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I was a firefighter with the City of New Haven, CT, from 1987 to 2004. I had been a captain since 1998 and was assigned to Engine Company 17 on the day of this fire.
At 2:32 P.M. on Jan. 14, 2004, a 911 call was received reporting a house fire at 14 Cove St. Responding on the box alarm were three engine companies, a heavy rescue squad, a paramedic ambulance, a ladder truck company and a battalion chief. The following is an account of what happened to me at this fire. It taught me the price of complacency at a “routine” fire.
2:34 – Engine 5, the second-due pump, reported being involved in a collision one block from its station and was unable to respond. A cover company was promptly dispatched. Engine 17 moved up and became second due.
2:35 – Engine 17 radioed Truck 3 to take an alternate route as a swing bridge was opening for boat traffic. Truck 3’s response was delayed further by another bridge that had been closed to traffic for over a year. With both bridges being impassable, Truck 3 was forced to take a circuitous route that brought the unit to another bridge on which the gates were closing as the company approached. The bridge operator saw the truck responding and lifted the gates.
2:36 – Engine 16 arrived on scene and reported a working fire in a two-story wood structure. The officer initiated a hydrant-to-the-fire lay using two parallel three-inch lines. While approaching the house, the lieutenant observed heavy fire issuing from one window on side 2. Positioning in front of the house, a 1¾-inch, 250-foot pre-connected handline was stretched in the front door through the porch and into the first-floor apartment. Water was initially supplied from a 1,000-gallon booster tank. The Engine 16 crew entered the house on the first floor and encountered heavy, dark smoke and high heat. As the firefighters advanced, fire was extinguished, but the seat remained elusive.
The two-family house, 67 feet long by 28 feet wide, was built in 1875 using the balloon-frame method. Originally a summer cottage, it was divided into a two-family house with a portion used as storage for a small marina on the property. A rear exterior staircase was removed during an earlier renovation. All that remained was one interior stairway to the second-floor apartment. There was no direct exposure problem as the houses were a good distance apart. The temperature was 10 degrees and with the wind off the water the wind chill was minus 7 degrees. The wind was gusting toward the southeast, directly off the water and toward the house.
2:41 – Engine 17 arrived on scene. Heavy smoke could be seen coming primarily from the first floor with fire coming out of two windows on side 2.
Engine 17 was positioned to lay away from the fire, if needed. As I passed Engine 16, no problems were noted with the pump. I made contact with the occupant of the second-floor apartment and asked if everyone was out of the house. He appeared stunned and told me he couldn’t say for sure, but he knew his dog was still in there. At the same time, the pipe man stretched the secondary pre-connected 1¾-inch line to the front door. We made our way into the enclosed front porch. At the doorway to the first-floor apartment we made verbal contact with the crew of Engine 16. I was told that they were “hitting it.”
We found a moderate smoke condition in the enclosed front porch. We donned our SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) masks and stretched our line to the top of the stairs. The heat at the top of the stairs was unremarkable and, in fact, we were able to stand with no difficulty. The smoke was thick and at knee level. Keeping with our department procedures, we stretched the second line into the floor above the fire. No fire was initially found on the second floor, just smoke and a little heat.