Rochester, NY, like many other U.S. cities, has many large, vacant or abandoned industrial complexes. These structures, once bustling with productive activity, now stand empty, contaminated and in disrepair. In spite of the best efforts to secure the buildings, they often become havens for the homeless and those involved in illegal activities. The expense of demolition and clean up is prohibitive and neither the municipality nor the owner seem willing to incur the cost. So the buildings go largely unnoticed, except by those who live in their shadow, until catastrophe strikes.
At 10:39 P.M. on Friday, June 20, 2003, fire was reported in an abandoned, six-story brick building, part of a nine-building former Delco (General Motors) automobile-parts manufacturing plant. Within 15 minutes of the first alarm, all six floors of the block-long building were blazing with flames exploding 50 feet over the roof. The fire became one of the largest incidents in the history of the Rochester Fire Department, challenging its resources, command structure and pre-planned strategies.
Heavy Fire on Arrival
The fire was reported as sparks coming from the abandoned factory building at 350 Whitney St. From the moment the fire was reported, 100 on-duty firefighters awaited the on-scene report from Engine 5 and Battalion 2 Chief John McDermott. A backup 911 call brought Engine 13 and the line deputy chief. Engine 5 arrived within two minutes and reported heavy fire visible from the number 4 side of the complex; Battalion 2 arrived simultaneously, from the number 3 side, and immediately requested a second alarm.
Initially, fire was visible from the first three stories of Building 1, involving about 80 feet of the center section; within five minutes, it had completely taken hold of the building. Deputy Chief John Caufield arrived on-scene about one minute behind the first-arriving units and immediately struck a third alarm, also special requesting an additional battalion chief in an effort to quickly sector off the inferno. The request for a third alarm activated an automatic response from Fire Chief Floyd A. Madison, Executive Deputy Chief Ralph Privitere and additional staff officers.
Immediately upon arrival, McDermott ordered an exterior attack. Collapse zones were established as Caufield assumed command, McDermott was assigned to sector 4 and Battalion 1 Chief Gene Michael was assigned to sector 2; sector 3 was not assigned initially due to limited access (railroad tracks).
The first-arriving ladder company, Quint/Midi 8 took a defensive position in the courtyard on the number 1 side of building 1, immediately placing their tower ladder in service. (In the Rochester Fire Department, a quint/midi, or Q/M, company is a two-piece company staffed by one officer and five firefighters. The quint apparatus is positioned for truck or engine work, depending on its anticipated arrival on-scene; i.e., first, second or third due. The midi unit is staffed with two firefighters and functions as a mini-pumper or hose tender. Midi units also respond on service and EMS calls.)
Captain Dan McBride/Rochester FD
A ladder pipe operates on the exposure to the left of the original fire building. The heavy fire and embers threatened nearby factories and about 20 homes.
Due to the rapid fire extension, Quint 8’s position was vulnerable to the impending collapse of Building 1; however, its tower ladder was limiting the fire spread to Buildings 2 and 3. Quint/Midi 6 was brought into the courtyard area, on the number 1 side of exposure Building 3, and placed its ladder pipe and deck gun into service, letting Quint 8 relocate to a safer position.
Due to the rapid increase in fire spread and the close proximity of several exposure buildings, fire control efforts were aimed at limiting exposure involvement via the use of master stream appliances. Within 15 minutes, the fire had grown to a fourth alarm, but surrounding exposures were being more severely threatened. Additionally, a shower of embers was traveling south and threatening nearby factories and approximately 20 homes, located about 400 feet downwind. The weather played a major role in helping crews contain the fire spread, with wind speed at just 4 mph and a steady rain falling throughout most of the incident.
The area is well supplied by two separate water supply grids: a traditional hydrant system and a high-pressure system called the “Holley system.” The Holley system is a water supply system installed throughout the downtown area during the industrial boom of the middle to late 1800s. Unfortunately, the location of the fire was at the outermost limit of the Holley water grid; therefore, its effectiveness was limited. Traditional hydrants in the region are capable of approximately 1,500 gpm.
At approximately 11 P.M., Madison assumed command and Caufield was assigned to operations. As the fire continued to grow, the risk of collapse and fire spread increased significantly.
At 11:10, just 30 minutes into the fire, McDermott radioed that collapse of Building 1, side 4 was imminent; side 1 also appeared ready to collapse. Michael reported that the top two floors and roof of Building 5 were well involved and fire was showing from the top two floors of Building 2. Building 5 was bordered by elevated railroad tracks, a large wood frame building and Building 1, making containment difficult. Building 2 was showing signs of severe fire impingement, and with a 10,000-gallon water tower on the roof a total collapse was expected.
Captain Dan McBride/Rochester FD
A view from the rear of the complex looking at the original fire building. At the height of the fire, 18 master stream devices were in operation. The fire was controlled in seven hours.
In response to the deterioration of the structures, fifth and sixth alarms were struck. At 11:26, Building 1, side 4 experienced a partial collapse of approximately 50 feet (near the 3/4 corner). Simultaneously, Building 1 suffered a pancake collapse of all six floors with some exterior collapse.
After 45 minutes, 17 of 18 Rochester units were on the scene, and additional help was needed. A seventh alarm brought mutual aid units to the scene from the Gates Fire Department and St. Paul Fire Department, along with Quint/Midi 7; additional mutual aid units covered virtually all of the Rochester firehouses.
Eventually, the complex was well surrounded by units; 18 master stream devices were operating at the height of the fire. Water supply was stretched thin, but was adequate. Following the collapse of much of Building 1, including the covered rail dock, access to the south side of the complex was possible. Master streams were able to penetrate deep into Buildings 2 and 5, which dramatically slowed fire growth. At approximately 3 A.M., it was reported that the fire in Building 5 was contained, significantly limiting fire spread to several imperiled exposures on either side of the railroad. By 3:30, the fire in Building 2 was extinguished. At 4 A.M., it was determined that the fire was knocked down, and at 5:39, the fire was placed under control – exactly seven hours after the first fire report.
After the fire, large portions of the burned-out complex remained standing and a demolition crew was called to the scene. Total demolition costs for those buildings deemed structurally unsound were estimated to be up to $1 million.
The investigation into the massive fire is on-going, involving Rochester Fire Department and police investigators and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). While the fire was clearly suspicious, investigators have been hampered in efforts to determine the exact point of origin due to instability of the remaining structures and the overall extent of the damage.
- Pre-planning and knowledge of target hazards is critical to any operation.
- Weather can play a significant role in overall outcome. Wind speed and direction, temperature and general weather conditions were favorable during this operation.
- Immediate sectoring of large incidents is essential.
- Incident priorities were well established and communicated to all companies.
- Recognize and plan for collapse potential.
- Pre-incident or post-incident demolition costs are significant. Ownership information and responsibilities should be well established.
John Caufield is an 18-year veteran of the Rochester, NY, Fire Department, and the Group 2 deputy chief. He has an associate’s degree in fire protection from Monroe Community College, a bachelor of science degree in organizational management from Roberts Wesleyan College and a bachelor of science degree in fire science from the University of Maryland. Caufield is enrolled in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is working toward his master’s degree in public administration.