Sunday, January 17, 2010, 0400:
Three towering aerial ladders surrounded the building like the cranes of a giant erector set. Smoke and flame gushed out from the where the roof of the building used to be – before it had collapsed into the second floor apartments. A laser-like jet of water from Ladder 8’s master stream lanced into the roof area and through the second story window onto the sidewalk below, fanning a stream of roof gravel, charcoaled remains, and oily gray water across the boulevard to the icy gutters of the street. That image – Ladder 8’s straight stream lancing through the window – gave me the distinct impression of a giant needle pinning some smoldering insect down onto a cork board…..
It is 4:00 in the morning, and Saint Paul Fire crews were working on the scene of a 2 alarm fire this morning at 185 Como Avenue. The fire was called in about 3:15, and quickly spread from a vacant first floor apartment to the ceiling and roof area above the second floor. 2 apartments were unoccupied, and the other 2 apartments provided home for a dozen or so residents. All escaped safely, although at least one pet was confirmed dead. There were no civilian injuries, but one firefighter sustained a knee injury on the scene. The cause and origin of the fire is still under investigation.
Steam and smoke gave the area a hazy appearance, and the towering aerial ladder trucks chased orange fireballs around inside the upper floors of the 2-story, 4-unit apartment building. Straight streams from the elevated nozzles of Ladder 8, Ladder 22, and Ladder 18 looked like laser beams sifting through the rubble of the collapsed roof. The whole scene looked like the scene of some alien insurrection. In fact, in a millisecond my mind flashed back to a childhood memory of my dad and me sitting on the couch together watching War of the Worlds. Yep, the ladder streams looked just like the alien laser beams combing through the debris of a peaceful world turned to chaos…..
First arriving companies found flames coming out of one of the first floor apartments. They attacked the fire, assisted residents in evacuating, and began a search for anyone in the building. After quickly knocking the fire down, they conducted searches for additional occupants and confirmed that everyone had been safely evacuated. However, the smoking issuing from the top of the building and the flames seen spouting from the edges of the flat roof told the unseen story: fire had penetrated to the interior roof area and was burning hotly above the second floor ceiling. Before crews could fully access the hidden fire, the roof partially collapsed and fire broke through the roof. Crews were pulled out of the building for their own safety, and we began a “defensive” operation.
At some point it seemed to me that the apartment building ceased being a “building,” and became simply four vertical piles of bricks standing together – it was like the spirit of the spirit of the building had suddenly departed and drifted away downwind on the smoke…..The building will likely be a total loss. The roof was gone, the windows were gone, and the outside brick walls were crumbling in several areas. I could not see inside, but the floors and interior walls must have been largely consumed by fire or collapsed under the weight of the roof….What had been home to a dozen people was now merely an empty, burned out shell of bricks….
We don’t have a fire end like this very often in Saint Paul. Typically we stop fires long before they take hold of the heart of a building. In fact, we extinguish about 75% of all structure fires in the “room of origin” – before the flames can even spread beyond the room where the fire started. But in some buildings the fire extends through void spaces and walls undetected until it is burning the structural members of the building. Then, more extensive damage results, of course. In some cases, that structural damage results in roof, wall, and floor collapses, and there’s no way to keep crews inside the building any longer. Our crews this morning did a great job of stopping the fire long enough to ensure everyone was safety evacuated before the building started to crumble around them.
Crews are still picking up as I write this update, and several units will likely be on scene most of the day to ensure that no fire rekindles in the building. Our thoughts and sympathy goes out to the families who lived in the building, and the property owners and their loss.
My gratitude goes out to the members of the Water, Public Works, and Police Departments, who responded and assisted at the scene. Also to Betty, the wonderful manager of the Holiday gas station next door who provided a warm building, restroom facilities, and refreshments to our fire crews. Betty literally gave the shoes off her feet to a bare-footed fire victim! The Salvation Army cantina also arrived to provide food and beverages to firefighters and responders – they have ALWAYS been a most cherished partner in these disasters! Finally my compliments to the command staff and fire crews on scene this morning – you do INCREDIBLE work to save lives in Saint Paul, and this morning was another great example! THANK YOU!