The Stories Behind The Stories

I have worked on stories about fires and emergencies for over 20 years for Firehouse® Magazine. This review features some of the larger and more unusual incidents I covered, and some funny and sad moments with the people who responded to and dealt with those incidents. It has been an honor and a privilege to cover these incidents across the country. A firefighter once told me that he was grateful that I was able to go and report on the incidents because he and his fellow firefighters were unable to do so. I always believe it is best to get the story right from the scene, if possible. Here are some of my recollections of the "stories behind the stories."

I first heard about Firehouse® Magazine in 1976, before the first issue was published. Before the first issue went to press, I stopped by the first of five offices of the magazine and left some photos I had taken of a fire in the South Bronx. I would eventually become a charter subscriber.

A few months later, the first issue, September/October 1976, hit the streets. I had met Dennis Smith after his best-selling book, Report from Engine Co. 82, was published. He was working in the firehouse one day and he autographed my hardbound edition on March 11, 1972. Later, when Dennis was the Founding Editor of Firehouse®, I met him again in the Manhattan fire alarm dispatcher's office. I showed him some photos from a fire on Minneford Place and East 172nd Street, where Engine 82 was first due. In one of the photos was a firefighter from Ladder 31, Tom Neary, who worked with Dennis. It was Dennis who suggested that I send the photos to the magazine. In the summer of 1977, two half-page "Hot Shots" photos from the fire in the South Bronx were used, along with a few more of my photos.

Photo by Harvey Eisner
A view of the Gardner's Warehouse fire from atop the West Side Highway. Fireboats supplied the Super Pumper System's large-caliber streams.

Gardner's Warehouse. On Sept. 9, 1979, there was a tremendous five-alarm fire on Manhattan's West Side. It was reported to be one of the biggest fires in New York City in 35 years. The heavy timber Gardner's Warehouse had been the scene of a five-alarm fire in the 1930s that destroyed 2,000 cars. The 1979 fire was adjacent to the West Side Highway and the Hudson River, and threatened a large Con Edison electrical power plant across the street. It took hours for the fire to break through the roof. Twenty-three engines and seven ladder companies used 13 stangs, four tower ladders, a ladder pipe and several units of the Super Pumper System. Eventually the building collapsed.

A short time later, I stopped by the magazine's offices and showed the editors the photos I had taken. They said this would make a great "On The Job" feature, and asked me who could write the story? I said I would give it a shot. I interviewed some of the firefighters and chiefs who battled the fire, then I submitted the story. The editors changed the first paragraph and left everything else. The story appeared in the November 1979 issue.

10-Alarm Fire Adjacent To FDNY Rescue 1. There had been an oil burner problem in an old, multi-story piano factory adjacent to FDNY Rescue 1 quarters on West 43rd Street in Manhattan. People in the building smelled smoke all day, but no one went next door to the firehouse. Apparently, the fire involved oil supply tanks in the basement. A geyser of heated oil blew out of the oil fill cap on the sidewalk in front of the building. The fire extended to all floors of the building.

I arrived after the third alarm . The fire went to a fourth alarm and I walked to the rear of the building, which faced 42nd Street. Fire Commissioner Joseph Spinnato lifted his hand and indicated with five fingers that the fire had just gone to a fifth alarm. I walked around to the front of the building and noticed the only way I could take a high-angle photo of the fire would be from an old-law tenement built around the turn of the century.

A woman came out of the building and I asked her if I could get to the roof. She said yes, and I proceeded to the roof. When I walked onto the roof, I was asked by a woman what I was doing there. The chief in charge was now requesting seven more engines at a clip, several more tower ladders - they had abandoned the front of the building because of the radiant heat. Two tower ladders and an engine were left and the firefighters were ordered back to a safer position. The woman on the roof again asked me why I was up there. My flash batteries were dying because of the extreme cold, I was trying to listen to the fireground traffic as "Urgent!" calls were cutting out other "Urgent!" calls and I'm trying to load fresh film into my camera. I told the woman I was with the fire department and showed her a badge. She still wanted to know what I was doing there. I asked her "Did you ever see a fire like this?" She said no, and I told her, "You probably never will again."

The fire had taken complete possession of the building, threatening all of the exposures. Firefighters from Rescue 1 were trying to remove all the memorabilia from the kitchen of the firehouse. Forty-two engine companies were requested to the scene. Back on the roof, there must have been 200 firefighters, photographers, news crews and buffs watching the fire. The woman who questioned me earlier asked me whether all of those people were with me. (I said yes.) Eventually, the building sustained several major collapses. The seven-story-high exposure 4 wall fell onto the quarters of Rescue 1, just missing the front and the kitchen in the rear. The falling wall made a direct hit on the middle of the apparatus floor.

