On The Job: New Jersey

ELIZABETH FIRE DEPARTMENT

Chief: Thomas McNamara

Personnel: 267 career firefighters

Stations: 7

Apparatus: 7 engines, 3 ladders, 1 heavy rescue, 3 ambulances

Population: 125,000

Area: 12 square miles

 

On Dec. 21, 2011, the Elizabeth, NJ, Fire Department was challenged with a stubborn fire in a large warehouse that required the response of more than 55 fire units from five counties. Although the fire was ultimately contained, it challenged the local fire departments and burned for a record 57 days before being totally extinguished.

The City of Elizabeth, which has had a career fire department since 1902, covers a 12-square-mile area, of which more than half is operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Port Authority property includes the fuel-tank farm for Newark Liberty International Airport, Terminal A and half of Terminal B. Most of the Port Authority-operated property is the Elizabeth portion of the Port Newark/Elizabeth Marine Terminal, which handles about 2,500 ships a year.

 

Initial alarm

At 12:03 P.M., Elizabeth Engine 6 and Ladder 3 responded for a car fire at 891 Newark Ave. Engine 6 saw nothing showing from the street and decided to investigate inside the building. The company proceeded into Peacock Alley and drove more than 1,000 feet inside the building and found a heavy smoke condition. The smoke was coming from a heavily involved car at the first-floor rear. This initial alarm set the tone for the entire incident.

The captain of Engine 6 upgraded the alarm, bringing two additional engines, a Ladder, Rescue 1 and an additional chief. Engine 6 stretched a 1¾-inch hoseline and attacked the fire. Engine 8 was directed to supply the fire department connection to feed the standpipe/sprinkler system from the Newark Avenue side. The fire was quickly contained, but not entirely extinguished due to a gasoline-fed fire. Engine 6 switched the longer pre-connected hose to an outlet that could deliver foam onto the fire for final extinguishment. As a precaution, Engine 5, a foam pumper, was ordered to go to the rear to better access the fire if more foam or water was needed.

There was a huge amount of smoke inside the first floor. Ventilation became the focus and ladder companies set up five fans to remove the smoke. One sprinkler head activated above the car fire. The sprinkler was shut down, the head replaced and the system restored. Ladder 3 remained on the scene ventilating the basement area.

 

The building

The building at 891 Newark Ave. was part of a large complex, used most recently as a warehouse. The main part of the structure was built in1917 by the Duesenburg brothers to manufacture engines for the military during World War 1. The first mass-produced aircraft engine, the V-12, was built there. After the war, the building was eventually purchased by William Durant, who expanded the complex to manufacture the Durant car. Durant joined General Motors in 1933 and stopped production of his namesake vehicle that year. Soon afterward, the building housed its most famous resident and become the home of Burry Biscuit. Burry Biscuit baked Girl Scout cookies, Fudge Town cookies, crackers and ice cream sandwich wafers. For 40 years until 2006, Burry Biscuit employed up to 900 employees, working around the clock.

The portion of this complex where the fire was located had two sections. The fire originated in a four-story section with a basement and was of heavy-masonry construction. Heavy masonry is poured concrete and rebar foundation, columns, floors and roof. Between the columns are block curtain walls and/or windows. It measured 550 by 320 feet and was attached to a four-story, on-slab heavy-masonry building measuring 1,600 by 220 feet. Attached to this was a three-story, ordinary structure measuring 450 by 1500 feet.

 

The upgrade

At 3:55 P.M., the captain of Ladder 3 upgraded the incident back to a full alarm assignment. As the tour commander, I responded via the alley into the rear to Ladder 3’s location. When I arrived on the scene, heavy smoke was showing from several windows of the basement below the location of the previous car fire. Looking up four stories to the roof line, heavy smoke was rolling along the connecting section of building to the main building. Instantly, I was hit with two thoughts: first, we’re going to be here until morning; and second, I’m going to need at least four alarms.

The occupancy, floor area and volume of smoke all called for 2½-inch lines at a minimum. The closest hydrant, however, was 1,200 feet down the single-lane alley. Do I really want to wait 15 minutes for the supply and the attack stretch to happen before getting some water on this? I knew the sprinkler system was operational, so the quickest way to get water deep into this basement would be pumping the fire department connections (FDCs).

