On The Job - Atlanta: Daring Rescue During Mill Fire

When the Atlanta Fire Department “B Shift” went to work on April 12, 1999, little did the members know that before their 24 hours of duty ended they would make a world-class rescue during a fire that consumed the largest plank-on-timber former factory remaining within the city limits.

This was one of the most complex and dramatic incidents in a decade to face the AFD. Between the old textile mill and fires started by flying brands, the operation required seven alarms to suppress. In addition to the AFD’s commitment, fire apparatus from 17 departments responded to Atlanta’s call for help under the Georgia Mutual Aid Group (GMAG). Eight Tactical Sectors were set up, each vital to the overall outcome of the incident and each with its own command structure.

deadly site

April 12 dawned a bright and clear spring day in Atlanta with no unusual fire activity. Squad 4, commanded by Captain Tom Doyle, responded to Sandy Springs, just north of the city, at 8:32 A.M. to assist the Fulton County Fire Department at a hazardous material incident at the Emory Eye Clinic. On arrival, the squad found a fluorine gas leak inside the building. This is a dangerously reactive gas that reacts violently with most oxidizable substances at room temperature, frequently with ignition. The leak was contained with no injuries or fire, and Squad 4 returned to quarters at 11:01 A.M.

Between 1876 and the 1970s, a massive textile company operated as the Fulton Bag & Cotton Mills Inc. The company produced high-quality canvas, and its cloth bags were used in many products before competition from plastic packaging and imports caused operations to stop in 1971.

Fulton Bag has been deadly to the AFD. On June 22, 1920, Captain John M. Jenkins of Ladder 12 was critically injured in a fire at the mill and never returned to work. On Sept. 29, 1921, Assistant Chief S. Blake Chapman was killed in a three-story former piano factory leased to Fulton Bag.

The vacant Fulton Bag complex nearly had the “fire of the century” on March 12, 1982, when an electrical short ignited a passageway between the lower floors of the Mill No. 1 building and upper floors of the Finishing Mill Building. Several alarms and some tough firefighting stopped the fire before it could make headway and take off. As with the 1999 fire, stairwells, walkways and elevator shafts rapidly spread the fire.

In 1995, developer John Aderhold purchased the complex to renovate the buildings into “loft” apartments. Aderhold razed some of the more deteriorated buildings, including the original 1881 Bleachery, Warehouse No. 4, the Machine Shop, the Lining Building and Warehouse No. 11. This created a “fire break” between Mill No. 1 and the structures to its west.

On the day of the 1999 fire, one of the buildings remaining was a huge, four-story-high Boiler House. The brick structure’s machinery space contained minimal combustibles. This building acted as a heat shield, likely saving the remaining portion of the complex from the radiant heat as Mill No. 1 burned. Work had been completed and apartments were occupied in the three-story, total-masonry Bleachery Building, erected in 1951. The five-story, plank-on-timber Bag Factory (circa 1925) and the attached nine-story structures known as Buildings 6 and 8 were also renovated and occupied as apartments.

Company-owned dwellings, comprising a typical “mill village,” were constructed east of the factory complex in a neighborhood that became known as Cabbagetown. It is speculated the nickname was derived from the smell of cabbage being cooked by the low-income textile workers in these small wood-frame houses. These houses were built six feet or less apart, and that was a factor in the fire.

Much of Cabbagetown is being renovated, so most of its houses are occupied. As typical of mill-owned housing, it starts directly across a narrow street from one side of the factory complex. This was the case at Fulton Bag and the radiant heat from the fully involved Mill No. 1 soon lit off all of the two-story “apartment” structures east of the building. Other houses within Cabbagetown soon followed, mainly ignited by flying brands.

First-in units

The initial alarm was sounded at 2:37 P.M., dispatching Engines 10, 13, 6 and 1; Trucks 1 and 12; Squad 4; Air Unit 7; and Battalion 5 (Chief Clarence J. Walker). First to arrive was Engine 6, commanded by Lieutenant Mark Greene. The company was directed to Mill No. 1, located on the east side of the complex and farthest from Boulevard. A moderate amount of smoke was issuing from upper floor windows. Mill No. 1, constructed in 1881, measured roughly 100 by 350 feet and was a five-story, load-bearing, brick-walled structure with typical “mill construction.” It had plank-on-wood timber floors and wood pole columns.

