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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.
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.
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.