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The first-arriving fire unit, Engine 4, with Sergeant Sam Nunnelly and Firefighters Timmy Barnes, James Major and Todd Pridgen, took a single 1¾-inch line through the front door. The front dining area had a light smoke condition. They went through the dining area and kitchen and found heavy fire in a storage/office area about 10 feet from the back door. The hose stream was not affecting the fire, which had spread up the stairs and already burned through the office area. By now, the second floor was heavily involved.
Conditions were rapidly going downhill inside, with ceiling-mounted heating equipment crashing to the floor and exposed aerosol cans on upper shelves exploding around the interior attack crew. They radioed command that they were backing out. They repositioned and continued to flow water as conditions worsened. As they backed out, the attack line became entangled in a maze of chairs and tables in the dining room and was left in place as they followed it out of the front door to safety.
We were fortunate to have two Crewe Volunteer Fire Department officers in the area when the alarm sounded. They both arrived at about the same time as our first Blackstone units. One assisted in the operations of our Engine 4 (now supplying the 1¾-inch attack line and Truck 9) while the other led a team from Engine 3 that was taking up a position at the rear of the gym, freeing up a few more firefighters for the fire attack now underway.
At the same time, Truck 9’s crew was removing the windows on the second floor for ventilation, clearing the fiberglass insulation in place behind them and flowing the truck’s turret gun through the front upper windows – first at 250 gpm, then later removing their stack tips and flowing 700 gpm due to an error in laying dual 2½-inch lines instead of three-inch lines. This was our first significant mistake: not setting the truck up for maximum flow, since it can deliver 1,000 gpm.
I arrived on the scene in the middle of the above operations. Heavy black smoke was banking down and visibility was zero for blocks downwind. Town Manager Larry Palmore told me that he was going to take down the main power grid for this and the adjoining blocks. I told him it was pretty grim for the restaurant, that the exposure on the left for now is on its own, and that we were going to concentrate on the restaurant and right exposure. (Larry was once a volunteer firefighter in Kenbridge, has been our town manger for some years and knows “how we operate.”)
Our town operates its own power grid, supplying most residents and businesses. Having quick responses from the Public Works Electrical Department has, for years, been a great advantage to us for many reasons. Sharing our radio band, they regularly monitor our dispatch channel and are usually on the scene in a short time without having to be called. Over the past 25 years, when the chips were down, an electrical bucket truck has been pressed into service on the fireground about a half-dozen times. Each time, it was noted that we would “never do that again” because of the clear loading and safety concerns of operating a 1¾-inch hoseline from a vehicle not designed for firefighting.
I assumed command as I arrived on the scene. The lieutenant who had command, a mutual aid chief and I communicated that we would “burn down the short side of the block” if we had, but we must protect the gym due to the common walls and attic spaces without fire walls farther south – but overall, we would be careful. We had discussed this block and others throughout the years and how we would do it, by concentrating on water supply, covering exposures, and watching for “textbook” signs of fire progression and spread.
I gave a junior fire department officer who was just arriving the job of accountability. Past Fire Lieutenant David Ostrander arrived at the command post and I designated him as the chief’s aide and communications officer. I walked from the command post about 70 feet south to get a good look again at the scene as a part of my ongoing size-up.
The fire was still growing in intensity. No fire was showing from the front of the building, but a large amount was venting from the rear, while black-yellow smoke continued to “puff” out of the front windows.