Houston Firefighters Make Dramatic Rescues at Office Fire

Tom McDonald reports on a fire that claimed the lives of three workers in a partially sprinklered high-rise building.


A wind-fanned blaze tore through the top two floors of an occupied, mid-rise, atrium office building on Houston's east side during the evening rush hour on March 28, 2007. Three civilians died, but Houston Fire Department (HFD) firefighters manning aerial ladders rescued many others who were trapped...


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A wind-fanned blaze tore through the top two floors of an occupied, mid-rise, atrium office building on Houston's east side during the evening rush hour on March 28, 2007. Three civilians died, but Houston Fire Department (HFD) firefighters manning aerial ladders rescued many others who were trapped and seen waving from broken windows.

Three HFD members were injured during the battle, including a captain from Engine 8 who became separated from his crew and ran out of air on the fifth floor while searching for trapped victims. It was the most challenging fire for the HFD in a tall structure since an October 2001 blaze in a 39-story condominium required six alarms to control and claimed the lives of a resident and HFD Captain Jay Jahnke.

Houston has scores of high- and mid-rise office buildings, which are mostly downtown, in its vast medical center south of downtown and on its upscale west side. Ironically, this fire occurred on the city's industry-heavy east side. The type of structure involved in the fire is common across Houston. Built in 1980 as "Doctor's Atrium," the fire building once served medical professionals affiliated with a nearby hospital that is no longer there. The six-story building, approximately 100 feet wide by 100 feet deep, was built before a local fire code change that mandated full sprinkler coverage in buildings of its type. As such, only the "common" areas, its hallways and atrium, had sprinklers, while the private offices lining those hallways did not.

The fire started in one such non-sprinklered office on the southwest corner (A-D) of the fifth floor and quickly spread to other nearby offices. The building's atrium and hallways rapidly filled with acrid, blinding smoke, creating a nightmare situation for first-arriving firefighters. Adding to the complexity of the problem they faced was the fact that the fire was being fed like bellows by a strong, southerly wind coming in through broken windows on the south side that had failed because of the fire's heat, filling the building's interior with dense, lethal smoke and pushing the fire into other non-sprinklered offices. District 45 Chief Kyle Reese, a 34-year veteran, was the first to arrive from his station just over a mile away. As the front of the building faced west toward the freeway, he designated that side as the A side. He set up his command post in the building's parking lot. The crew of Ladder 45 followed him into the lot and raised its aerial ladder to the south face of the building where occupants were waving for help. That crew evacuated at least six occupants from a fourth-floor window via their aerial.

Even though many of those waving from the building were in rooms where little if any smoke was present, their ability to make it to an interior exit stairwell had been cut off by smoke accumulating in the halls. They used office furniture to break a thick, plate-glass window to signal to firefighters. The aerial ladder was their only hope for rescue.

As bad a situation as it was, it could have been much worse had the fire started just an hour or two earlier when more people were in the building. Although many workers had left for the day when the fire started, there were at least a couple of dozen who had not. The stories of survivors varied, but many reportedly claimed they did not hear any fire alarms sound until well into the fire. A man who was coming to the building for an appointment claimed he activated a pull station inside and he then heard an alarm.

While firefighters rescued several people via ladder from the outside, many occupants took their chances and raced through blinding smoke to interior stairs. Three occupants were injured, the worst being a male worker who firefighters reportedly helped out of the building, but who was later reported to be in critical condition with inhalation burns. In all, three firefighters and three building occupants were injured seriously enough to be taken to the hospital. Firefighters used thermal imaging cameras to search floor by floor until conditions became too dangerous to remain in the building. As the fire spread through fifth-floor offices on three sides of the atrium, it also extended to the sixth floor, then out the building's roof. Firefighters had to abandon interior operations.

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