On Sept. 14, 2007, a seven-alarm fire destroyed a four-story warehouse and damaged several other buildings in downtown Richmond. The warehouse was built in the late 1890s of typical brick-and-heavy-timber construction. The flat roof was covered with rubber membrane and tar. The footprint of the building was 379 by 221 feet with a full basement. There were no functional fire protection systems in the building at the time of the fire because the owner had disconnected the sprinkler system due to poor maintenance. The warehouse was used for storage of raw materials and finished product for Primex Corp., a manufacturer of plastic sheeting and plastic roll stock.
The Richmond Fire Department was dispatched to a reported fire at the Primex warehouse at 535 North 15th St. at 2:34 P.M. Engine 1, an 85-foot aerial with a 1,500-gpm pump; Engines 2 and 3, both 1,500-gpm pumpers; a heavy rescue and Squad 1 responded with 13 firefighters under the command of Battalion Chief Tom Shook. First-in firefighters found heavy fire in the basement. All employees self evacuated upon the arrival of the fire department. Engine 3 was positioned in front of the building on 15th Street and supplied with a 150-foot five-inch hydrant-supply line. Engine 1 was positioned in the intersection of North 15th and North F streets at the northwest corner of the building and supplied by a 100-foot five-inch hydrant-supply line.
Firefighters advanced two 200-foot 1Â¾-inch attack lines from Engine 1 into the basement. These crews encountered thick, black smoke and high heat. A thermal imaging camera was used in an effort to find the seat of the fire, but the high temperatures melted the lens on the camera. Firefighters were forced to retreat from the basement after 10 minutes due to worsening fire conditions. Firefighters advanced into the first floor and cut a hole in the floor with a chainsaw. A 150-foot three-inch line with a cellar nozzle was placed into operation from Engine 1 in an effort to extinguish the fire in the basement.
While interior firefighters continued operating on the first floor, exterior crews placed a 100-foot 1Â¾-inch attack line with high-expansion foam into operation in a basement window on the northwest corner of the building. Twenty gallons of high-expansion foam was pumped into the basement window on the northeast corner on the building, but these crews had no luck with the foam reaching the fire. It was later discovered that an interior door had been pushed closed by the pressure of the foam and did not let the foam extend throughout the basement.
Engine 3 firefighters first advanced a 200-foot 1Â¾-inch attack line to an overhead door on the south side of the building. When firefighters opened the overhead door, heavy black smoke rolled out. Crews encountered zero visibility while inside the building trying to find an opening in the floor that was there due to removal of old machinery. The floor opening was never found and fire extension from the basement ignited plastic product stored on pallets on the first floor. Additionally, a 200-foot three-inch line was advanced to the same location and placed into operation. At 2:49, Shook requested a second alarm. Engines 4 and 6, both 1,250-gpm pumpers, responded with six firefighters who were assigned to firefighting operations.
After the initial interior attack failed to control the fire, it was determined that master streams would need to be deployed. The first ground monitor was placed at the dock area where the initial point of entry was made. This monitor was supplied by a 100-foot five-inch hydrant-supply line. Another ground monitor was set up at the southwest corner and north side of the structure supplied with a 150-foot five-inch hydrant-supply line. The fire continued to spread from the basement north to an abandoned elevator shaft, and south due to wind direction.
Once the fire reached the elevator shaft, it rapidly extended into the upper floors. It became apparent that any further interior firefighting operations would be futile. Command signaled for a total evacuation of the fire building. As operations were moving into a defensive mode, Shook requested a third alarm at 3:08 P.M. Engine 5, a 1,500-gpm pumper, and Truck 2, a 100-foot aerial platform with a 1,500-gpm pump, responded with three firefighters. Truck 2 is an unmanned unit, so the crew from Engine 5 picked it up while responding to the scene, per directions from Shook.