“Boulevard Command” was established by Greene and AFD communications was advised of a working fire. Renovation construction crews told Engine 6 of a rubbish fire on the fifth floor. The fire was about two-thirds of the way north from AFD access at the south end of the building.

As the remainder of the initial alarm arrived, the crews told Walker they had an area about 10 by 20 feet with debris on the floor burning. Flames were about waist high, but some fire was running up the wooden columns in the area. Other AFD crews found additional extension of fire to the floor beneath the fifth-floor fire. Walker ordered a second alarm at 2:55, bringing in three engines, two truck companies and Division 1 Assistant Chief Joseph M. Tolbert.

Tolbert had started for the scene along with the initial alarm – as a fifth-generation Atlanta firefighter, for years he had feared a massive fire in this complex. Today was to be his day. Tolbert went to the rear of the complex on Carroll Street SE to check conditions at the rear of the huge building.

Greene reported that the building’s sprinkler system and standpipes had all been taken out of service except in a southernmost stairwell. This was several hundred feet from the fire. He quickly assessed the problem of getting water to the fire and asked Captain Michael Rogers to bring Truck 1 to the rear, adjacent to the east wall (side 3) of the building. Engine 13, commanded by Captain Bob Gish, was also directed to side 3 to supply Truck 1. The plan was to use the pre-piped waterway as a “standpipe.” Lines could then be stretched from the aerial into the fire floor faster than pulling hose up all the stairs and down the length of the building.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature was not cooperating. April 12 was an extremely windy day, with sustained winds from the northwest at 15 to 20 mph and gusts as high as 40 mph. With the fire in the northern end of the building, no windows in the large brick openings throughout the entire structure (because of the renovation) and a large amount of dried-out, 1881-vintage pine timbers and oil-soaked oak/maple flooring, disaster loomed as imminent.

Lieutenant Todd Edwards of Engine 10 noticed fire moving upward from the fourth floor to the fifth in a vacant elevator shaft. Conditions were deteriorating rapidly. Crews literally ran for stairwells with a roar of fire chasing them. Greene was initially thought to be missing, but Edwards and Doyle found him “tillering,” as Truck 1’s crew had lowered the stick and was desperately trying to back the aerial out to save the apparatus. Engine 13 was also trying to cut loose from a hydrant.

By this point, radiant heat was melting everything made of plastic on both trucks. Tolbert arrived on side 3 about this time with the hose in the bed on Engine 13 smoking and melting. He also found Truck 1 frantically trying to get away from the structure wall. Flames were pouring out all windows on the fifth floor and most of the fourth floor. The wind was forcing them almost horizontal to the ground and just barely over the heads of the retreating apparatus. Fire had run the length of the building in about the same amount of time it has taken you to read this paragraph.

Tolbert struck the third alarm at 3:10 P.M., bringing in Engines 23 and 19, Truck 26 and Battalion 3, Captain Jeff Miller, as well as DeKalb County Engine 6 and Truck 20, which were being relocated to AFD Station 10 as fill in on mutual aid. Tolbert foresaw the magnitude of the potential for a conflagration and ordered AFD communications to alert the GMAG. At this point, all of these companies were working the fire in the mill building itself. Almost before the Communications Division could catch its breath, the fourth alarm was struck at 3:11, followed by the fifth alarm at 3:32, the sixth at 3:51 and seventh at 4:01.

Side 1 was the remainder of the Fulton complex as described above. Side 2 was Hulsey Intermodal Rail Yard operated by CSX Transportation. Truck 12 had initially set up here for ladderpipe operations, but heavy heat and flame conditions made the company retreat, back to the 1-2 corner. The brick wall on side 2 fell outward, missing the apparatus. On side 3 were a pair of two-story wood-frame apartment buildings covered with vinyl siding. Both of these buildings quickly became involved.

Trapped 225 Feet Up

With the building now fully involved, command was advised that Ivers Sims, the operator of a 225-foot-tall “Hammerhead” crane, was trapped up on the crane. He had stayed in the control cab in case he needed to lift something to assist in the suppression efforts. The rapid involvement of the building had flames roaring out all of the openings in the brick walls, and this blocked his escape down the internal ladder in the vertical column of the crane.

