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A fully framed and roofed, interconnected complex of nearly 400 apartment units under construction, only three months from their scheduled opening, went up in a massive column of smoke that could be seen for miles during Houston’s lunch hour on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Nearly 100 construction workers were sent scurrying for safety, and nearby residents of homes, diners in restaurants and workers in high-rise offices raced into the streets with garden hoses or cameras.
The blaze was first reported just before 12:30 P.M. at the Axis Apartments at 2400 West Dallas St., only a mile west of Downtown. The first Houston Fire Department (HFD) units to arrive were an engine, a tower ladder and a district chief SUV from Station 6, less than a mile away on Washington Avenue. District 6 Chief Wallace Page assumed command of the incident.
“As we approached the scene coming down Montrose Boulevard from the north, we could see the smoke column and that the fire was still relatively small on the northeast corner of the northernmost building. We even noticed a worker still on the roof,” Page recalled.
Those flames were first noticed by workers in the origin building, one of four in the complex, each with roughly 100 units spread out over five floors. Witnesses from nearby high-rise offices who saw the fire develop said workers attempted unsuccessfully to control the flames.
“I ordered Engine 6 to get up to the fire with a hoseline and for the tower to get workers off of the roof and out of the building,” said Page. Fanned by gusty winds out of the northeast, the fire grew quickly, enveloping the roof and top floor within minutes. At 12:41, Page ordered fire crews out of the building, dispatchers to send a second alarm and for apparatus drivers to set up for defensive operations.
Construction supervisor Curtis Reissig, who did not exit the building fast enough, found himself trapped on a wooden patio without railings on the fifth floor with flames lapping at him. In an amazing show of acrobatics captured on video by a nearby worker’s cell phone, the 56-year-old Reissig suspended himself from that patio’s ledge and successfully dropped to the patio below, also without railings. The crew of HFD Ladder 18, normally a tower-ladder unit, but operating in an aerial-only reserve apparatus, was positioned close enough to swing its aerial into position to rescue Reissig from the ledge.
Senior Captain Brad Hawthorne and his crew, however, might not have been in that spot at the right time without two fortunate circumstances prior to dispatch. First, the initial HFD response to this fire was actually larger than that normally sent to an apartment fire. As the initial report was that a high-rise was on fire, an HFD high-rise first alarm was dispatched, sending six engines, four ladder trucks, four chief officers and two safety officers to the call, rather than a “4-2-2-1” response that would have been sent for a report of an apartment fire. Ladder 18 was the fourth truck on this expanded first alarm.
The second fortunate circumstance was that Ladder 18 was more than a mile closer to the fire than their quarters when they were dispatched. The crew was just picking up from a carbon monoxide (CO)-detector call much closer to the West Dallas scene than their station.
Arriving several minutes before they would have had they been coming from quarters, 18’s crew was instructed to rescue “a worker” from the fire building’s roof. When they arrived in position, however, Reissig had already disappeared from the roof into the upper floor of the burning structure, unbeknownst to the fire crew below, where he then found himself trying to outrun the inferno.
Engineer/Operator Dwayne Wyble, with more than 30 years of experience, positioned the 107-foot reserve aerial truck about mid-building in a parking lot on the north end of the complex, but firefighters still did not see the worker. Hawthorne, a 24-year-veteran, ordered the aerial placed to the fifth floor, about mid-building, to access the top floor. He started up the ladder with Firefighters Luis Bernal and Luis Gonzales right behind him.