Houston Inferno Consumes Nearly 400 Apartments Under Construction

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.


Worker rescued

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.

Just then, Reissig emerged on the fifth-floor ledge, but far to the right of where the aerial had been placed. Knowing the aerial could not safely be extended with firefighters spread out on it, Hawthorne waved at Bernal and Gonzales to back down to the turntable, which they did. Wyble quickly rotated the aerial with Hawthorne alone on the fly section and extended it to Reissig’s perilous perch. Just as Reissig made it onto the aerial and into Hawthorne’s grasp, the entire burning fifth-floor exterior wall collapsed outward, just missing the men on the ladder by a few feet.

Reissig and Hawthorne became instant celebrities on the Internet for the former’s daring jump and Ladder 18’s timely rescue. The lanky Reissig told interviewers the next day that he had planned to swing his body back and forth twice for extra momentum while suspended from the patio before making the ledge-to-ledge jump, but only had time to do one swing because the heat was so intense. He suffered several second-degree burns on exposed parts of his body, but amazingly was the only reported injury victim from the fire. The video of his jump clearly shows that he barely made it, having to catch himself on a corner of the building to prevent his fall backward.


All buildings interconnected

The layout of the property was arranged as four interconnected, five-story buildings, each containing roughly 100 units. The entire complex was fully framed and roofed with some brick installation already in progress on one building. A supply yard of building materials was exposed in the southwest corner of the property, but remained unscathed after the fire. In essence, a full-square-block of “vertical lumberyard” 50 feet high was available to burn and did with ferocity. An historic cemetery, two streets and a parking lot made up the exposures to the fire with a completed, five-story, concrete parking garage the only other structure on the complex’s property.

The northernmost building, the one of origin, was largely separated from the other three buildings by the garage, which stood as a significant potential barrier to fire spreading from the north building to the three southern ones. All buildings had composition roofs, except there was one major flaw in the arrangement of the structures. A narrow row of apartments, five stories high and only one apartment-unit wide, ran along the garage’s eastern wall from the north building of origin to the middle southern building, which was connected to two other buildings. Thus, the fire was able to spread easily to all structures, thanks to the fully interconnected layout.


Command established quickly on all sides

Page assigned the other three responding chief officers to assume National Incident Management System (NIMS) lettered divisions around the complex. He set up his command post in the parking lot of a high-rise office complex on the west side of the fire, declaring that side Division Alpha.

Initially, he assigned second-arriving District 8 Chief Eric Hutzley to take charge in Alpha, but later reassigned him to Bravo, the same surface parking lot on the north side of the building where Ladder 18 had set up. District 20 Chief John Wiechkoske, the last to arrive on the first alarm, was then assigned oversight of Alpha. Division Charlie was under the command of District 46 Chief Fred Hooker on the Montrose Boulevard side and the Delta Division was set up on West Dallas, commanded by District Chief Kevin Carley, from Station 31, and first to arrive on the second alarm.

“Since I had a high-rise assignment to work with initially, I was able to get chief officers in command of all four sides of the fire quickly. I assigned the entire second alarm to report to Chief Hooker at the corner of Dallas and Montrose as that was the direction the fire was spreading,” said Page. Even that additional help was not going to be enough to keep the wind-whipped fire in check, so a third alarm was summoned. Deputy Chief Greg Lewis then took over command of the fire, standard HFD procedure.

As the fire was spreading through the complex at the fifth-floor level and then burning downward, aerial stream placement became the order of the day. Hooker ordered Ladder 33 into a driveway on the east side of the complex next to an historic cemetery where that aerial master stream quickly knocked down a large body of fire advancing through the southern row of buildings. Carley ordered the aerial from his station, Ladder 31, to start pipe operations on the West Dallas side to protect numerous three-story townhomes directly downwind and less than 100 feet from the inferno.


Key concerns for such incidents

A 34-year-veteran of HFD, the last 11 as a district chief, Page enumerated three concerns that became especially noteworthy for him. The first was the effect of wind on a fire of this magnitude. What was initially a steady northeast breeze quickly became a fire storm with heavy gusts coming into the fire from all directions.

“You have to be so conscious of how wind is going to affect you and the changes that can happen quickly because of it,” Page said, noting that both a similar San Francisco fire and the fatal Boston fire in March were influenced by wind as well.

The second concern was traffic control. The situation could not have been worse. Hundreds of panicky office workers from nearby high-rises wanted to get their cars out of parking areas into which fire apparatus were screaming. A popular enclave of Italian restaurants across the street lost lunchtime patrons to the spectacle of the blaze. And to top all, 18-wheeler drivers bringing building materials for the burning apartments hadn’t noticed the fire start and were parking right on West Dallas for an “on-time” delivery. Couple all of this with thousands of feet of large-diameter supply hose being plopped out by the bed full from all directions, and Page and his division chiefs had a real challenge setting up for fire attack. Houston police and office security workers, though, did get control of the area’s access and the crowds fairly quickly.

Finally, Page observed that too much radio communication was being attempted. He realized that every company on the fire scene had communication that was important to them. When dozens of units all have something to say at the same time, it is simply not possible, regardless of how many tactical channels are used. Consequently, Page noted that there were so many issues that had to be addressed in this large incident that decisions about many of them had to be made on the company level without an initial communication for approval.

“On an incident of this size, developing this rapidly, you have to give the fire crews the flexibility to handle issues they encounter with their own initiative.”