Sims’ foreman on the ground told him to release the crane so it would “weathervane” in the wind. Sims reported it was getting hot up there and he was going to abandon the operator’s cab. He retreated to the counterweight end of the horizontal arm, which was the farthest point “upwind” from the fire. Concrete weights provided some shielding from the intense heat below. Media helicopter photos showed him lying down on the weights. Once Sims left the operator’s cab, he no longer had communication with the ground – no rescue plans could be communicated to a man in a desperate situation!

Tolbert ordered members of Squad 4 to see if they could get the trapped man down. Doyle and crew quickly determined that their only solution was to make a helicopter rescue and pluck Sims from his very exposed location. Then-AFD Public Information Officer Connie Smith went on live TV to ask for a helicopter to assist the AFD in removing Sims.

Every media outlet with a helicopter was already at the scene providing live shots of the huge fire to the nation. Unfortunately, the media helicopters were so heavily loaded with equipment that none could try a rescue maneuver. It was suggested that an Atlanta police helicopter, a Hughes OH-6, hover close and let Sims get on, but this plan was abandoned as the radiant heat burned the legs of the pilot, Sergeant Judy Smith. Turbulence and the movement of the “weathervaning” crane in the strong, unpredictable winds also made the police pilot decide to abandon this plan, where very careful hovering would be critical. The other helicopters on the scene either could not perform the lift or were not equipped with any hook connections from which other rigging could be attached.

Atlanta Medical Center, the base for the LifeFlight Medical helicopter, is only blocks north of the fire address on the same street. Officials there proposed tying equipment on a long rope and dropping a rescue harness to Sims. Doyle and AFD officials did not like that idea, as Sims would have had to place himself in this harness, and all with no assistance or communications on how to do it correctly and safely.

While this was underway, the U.S. Navy was readying a rescue helicopter from the Atlanta Naval Air Station in Marietta. Before the Navy could respond, the AFD was notified that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had its Bell Long-Ranger L-4 helicopter only minutes away. It was crewed by two experienced, rescue-trained personnel. The decision was made to place members of Squad 4 on the crane to assess and calm Sims, ensure the harness was correctly attached, and then help get him off the dangerous location. Several members of the squad began to harness up.

Fortunately for Sims, DNR personnel on duty included Pilot Boyd Clines and Crew Chief Larry Rogers. Clines had made many rescues as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and this experienced crew has completed several rescues similar to this in the rugged Tallulah Gorge in northeast Georgia. In preparing for this call, the doors of the helicopter were removed and a “long line” hooked to the lift ring in the aircraft’s belly. This center hook point is a major advantage to the pilot as the suspended load is directly beneath the helicopter so that the balanced load makes control much easier.

Putting a firefighter on the crane appeared to be the only option. Clines was about to make the rescue of his career to date!

To get enough clearance for the helicopter to stay safely above the vertical tower of the crane, two one-inch woven polyester ropes were rigged to form the 80-foot line. These are rated at over 19,000 pounds with a working load of 5,000 pounds. Squad 4 members examined the rigged helicopter and history was about to be made.

When the DNR helicopter arrived, Clines advised command that he could take only one AFD member, due to the weight. Although Squad 4 Firefighters Ed Hill and Bill Bowes were also harnessed and ready for the job, this particular rescue would fall to Firefighter Matthew Moseley, a three-year veteran of the AFD who had come to the city after working for five years for the Fayette County Fire Department.

Due to the unknown heat conditions, the full-body harness was placed over Moseley’s bib-type turnout pants, but under his coat to protect the metal connectors. Clines picked up Moseley and slowly lifted him to the crane with the greatest of ease and with little swinging. They made one pass to determine the effects of the thermal column. Then, Rogers directed Clines with perfection and Moseley grabbed the crane rigging and climbed aboard the first time he was brought close. Moseley cautioned Sims not to grab or lunge at him, then jokingly told him, “Your boss sent me up here to get you down so you could knock off early today.”