Richmond Fire Chief Michael Crawley request mutual aid at 3:09 P.M. for standby coverage at the city's fire stations. The Boston Fire Department responded with one engine, a personnel van and nine firefighters; the Centerville Fire Department arrived with one engine, one rescue, one tanker and a command car with nine firefighters; the Webster Fire Department sent a tanker and four firefighters; and the New Paris Fire Department dispatched an engine and six firefighters.
Crawley requested additional aerial ladders from the Connersville and Cambridge City fire departments at 5:21. Connersville Ladder 1, a 100-foot aerial with a 2,000-gpm pump, was positioned on the northeast side of the warehouse. This unit was supplied by a five-inch line from a hydrant on a 20-inch water main at North 20th and F streets. Cambridge City Ladder 76, a 100-foot aerial platform with a 1,250-gpm pump, was positioned on the north side of the fire building to prevent the spread of fire to a manufacturing complex across the street on North F Street. This unit was supplied by a 500-foot five-inch line from a hydrant at North 16th and F streets.
As the fire continued to rage out of control, exposures were becoming a critical factor in the incident. Exposures included Primex Plant 5, a Type II building east of the warehouse and interconnected to it on three floors by catwalks; JHG Associates, a two-story Type IV building with a flat roof 75 feet south; the Skate Co., a late-1880s three-story building constructed of brick and heavy timber and located south of the railroad tracks and 300 feet east of the burning warehouse; and the Old International Harvester Building south of the railroad tracks and west of JHG Associates.
JHG is a plastics and coating consulting company. The International Harvester building is a three-story structure constructed of brick and heavy timber spanning two city blocks to the west. Both the Skate and International Harvester buildings are used for warehousing old manufacturing equipment. A series of silos and several railcars were directly south of the burning warehouse. At the time of the fire, five bulk-storage railcars were off-loading polypropylene pellets into the silos.
Connersville, Richmond Engine 2 and 12 off-duty Richmond firefighters were given the task of stopping the fire from spreading east to Plant 5, which was connected to the fire building by catwalks on all three levels. Firefighters deployed three three-inch handlines, one to each floor, and stopped the fire from spreading into the plant. Connersville's aerial acted as a water curtain, placing the master streams between Plants 4 and 5. This unit was supplied by a 900-foot five-inch line attached to a hydrant on a 20-inch water main three blocks away.
Richmond Truck 2 was positioned between the main fire building and the JHG building at the railroad crossing and supplied with a 150-foot five-inch line from a hydrant in front of the exposed structure. Richmond Engine 6, Centerville Engine 12 and Boston Engine 81 were assigned to this location. Despite the efforts of firefighters using Truck 2's aerial master streams and a portable deck gun supplied by a five-inch line from Engine 3, this structure ignited at approximately 3:50 P.M. The building ignited initially on the roof, which was a flat tar roof and spread quickly to the south, consuming the entire roof and eventually destroying the building.
Richmond Engine 3 and Boston Engine 81 were sent to the south side of the tracks and positioned around North 16th and Railroad streets to protect the Skate building. Both placed truck-mounted monitors and three-inch handlines into operation. These units were supplied by a five-inch line from a hydrant on a 16-inch main at North 17th and Railroad streets. At the height of the fire, flames spread to the Skate building, but were quickly extinguished. Richmond Engine 4 and Centerville Engine 12 were placed on the south side of the JHG building to protect Chuck's Steak House on the corner on North 15th and North E Street. These units were supplied by a 200-foot five-inch line from a hydrant at North 15th and E streets. Both engines placed their truck-mounted monitors and several three-inch handlines into operation.