I assigned my first two engines to pump the sprinkler connections in the front on Newark Avenue. Engine 1 used a yard hydrant to supply Engine 7 and we began a long stretch of 2½-inch hose into the Delta-side alley. Second-alarm companies completed that long hoselay and kept the hose to the side and the alley access open. A third alarm was transmitted at 4:12 P.M. and the fourth alarm at 4:19. The third and fourth alarms consisted of mutual aid units from Essex and Union counties. Due to the alley restrictions, a staging area was established at the mouth of the driveway/alley near North Avenue.

 

Offensive operations

With water supply to the rear established, two engine companies paired up to stretch 2½-inch hose 350 feet into the basement full of stock. Rescue began removing bars from the windows, and with a rapid intervention team standing by and strict instructions to stay in contact with the hose, Elizabeth Engine 7 and Newark Engine 19 disappeared into the heavy smoke. About 15 minutes later, they returned. With 300 feet of hose and a 100 feet of utility rope tied to the end, they could not locate the fire. Sprinklers were operating overhead and a thermal imaging camera showed high heat at the ceiling, but the firefighters could not determine the source. The sprinklers seemed to have no effect and the smoke kept getting worse.

The Delta-division supervisor placed several monitors in operation flowing into the basement windows. After meeting with a representative from the building and receiving a floor plan, a set of stairs to the basement was located not far from the apparent seat of the fire. A quick recon in heavy smoke found the door at the bottom of the stairs to be locked. I assigned three more engines (one as a rapid intervention team) and a ladder company to force the door and complete a stretch from the alley.

After operating saws in almost zero visibility, the door yielded, but opened only about six inches before hitting an eight-foot-high stack of plywood. Even so, the inside of this door was clear of smoke and was not the seat of the fire. The companies were withdrawn and I received reports of a nearby floor sagging. I took a quick look at a concrete floor sagging in the center about four inches with cracks issuing smoke. This signaled the end of offensive operations at about 6:30 P.M. and I quickly followed up by a getting a personnel accountability report (PAR).

Earlier, Elizabeth Ladder 1 made the roof and reported heavy smoke venting from the center of the roof. The company also located a six-separation between the fire building covered with flashing. They removed 300 feet of the flashing and smoke vented out of the crack. Other ladder pipes were set up in the Alpha/Bravo corner, the Bravo/Charlie corner and the Charlie Delta corner. A fifth alarm was called to augment the defensive operations and bring a second water supply more than 1,000 feet to the Bravo/Charlie corner. Although there were large volumes of smoke, little fire was visible and the ladder pipes seemed to have no effect on the fire.

 

High-expansion foam

Around midnight, an attempt was mounted to flood the basement with high-expansion foam. Elizabeth’s new Marine Response unit with high-expansion (HiEx) foam capabilities responded, and Middlesex County mutual aid augmented the foam supply. This attempt proved difficult due to the heat and smoke blowing out the window. The application tube blew out of position and eventually began to melt. Despite this, firefighters persevered and eventually filled the window to the ceiling with foam. However, looking through some adjacent windows, we could see that the foam was not moving across or any deeper into the building.

Rescue reconned the upper floors and the connected building and reported various levels of smoke, but no stock above the first floor and no evidence of the fire extending. As the night progressed, rumblings from deep inside the building could be heard periodically. Signs of collapse became more evident, so collapse zones were set up. Monitors on the Delta side were moved back and on the Alpha side the pumpers on the FDCs were repositioned on the far side of the street. At about 3 A.M., on Dec. 22, one of the louder rumblings signaled a major collapse and a 50-foot section of a four-story wall moved inward about 15 feet.

It was clear we had to stay defensive. Several other large fires came to mind. In all of them, the size of the building prevented outside hose streams from having much effect. By our estimates, we were flowing about 2,000 gpm into the sprinkler system. Could alcohol-resistant aqueous film-forming foam (AR-AFFF), due to its increase wetting ability and expansion, make a difference? At the command post, I explained the hope and the cost, and he agreed it was worth a try.