Clines had assumed Moseley would disconnect himself from the helicopter while he rigged Sims for the lift. But firefighters are trained to always remain attached to their “lifeline,” so Moseley did not release himself from the line. This forced Rogers to continually give directions to Clines, who was staring straight at the horizon to maintain the helicopter’s level and position in the turbulence created by the high winds of the day and the thermal column from the fire. This also placed the helicopter in the heat for a longer period than the crew had expected.

A harness had been rigged using a 20-foot piece of one-inch flat webbing tied to a ring bend on the ground. Moseley put Sims into the makeshift harness that secured him at the seat and chest positions. Ninety seconds after Moseley had touched the crane, he gave a “thumbs up.” Clines slowly took the slack out of the rescue line and gently lifted the two off the crane. After a quick flight of about 200 yards to the adjacent Oakland Cemetery, Clines carefully set Sims and Moseley on the ground. With the live TV coverage shown internationally as the rescue dramatically unfolded, when these two men, hanging beneath a chopper, touched the ground, the world breathed a little easier. Sims was transported to a hospital for evaluation and released the next day. Moseley, in the true tradition of Atlanta’s Bravest, took off the harness and went back to work as a member of the duty crew of Squad 4. The DNR helicopter had arrived one hour and 14 minutes after the initial 911 call. The rescue was over in less than 15 minutes!

With the mill building now in “full bloom,” the porches of adjacent properties across Carroll Street SE on side 3 were rapidly igniting. Firefighting became strictly a defensive operation and for a while things were almost in the “retreat mode.”

Side 2 consisted of the Hulsey Yard-Piggy Back loading yard of the CSX Railroad. It contained two doublewide office trailers, which were just north of side 2 of the Mill No. 1 building. Things seemed OK on this side, until the wall on the north end of the structure collapsed. Within moments of the wall going down and the area now fully exposed to the mill lighting up, radiant heat set fire to these offices as well as several vehicles parked nearby.

Sector Two was established under the command of Miller, acting 3rd Battalion chief. Command assigned him Engines 6, 15, 10, 2 and 23 and Trucks 11 and 12. They set up relocated Truck 12 adjacent to the office trailers in the CSX Rail Yard and Truck 11 at the 1-2 corner of the mill building. With a huge demand on the old water system in the area, ladderpipe streams were just not very effective.

Engine 10, previously supplying Truck 12 and Engine 23, along with Truck 12’s crew fought a valiant battle with handlines, but the trailers were consumed. As the trailers began to darken down, Engine 10 again fed Truck 12’s ladderpipe in the mill structure. Conditions on this side stayed the same until about 8 P.M., when GMAG equipment from Fulton County, Forest Park, Jonesboro and Cherokee County relieved the AFD crews. GMAG operated until midnight, when fresh Atlanta companies were brought in to take over the AFD apparatus operating at the scene.

Within minutes, fire was well in control of two two-story apartment buildings facing Carroll Street SE; the rear of three one-story houses facing Savannah Street SE and a one-story house across Savannah, all on side 3 of the original fire building. Exposures to all of these buildings were also seriously threatened. This included a large block building used by the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club that faced Carroll Street SE.

The force eventually working the “Carroll Street Sector” consisted of Engines 13 and 29, Trucks 1 and 29, and DeKalb County Truck 20 and Engine 6. Massive fire flows were taking their toll on the residual water pressure in the entire area, but crews slowed the spread of fire on Carroll Street SE and minimal damage was done to other adjacent wood-frame dwellings.

Tolbert knew that as long as he had a standing five-story building with a huge flame front way up in the air, additional fires were going to develop downwind due to flying brands. The relatively early floor collapse within the mill was actually a blessing. This dropped the huge flame front behind the brick walls, which now shielded some of the heat. For the most part, the flying firebrand problem began to diminish and an offensive operation was used to beat down the fires in all of the various locations throughout Cabbagetown.

Farther to the east on side 3, the “Savannah Street Sector” was established when fire was found at 148 Savannah Street SE. Companies working here included Engines 20 and 17, Wagon 2, and Trucks 17 and 16. This sector was under the command of 4th Battalion Chief Larry Mahle. Their goal was to stop the forward progress of the fire at all costs. Engine 20 was operating in front of a vacant lot on Berean Avenue. Captain Marvin Latham and his crew were working four handlines into the rear of 146, 148 and 152 Savannah St. SE. They were then informed of another house on fire behind them. Latham split his crew, sending them, and one handline, to fight a heavy volume of fire in the attic at 143 Berean Ave. This fire was also immediately threatening 141 and 145 Berean.