A story that circulated after the fire had the mayor asking the chief in charge, "Can you stop the fire?" Reportedly, the chief replied, "I don't know if I can save the street, but I'll try and hold the fire to the West Side of Manhattan!" In the time it took to rebuild the single-bay, three-story firehouse, two 35-story-plus high-rises were built on the same block. Another high-rise sits where the piano factory was located.

El Hoyo Social Club. Six people were killed and 33 injured after a fire erupted in an illegal basement social club on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx on Aug. 21, 1988. I was working on a story about the First Interstate High-Rise fire in Los Angeles when the Bronx fire was reported. When the chief of the 7th Division arrived, his aide called for a "code red." (No one in the FDNY uses a "code red.") The fire in the basement of a taxpayer extended to the cockloft. Alarms were transmitted rapidly. There were reports that 60 to 200 people were inside the illegal social club when the fire began.

When I arrived a few minutes later, the fire was already at five alarms. I witnessed a civilian telling the police and firefighters that there maybe 100 people down below. Engine companies were fighting to get down the stairway as the fire spread three stores above. Firefighters on the roof were ordered off. They threw their tools off the roof and scrambled down portable ladders.

It was a cloudless sky, but the smoke obscured everything in the street to zero visibility. Eventually, several companies made their way into the basement by breaching walls and found the dead and injured. Chief Tom Moran of the 7th Division said, "If the nightclub had had adequate exits and sprinklers, we would have walked down one stairway and put the fire out."

Paxton Hotel Fire. Twenty people were killed and 28 injured during a rapidly spreading early-morning fire that trapped dozens of people in the Paxton Hotel, a single-room-occupancy, transient hotel in Chicago on March 16, 1993. Despite high winds and heavy smoke, firefighters rescued 70 people via portable ladders, elevating platforms and a snorkel. Firefighters recalled seeing many people at the windows, ready to jump, even before the firefighters were prepared to rescue them.

Brooklyn Church Fire. We had spectacular photos of a three-alarm fire in a 12-year-old Brooklyn church. The fire occurred on Nov. 10, 1984. Every time I wanted to interview the first-due companies, they had to respond to another multiple-alarm fire in the area. This happened for a stretch of several weeks. On Jan. 25, 1985, I was on my way to Brooklyn when I heard Manhattan Engine 54 tell the dispatcher, "We might have a job here," when responding to a verbal alarm for a fire adjacent to the quarters of FDNY Rescue 1.

Firehouse® File Photo
The Peabody, MA, fire spread through a five-story factory and extended to numerous other structures.

Two Fires In Essex County, MA. I covered two major fires just northeast of Boston in 1984. I was going to a meeting in Boston and worked it out so I could cover these two major incidents. On May 10, an explosion occurred at the Henry Leather Company in Peabody. The explosion rendered the sprinklers useless and the fire raced like a conflagration to involve 19 commercial occupancies. The fire killed one man and injured 200 others. An arson fire in a rooming house killed 14 people and injured 14 others in Beverly on July 4.

Detroit Firefighters Trapped. Three firefighters were killed and 10 were injured while battling a five-alarm fire in Detroit on March 12, 1987. An alarm was received for a fire in a warehouse on the Jeffries Expressway service drive. The four-story, L-shaped building measured 400 feet long and 200 feet deep, and it had just been ordered torn down. Firefighters made their way upstairs by squeezing past three large bales of rags eight feet high and each weighing a ton.

With little smoke evident, firefighters were stretching lines when all of a sudden the fire blew. Shouts of "Get out" were heard. The fire blew from the rear, hitting the front wall and mushrooming out from floor to ceiling. As firefighters ran to the stairway, one of them ran back to an aerial ladder he had ascended and entered the floor. The fire was venting out every window it passed. The firefighter had to jump out the window onto the aerial ladder to escape with his life. The fire was now moving across the 12-foot-high ceiling faster than the firefighters could run. Some of the firefighters made it to the bales of rags, but couldn't find the stairway. One firefighter said he had to run 100 feet. After running about 30 feet, he could see the names on the backs of their coats, then they became obscured by smoke.

Photo by Bill Eisner
A Detroit firefighter was trapped in a window close to where a deck gun stream is being directed. A portable ladder is visible where the firefighter was rescued.

Several firefighters were hanging out of the top-floor windows. A 40-foot ladder was taken off a rig. A lieutenant fell from a window and he was killed. Another firefighter fell out a window and struck a large telephone cable, breaking his fall - and his shoulder - before he landed on the ground. The third firefighter hung out the window and as soon as the portable ladder was raised, he slid the rails to the ground.