Once the fire separated the units on the south side of the tracks, a south side command was established. Richmond Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Gindling and C Platoon Battalion Chief Jerry Purcell were in command of the south-side operations. Due to the operations on the south side not having enough water for effective fire streams, it was decided that a tanker shuttle would be necessary to supply these units. At 4:38 P.M., Crawley requested a tanker shuttle to provide water for operations on the south side of the railroad tracks. Responding were Boston Tanker 82 (2,150-gallon capacity), Centerville Tanker 13 (1,800 gallons), Economy Tanker 103 (2,400 gallons), Fountain City Tanker 24 (2,000 gallons), Webster Tanker 23 (carrying 2,400 gallons) and Williamsburg Tanker 23 (2,400 gallons). Tankers shuttled water from a hydrant at 15th and West Main streets, five blocks away. This hydrant was chosen after the water company informed command that it was fed by a 12-inch main. The tankers were all of the quick-dump variety, and were self fed from the hydrant without assistance from a pumper. A five-inch supply line was left on the hydrant for easy fill-up of the tankers. The Richmond Police Department set up roadblocks so that the tankers would not have to negotiate traffic while traveling the five-block route. Two 2,500-gallon portable dump tanks were set up at North 15th Street, next to Chuck's Steak House, and connected with a jet siphon. Centerville Engine 11 drafted from the dump tanks and relayed to Richmond Truck 2 and Engine 4. The tanker shuttle operation was used for about four hours to supplement the operations taking place on the south side of the tracks. All the hydrants were fed from the north, which is where all the other fire units were connected to the water system.
Firefighters contained the fire using four aerial master streams, four ground monitors, three truck-mounted master streams and numerous handlines. Crawly declared the fire under control at 2:03 A.M. the following day, 11Â½ hours after the initial alarm. The last Richmond units left the scene at 6 P.M. The department responded dozens of times over the next three days to extinguish hot spots. Nearly 10 million gallons of water was used to extinguish the fire from six hydrants and the tanker shuttle.
A two-week investigation by the Richmond Fire Department and insurance company investigators determined that the fire originated in an electric motor in a pump and auger setup in the basement. Damage was estimated at over $12 million to the Primex building and $5 million to the contents. Damage at the JHG building and contents also was estimated at $5 million. The Richmond Fire Department sustained about $40,000 in damage to equipment, including a thermal imaging camera, multiple joints of hose, hand tools and heat damage to some of the apparatus.
Command officers said they faced several problems during this fire:
- Communications - When an incident involves a large number of firefighters and everybody needs to talk to command, communications can become overwhelming. Also, be aware that outside agencies have their way of communicating that may differ from the fire department's methods. There were too few radios on scene and after a few hours, the batteries started going dead.
- Manpower - There were not enough personnel early in the fire.
- Complacency - The Richmond Fire Department makes a dozen runs to this location every year that result in nothing.
- Exposures - The heat from the fire was so intense that exposures were the largest problem.
As noted by command, the following factors contributed to the successful outcome of this incident:
- Experience - Richmond's last big fire was in January 2007, so everything was still very fresh in everyone's mind.
- One-call system - In the past, using the fire department's emergency call-back system, someone would start calling and the process could take hours. With the one-call system, one call notifies everyone at the same time. Off-duty personnel responded to the scene within minutes.
- Mutual aid - Practicing mutual aid responses paid off. The ability for so many departments to work together made for a successful outcome of the incident.
- Water supply - After the January fire, the city's water mains were mapped. During this incident, that helped in choosing the best hydrants for water supply. Even though Richmond has a good water supply, it was not enough for this incident.
- Command structure - A critique was held with all personnel; the staff critiqued its progress and then a critique was held with the emergency management agency, dispatch, police and county departments.
- Crowd control - Firefighters had never experienced a crowd control problem as bad as the one at this incident. Consider use of all types of law enforcement. Once mounted police arrived on scene, the problem was over in minutes.
- Pre-planning - Even though the building had not been pre-planned recently, several Richmond firefighters had worked there and were familiar with its layout. These firefighters were called to the command post in order to gain insight and then attached to crews where they could help with their knowledge.
- Training - Work more with outside agencies. Create an updated set of protocols for use at large incidents. Develop new standard operating procedures (SOPs) for how and where to report during a callback; keep communications and accountability SOPs current.
JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, FirehouseÂ® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.