With the fire having now extended into dwellings on another parallel street to the east, the “Berean Avenue Sector” was established. This would involve Engines 20 and 19 and Battalion 4. Mahle, dispatched to 189 Berean, was flagged down for a fire in the gutters and roof area of a structure on Powell Street. This was a two-story brick-veneer-on-wood-frame apartment building with several elderly and semi-disabled residents trying to get out. Mahle’s aide, Command Technician Cecil Level, assisted evacuation while the chief assessed the building. Engine 26, under command of Lieutenant Danny Sanders, also enroute to Berean Avenue was commandeered by Mahle to handle the Powell Street fire. They found fire in the eaves and gutters, but not inside the building.

Meanwhile, Mahle walked through rear yards from Powell Street to Berean Avenue. Firebrands were coming down like rain and Cabbagetown residents were in a near panic. With people running up and down the streets in the thick smoke, responding apparatus continuously had to enter the area carefully.

Being vigilant that additional fires would develop in the “rain” of live brands, Mahle told companies to keep a close lookout for additional smoke. They soon found a well-involved one-story, 40-by-80-foot concrete-block building burning at 269 Tye St. SE at the corner of Memorial Drive SE. This structure had been used as an auto repair garage. As typical of the area, it also had a severe exposure on the number 3 side from a large duplex at 686 Memorial Drive SE. Lines were laid into 269 Tye as well as the Memorial Drive house. A blind resident trying to exit the 686 Memorial Drive duplex was assisted by the fire department from the exposure building.

“Garden Hose Brigade”

The AFD gave Cabbagetown residents credit for handling many of the small spot grass and gutter fires themselves. The AFD sent an engine to 250 Powell St. SE, where the “garden hose brigade” had extinguished a 10-by-12-foot grass fire. This was just one of several small fires that citizens handled, including some gutter fires discovered on houses.

One of the last spot fires was reported at 3:50 and actually became the one farthest from the mill site. This fire was reported at 491 Glenwood Place SE. This address is about three-quarters of a mile from the mill. Truck 2, returning to service from the shop, arrived first. The crew found a freestanding garage at the rear of a dwelling fully involved and collapsing. A grass fire had also begun to spread in the high winds. Not knowing how soon he would get an engine, Captain Jeff Lovvorn pulled every piece of hose off the ladder truck connecting them together, attempting to get water on this growing fire.

With 22 Atlanta engines working the mill and surrounding fires, the AFD was well below the 50% availability point. The “A Shift” commander, Assistant Chief Gerald Rioux, knew the potential for disaster in Cabbagetown. He immediately responded from his home near Station 1 to get his gear and man an extra chief’s vehicle.

Rioux met with Riverdale Fire Chief Alan Shuman, duty officer for GMAG. Shuman reported that four divisions of GMAG had already been activated, even before Atlanta’s “official” request. Live TV, showing the aerial shots from helicopters and providing a better overall look at the entire fire area, played a large part in Shuman’s decision to “strike the gong” for the GMAG standby and almost immediate activation and response.

GMAG’s four task forces provided 17 engines, three trucks, one quint, two light units and five chiefs. To facilitate these teams, an AFD officer was assigned as task force commander. When a “full alarm” was struck, the task force went as a unit with a piece of Atlanta equipment as its guide. Autos, rubbish, medical and other non-full-alarm assignments were handled by AFD equipment. Atlanta handi-talkies were made available to the GMAG companies so they could communicate with AFD apparatus and communications.

Although all of metropolitan Atlanta uses National Standard hose thread on hose and apparatus, the Atlanta hydrants open in the opposite direction and have tamper-resistant tops or square stems, rather than five-sided stems. Atlanta hydrant wrenches were assigned to the task force equipment.

Tolbert, Rioux and Neal met at the fire scene to establish a method for rotating GMAG companies to the mill site and allowing Atlanta personnel a much-needed rest period. GMAG companies manned “setup” Atlanta equipment from 7 to 11 P.M. On-scene canteen operations were provided by the Metropolitan Fire Association, AFD volunteers, as well as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

Beginning at 11 o’clock, Atlanta companies that had not been to any of the fires in the Cabbagetown area began relieving GMAG personnel and first- and second-alarm AFD personnel who were primarily still working the mill building.