The final attempt to use foam via the sprinkler system would be set up with two foam tenders supplying foam pumpers from Carteret and Linden to pump the FDCs with AR-AFFF. It was hoped that the increased wetting ability of AR-FFF could penetrate the burning plastic.

Smoke continued to increase beyond anyone’s previous memory. About 4:30 A.M., fire appeared to be going through the roof. Large embers were visible in the smoke column, flying upward hundreds of feet. Exterior operations continued and sixth and seventh alarms were eventually summoned to relieve members, some of whom had gone through three air tanks or more while manning exterior lines and at pump panels.

 

Loading dock

As dawn arrived, the fire continued its slow march outward toward the Alpha, Bravo and Charlie sides. On the Charlie side, an attached one-story loading dock had two large openings into the basement for forklifts to enter. Fire progressed toward these openings and it seemed only a matter of time before the loading dock, with seven forklifts and two box trailers, would be involved as well. The building manager was at the command post when I ordered two engine companies to stretch three-inch hoseline and set up monitors into these openings to buy us enough time to remove the propane cylinders from the forklifts. The manager quickly raised the idea of removing the forklifts by driving them into the box trailers and towing the box trailers out of the building. I assigned another company to help and as the nozzles were holding back visible fire, firefighters drove the forklifts onto the trailers. All seven forklifts, including the propane tanks, were removed safely.

The Union County Bureau of Hazardous Materials was called to the scene to monitor the smoke for toxins. An air unit was called to refill self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinders. An EMS task force set up rehab and the American Red Cross responded to supply food, water and coffee.

 

Command staff

The incident progressed to four exterior divisions around the fire building. Assisting at the command post was an accountability officer, a state fire coordinator and various mutual aid coordinators to help with staging and relief assignments. The chief of the Elizabeth Fire Department, Thomas McNamara, quickly responded to the scene and acted as liaison to provide briefings and take concerns from outside agencies. Logistics assignments included manning the air unit, a fuel unit and a transportation truck to move responders from staging to working divisions.

For the next few days, operations included multiple alarm assignments maintaining ladder tower operations and monitors on all four sides of the fire building. On the second night, Essex County units took on a significant role by relieving some Union County units that had been operating for more than 36 hours. On Christmas morning, while three Elizabeth engines and a ladder were still working this fire, two three-alarm fires occurred within two hours, further taxing the Union County mutual aid system.

 

The final assault

On Jan. 14, the final assault began. Having maintained fire units on the scene around the clock for more than three weeks, a plan was put together using Elizabeth Fire Department and mutual aid units to bring in “the big gun.” The Elizabeth Fire Department, with the support of several other fire departments in Union County, hosts a specialized unit called the “Iron Man” that is capable of flowing 8,000 gpm. This unit’s nozzle has a stream reach of up to 400 feet. The plan was to use this reach to penetrate beyond the perimeter into the center of the building where the fire continued to smolder and flare up. Luckily, there was a 30-inch water main on the Alpha side of the building capable of feeding this nozzle.

Eight pumpers were brought to the scene to connect to hydrants and feed the manifold. Two positions for the nozzle were identified. On the Alpha side, the hydrants were close and 1,500 feet of five-inch hose was enough to feed the manifold going to the nozzle. After operating there for about an hour, the nozzle on the Bravo side was repositioned and a 500-foot hoselay of 12-inch, very-large-diameter hose (VLDH) was added to supply it in its new position. Water flowed like a river, partially filling the basement and making a small lake more than a foot deep in the Bravo alley. Much of the hard-to-reach smoldering fire was suppressed and the incident was terminated at 9:07 P.M.

 

Conclusion

Although this was the longest-burning fire in Elizabeth’s history, it was confined and did not extend to the rest of the complex. In addition, this fire would involve more units than any other incident in Elizabeth, yet there were only a few minor injuries. The heavy-masonry construction, despite being exposed to heavy fire for days, collapsed incrementally and posed little danger to fire fighters. Demolition of the building began on Jan. 16. Small smoldering fires continued until Feb. 18.

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