or it's going big." He further stated that he was unclear why Truck 10 was going to the roof if it already had vented. Battalion Chief 4 stated that he never received a report on conditions from interior or Truck 10. However, audiotapes revealed that a report on conditions was given by Engine 56 and acknowledged by command.)

At 12:37, while responding to the incident, Battalion Chief 9 called for a second alarm. Utilities were called in and the California Highway Patrol were requested due to smoke on the roadway. Battalion Chief 9 arrived at 12:40 and met up with Battalion Chief 4. Battalion Chief 9 stated that upon his arrival, thick, brown smoke was pushing out of the front of the structure under pressure that he further described as "boiling." He estimated the involvement at 25% and described it as a well-seated fire. At this time, Battalion Chiefs 4 and 9 established a joint command.

At 12:44, Battalion Chief 2 arrived as part of the second-alarm assignment. As he approached the scene, there was heavy smoke from the front and fire through the roof. He estimated the involvement at 50% but said he wasn't really sure. (Note: Battalion Chief 2 told investigators he thought, "If we don't get this handled in five to 10 minutes, we go defensive. There was too much pressurized smoke coming out that was dark.") At this time, crews working inside stated that conditions began to deteriorate rapidly. Several crew members stated that the smoke started to move with velocity and that temperatures increased rapidly.

At 12:45, interior crews heard or felt a loud concussion and they were being hit with falling debris. All interior crews rapidly exited. While interior crews were evacuating, Truck 10 was beginning to make a second cut on the roof. One firefighter described what he felt as a "subtle shift," another described a "sick feeling in his stomach" and another said he felt movement under his feet. The captain yelled, "Run!" Firefighter 2 yelled, "Collapse!" The Truck 10 crew threw their tools down and ran to the B wall. They stated that they felt the roof dropping and they were running "uphill." All three members jumped to the B parapet wall and climbed on top. They remained there until ground ladders could be placed in a position that they could climb down.

Battalion Chief 4 called Mayday when he saw the Truck 10 crew running across the roof and realized the roof was giving way. Battalion Chief 4 immediately began directing crews to initiate rescue operations. Battalion Chief 2 switched to a command channel and requested three medic units. Once the rescue was completed on the roof, Battalion Chief 4 initiated a PAR. (Note: Battalion Chief 4 told investigators he was unaware that Medic 53 was working interior and that he did not have a rapid intervention team in place or a rescue plan prior to the collapse.) After all crew members were accounted for, command initiated defensive operations.

Next: The investigation

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website Goldfeder may be contacted at