Fire, Explosion & Collapse: Firefighters Trapped!

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Flashover, backdraft and smoke explosions. All hazards to firefighters — sometimes predictable, sometimes not, but we have to know what some "warning signs" may be. This month's Close Call will help us learn by taking us to a related event and reading the accounts of those who were there.

The Salem City, NJ, Fire Department is 100% volunteer, with 61 firefighters. It is comprised of four individually incorporated fire companies: Union Fire Company houses an engine and air support unit; Liberty Fire Company houses an engine and a quint; Washington Fire Company houses an engine and a wildland rig; and North Bend Fire Company houses and engine and a rescue. Each company has a battalion chief, captain and lieutenant. The city fire chief is elected by majority from the qualified members citywide. The department responds to more than 400 alarms per year, with an average of 36 working structure fires each year. Salem City measures 2.1 square miles, with 5,900 residents.

Our sincere appreciation to Chief Fred Ayars and the officers and members of the Salem and Pennsville fire departments for their assistance in this column.

This account is by Salem Fire Chief Fred Ayars:

We were dispatched at 12:41 P.M. for a working occupied building fire in the middle of our downtown business district. We are the county seat, it's lunchtime and it's a weekday. This immediately made me think of two things: lower manpower and increased foot and vehicular traffic. I called for the County Fire Police while enroute; I didn't know the extent of the fire, but I knew traffic would be bad on Broadway (State Highway 49). The first-alarm assignment was Salem Engines 6-1, 6-3 and 6-4, Quinton Engine 13 and Ladder 6, and Pennsville Ladder 5 for a rapid intervention team.

I arrived first on location with smoke pushing from second-floor front windows and the roof of a two-story taxpayer. Fire was visible in a broken-out window above the alternate entrance to the far-right occupancy. A female bystander said she thought someone might be upstairs. With the windows still secured and smoke pushing hard around the window frames, survivability was questionable. We had to get up there fast.

I assumed Broadway Command. Battalion Chief John Pelura had Operations. I ordered a second alarm at 12:45, which brought Mannington Engine 14 and Ladder 5. Rescue 12-7 (Reliance) covered the rapid intervention team. Engine 6-3 was out of service for routine maintenance, so its crew brought their only other piece, a brush truck (6-4a). That company arrived first and began to work the visible fire over that doorway until other units arrived. As Engines 6-1, 6-4 and 13 and Ladder 6 arrived, crews began to stretch the first line toward the second floor and open up for ventilation.

Salem County Fire Marshal 1 arrived and was sent around back to assess conditions and report. Ladder 5 and Engine 14 were sent to the Charlie Division to prepare for ventilation and fire attack if needed. Smoke conditions worsened out front, and Fire Marshal 1 reported fire conditions from the second floor rear. The third alarm was transmitted at 12:50, bringing Elsinboro Engine 15, Lower Alloways Creek Engine 18, and Alloway Engine 19 and Air Support Unit 19-7.

In front, I ordered a truck crew to the roof to open up. We were also opening the second-floor front windows to ventilate. The first line was in service in the stairwell, with firefighters trying unsuccessfully to make the second-floor apartments. The stair was too narrow to advance a second line up with them, and they reported they were unable to get into the hallway and make an apartment. I ordered a crew to try to get a line in from one of those second-floor front windows, hoping they could get to the fire and try to contain it until the interior crew could make headway.

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.

Our unit, Quint 5-6, was assigned to the C Division at the rear of the taxpayers. As we arrived, there was a medium smoke condition at the rear of a sporting goods store. The rear of the store was single story and directly abutted a two-story brick building containing college classrooms and state offices (B exposure). A small alley separated that building from the rear of a pizzeria (D exposure), which also was one story. The alley between the two single-story sections of the buildings led to a rear door to the sporting goods store and stairs leading to apartments on the second floor. It was clear that the body of fire was in an area toward the front of the store at the top of the stairs.

Engine 14 (Mannington) was assigned to supply water to us. As this was being set up, two firefighters went up the stairs to check on the apartments. They reported that the stairs, which were not yet involved in fire, were very weak and rickety. I was leery of sending two fully equipped firefighters with hoselines up the wooden stairs because of their condition. In addition, the smoke coming out of the single-story rear section of the sporting goods store was now thick, black, and pushing. I knew a problem was most likely imminent. I did not want firefighters in the alley between the buildings with their only avenue of escape taking them past a potential problem of either a smoke explosion or flashover.

A ground ladder was placed on the C side of the sporting goods store with the intent of cutting a hole in the roof. On the D side of the sporting goods store, there were four 250-gallon fuel oil tanks. There were no doors to access the single-story rear section of the sporting goods store. There were boarded-up windows on the D side above the fuel oil tanks. Due to the heavy black smoke pushing out from the boarded-up windows and eaves, I ordered the firefighters to open up the windows and to place a handline in service. This provided quicker ventilation than opening up the roof to a building with no doors for access (the door next to the stairs was at the opposite end of the alley). At the same time, the main ladder was placed to the roof of the B exposure and access was made to assess conditions. At this point, fire was not involving the attached two-story B exposure and all occupants were out.

While the handline with three firefighters flowed water into the windows, and me only a few feet away, it happened — a sudden loud rush of air. It had a constantly changing pitch and it was louder than releasing air directly out of a compressed-air bottle. Heavy black smoke starting pushing out of the windows so hard that the alley between the buildings became completely filled with smoke, obscuring the firefighters.

A split second later, a loud explosion entirely blew out the D-side wall of the sporting goods store, where we were operating and where the fuel oil tanks were located. Two firefighters were knocked down and one lost his helmet. Electrical wires that were connected to the building fell to the ground around us and three of the four fuel oil tanks were knocked over. The double brick wall on the D side of the store had blown out about 10 feet and there was a lean-to roof collapse.

Immediately, I knew we had a backdraft/smoke explosion. As the firefighters ran in my direction, I saw the collapsed wall and performed accountability. No injuries were reported, and all firefighters were accounted for. I radioed to command what happened and that we were going into defensive operations. Initially, I had no idea that anything happened in front of the store and thought the explosion had occurred only in the rear. I heard command order an emergency evacuation and give a report on conditions at the front of the row of buildings. Then I knew the explosion was much larger than I originally thought.

After the explosion, there was very little fire in the collapsed single-story section of the sporting goods store in the rear. In fact, a plastic oscillating fan sat on a desk, undisturbed, under the collapsed roof and it wasn't even melted. However, heavy fire was visible venting from the center of the building toward the front. The firefighter on the roof of the B exposure reported feeling that entire building shake.

Several of our firefighters had taken a reading-smoke class a few months before this fire. Without being told to, they had already started to retreat prior to the explosion based on the smoke conditions. They were standing next to the fourth fuel oil tank, the only one still standing, when the explosion occurred. The backdraft/explosion occurred faster than anyone could react. I am convinced my decision not to send firefighters up the wooden stairs or on the roof of the sporting goods store and the firefighters' own decision to back out based on conditions prevented serious injuries or even a fatality. Conditions for this explosion were very similar to conditions prior to a flashover. One difference was the very loud sound of rushing air a split second before the explosion.

Next month: Additional accounts from on-scene responders and Chief Goldfeder's commentary.

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