While the fire at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill was going on, the rest of Atlanta was active. From 4 P.M. on April 12 to 1 A.M. on April 13, the AFD received 40 calls for service. Mutual aid or GMAG companies responded to 15 alarms, including two working fires. All GMAG companies were returned to their home jurisdictions by midnight.

The GMAG was instrumental in how the AFD was able to control this alarm. Already mentioned by branch groups, they should also be mentioned by jurisdiction: Cherokee County Fire Department, Clayton County Fire Department, Cobb County Fire Department, DeKalb County Fire Department, Dobbins Air Force Base Fire Department, Forest Park Fire Department, Fulton County Fire Department, Hapeville Fire Department, Henry County Fire Department, Jonesboro Fire Department, Marietta Fire Department, McDonough Fire Department, Morrow Fire Department, Riverdale Fire Department, Rockdale County Fire Department, Spalding County Fire Department and Walton County Fire Department.

Lessons Learned

This writer is a past instructor of classes that predominately used Francis L. Brannigan’s Building Construction For The Fire Service as the textbook. What we tried to instill in every student, and he says over and over in this textbook, is the importance of frequent pre-fire planning on all buildings, especially those under renovation.

Several AFD “company reports” said that “better pre-fire planning” could have pointed out deficiencies in the mill building. Closer inspections by suppression companies hopefully would have seen the unsafe “hot-work” practices being conducted. The use of a saw creating a shower of sparks, which initially ignited rubbish, led to this near conflagration. The workers had no suppression equipment in the area where sparks were falling. They also had no “fire watch” on the lower floors to be sure sparks were not showering down and starting fires.

Another lesson learned is the distance at which radiant heat can affect adjacent buildings and the distance firebrands can travel. The Society of Fire Protection Engineers publication, Journal Of Fire Protection Engineering (Volume 10, No. 2, 1999), contains an excellent technical paper on “Brand Propagation from Large Scale Fires.” The article, by John P. Woycheese, Patrick J. Pagni and Dorian Liepmann of the University of California’s Mechanical Engineering Department, reviews the effects of brand size, fire plume and wind on the travel of live brands. Although some of this study reviewed wildland fires, it discussed hot embers generated by large free-burning structures. General knowledge of firebrands can help a department plan on how far downwind patrolling apparatus should be checking for brand-started secondary fires.

Rioux’s report states, “When an incident of this magnitude comes along, we always look at how well the incident was handled. From the operations of the mutual aid and GMAG groups, we can also look at how well the rest of the city was run and protected. It is a tribute to the mutual aid organizations that Atlanta was well protected throughout this time period and a special thank you to all that helped.

“We also can find areas that we must improve on. They are:


1. Mobilization time needs to be shortened. When a jurisdiction needs assistance, they usually needed the help long before they call for it.

2. As always, communications is critical. There still is a need for all jurisdictions to have a common radio network.

3. Equipment differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In this case a simple thing such as a hydrant wrench could have caused large difficulties if that issue had not been noted early and Atlanta hydrant wrenches handed out to GMAG equipment.”

This operation worked smoothly because all jurisdictions worked together for the common good. Normally, a large mill fire of this type just “clears the lot” and once the debris is hauled away, the former factory is gone forever. As the mythical “Phoenix” rises from the ashes and is part of the city seal of Atlanta, 150 loft apartments will eventually be in the former Mill No. 1 of the Fulton Bag & Cotton Mill complex. The “new” Mill No. 1 should be ready for occupancy July 1, 2000. The fact that this area did not just become additional parking space says a lot for the commitment of Aderhold Properties and its overall plans for Fulton Bag.

Dave E. Williams, CFPS, a Firehouse® correspondent, is a senior account engineer assigned to the Commercial Property Operations of Factory Mutual Insurance Co.’s Atlanta office. He is a 25-plus-year member of the Metropolitan Fire Association, as well as numerous other Georgia firefighter and fire chief associations. Williams is also a member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and an honorary battalion chief of the Atlanta Fire Department.