Around the corner another firefighter was hanging out a window. Fire was now venting out every window on the top floor but the window he was in, and fire was visible behind him. An alert pump operator who had just hooked to a hydrant looked up and saw the firefighter in the window. He charged the pump and directed his deck gun over the firefighter's head until help could arrive. Firefighters had to place portable ladders over a chain link fence, then struggle to lift the 40-foot ladder over the fence. The firefighter later said that he was thinking that he was not going to jump until he started to burn - "When I jump and hit the ground, I'll be hurt. I'll never be a firefighter again." Luckily, the ladder was raised and the firefighter was rescued unharmed. The fire spread to an exposure and a few hours later there was a collapse in the exposure building. Two other firefighters were killed.

Buffalo Explosion. A propane explosion in Buffalo, NY, killed six people, including five firefighters, and injured 70 other people. The Dec. 27, 1983, blast was felt 20 miles away and damaged 120 buildings in a 16-square-block area. Eighteen buildings were destroyed and 55 others sustained severe structural damage.

Photo by Harvey Eisner
Five Buffalo, NY, firefighters were killed and several injured after arrival at a warehouse with a propane tank leaking inside. The destroyed first-due truck was removed two days after the blast.

A worker was moving a large propane tank when the tank fell over and caused the valve to leak. The workers left the building and called 911. The heavy propane vapors traveled down the stairways and were ignited by a wood-burning stove on the first floor.

First-alarm units were dispatched. Two engines, a ladder and Battalion Chief Harvey Supple arrived on the scene. As the chief was talking to the workers about the leaking propane tank (which was about the size of his vehicle), the explosion occurred. Five members of Ladder 5 were killed. There wasn't one piece of equipment on their truck that was usable after the blast. The officer and driver of one of the engines were trapped in their apparatus after the building exploded. Arriving units discovered all members on the scene were dead, injured or missing. Division Chief Jack Supple arrived to find his brother injured and made sure he was transported to the hospital.

I heard the news on TV and immediately headed for the airport. I boarded a flight to Buffalo, but the airport was closed due to freezing rain. I traveled to Buffalo the following day, where I spoke with the fire commissioner. His driver took me to look at the scene. I spoke with the deputy commissioner and picked up photos of the fire and the firefighters who were killed. I read all the local accounts and returned the next day. We ripped out nine pages inside the issue we had just finished, added a cover and wrote the story. On Feb. 2, 1984, the February issue of Firehouse® was out with the story.

World Trade Center Bombing. I was part of a crew of firefighters standing by in a neighboring fire department so they could attend the funeral of one of their members as we watched TV coverage of the fire and explosion at the World Trade Center in New York on Feb. 26, 1993. Following the blast, I interviewed numerous chiefs and units that operated in different portions of the Trade Center complex. I even visited the interior of the section where the bomb exploded. A massive steel beam was bowed from the blast. The truck with explosives had been parked adjacent. During my visit to the interior, work was being completed to remove the debris and replace the floors below grade that had collapsed after the blast.

Photo by Harvey Eisner
After the World Trade Center explosion, the ensuing fires and smoke in the multi-building complex housing over 50,000 people required the transmission of 16 alarms.

A firefighter from Rescue 3 commented that they had made their way upstairs. Some of the 50,000 occupants of the two 110-story towers were complaining to them about having to walk down the stairs from the upper floors. He told them this was the world's largest Stairmaster and a lot of people had to pay for what they were doing for free!

Operating in the lobby of one of the 110 story towers, Chief of Operations Donald Burns assigned three battalion chiefs to the upper floors. The first chief was assigned floors 1-10. The next battalion chief was assigned floors 11-20. The next-in battalion was assigned floors 21-110. While he was waiting for additional companies arriving from all over the city, Burns received a report of a cardiac on the 45th floor. A ladder company reported in and asked the chief what they could do. He told them to check on the cardiac patient on floor 45. The officer asked where the elevators were located. The chief replied that the elevators were out of service. The officer just stared back in disbelief.

Operating in the below-grade area, the captain of Engine 18 heard a person yelling for help. He proceeded over telephone conduits and broken pieces of concrete to reach the man, who was trapped among pieces of the lower below-grade floors that were destroyed by the blast. The captain dropped a piece of pipe down below to see how far the drop below him was. He didn't hear the pipe hit anything. He said he wanted to hear the pipe hit, but wasn't surprised he didn't hear it. There was plenty of noise from flowing water from broken pipes, etc.

He climbed over the concrete and conduit with nothing else around and found the man. He placed the man, who was much larger than the captain, on his back and retraced his steps. The fire required 16 alarms of companies to operate and search the 220 stories of the tower complex.