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At 1:06 P.M., as crews were still attempting to make progress in the second floor and Charlie Division units were attempting to make entry into the first floor rear, a backdraft occurred in a sporting goods store. The explosion sent glass and sporting goods into the fireground out front, knocked out the rear wall, and caused a collapse of the rear roof and second floor. Fire attack was discontinued while we accounted for all personnel. The interior crew self-rescued out the stairwell, and Charlie Division crews were rescued from under the brick wall debris that fell on them.
Both the Charlie and Alpha divisions transitioned into exposure protection and defensive operations. Both ladder pipes and several master streams went into service from the exterior, and handlines were stretched into the exposures. The Bravo exposure was protected, and the Delta Exposure received minor fire damage to two windows where the fire tried to communicate into the exposure. At one point, it was unclear whether the Delta exposure would hold and an additional alarm was requested to prepare for that fire attack.
As a result of the backdraft and subsequent wall collapse, four 250-gallon fuel oil tanks overturned and started leaking onto the ground. The Salem County HazMat Response Team responded to mitigate that situation amid the fire attack. The remainder of the structure eventually collapsed into itself, and crews remained in service until 7 P.M. Several times through the night, crews returned to keep an eye on hot spots smoldering in the void spaces. Investigators arrived the next morning, and through the day the story of the fire unfolded. It was determined to be accidental and electrical.
The building had been remodeled several times over the years. There were two framed walls over the original plaster-and-lath, balloon-frame constructed walls. A framed ceiling and drop ceiling built on top of the original plaster-and-lath ceiling gave the fire tremendous void spaces to burn freely and undetected for some time.
The fire started in the ceiling of an H&R Block tax-preparation office and progressed in several directions through walls and ceilings. This gives testament to the fire being all around the interior crew, and why they couldn't make progress beyond the stair landing on the second floor. Thankfully, the stairwell remained intact after the explosion, providing a little bit of shelter and a means for them to evacuate.
This account is by Captain Walt Cooper of Engine 6-1:
Upon our arrival on Engine 6-1, Firefighters John Traini and Brandon Palmer and I pulled a 1¾-inch line off the truck to attack fire showing at the front of H&R Block. We fought that for a few minutes, pulling down the ceiling, and noticed that the fire was well involved toward the second floor. At that time, I was asked by Chief Ayars to take a firefighter with Lieutenant Mike Wilson and try to make entry up the stairs of H&R Block, the A side of building. Firefighter Palmer's air supply went dry, so the crew consisted of Lieutenant Wilson, Firefighter Traini and me.
Lieutenant Wilson was on the nozzle with Firefighter Traini behind him and me as interior officer. We went up the stairs. I made it about three-quarters of the way up, about 10 steps, and had a lot of heat and smoke; visibility was only about six inches in front of me. We kept working the top of the stairs until the fire broke through the wall on our left side. I directed John and Mike to hit the opening where the fire had breached the wall. When we tried to make entry to the top of the stairs to the second floor, there was already heavy fire toward the rear of the building. We had tried to get to the top of the stairs, but it was too hot and the heat was burning our ears through our hoods.
As we continued to try and make progress going farther into the second floor, it suddenly got to the point where the heat was almost unbearable and we were ready to back out a little to regroup. Then I heard a large bang, which I believe was either the roof collapsing or the rear wall falling. There was a huge wall of heat, smoke and fire that literally blew us down the stairs, out the door and onto the street.
This account is by Battalion Chief Cliff Boxer III of Pennsville Fire & Rescue Company 1:
Pennsville Fire & Rescue was dispatched to a working fire in Salem, initially as a rapid intervention team, then reassigned as a truck company. Based on the address, I knew we would be facing a row of taxpayers in the center of downtown. The area concerned me due to the multitude of old buildings, many of which have been renovated multiple times over the years. The weather was hot and humid.