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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Since the building stood next to an interstate freeway, the sight of the blaze caused rush-hour traffic to slow to a crawl. An army of spectators amassed at the scene lured by the billowing column of black smoke. In the early-evening sky, a flock of TV news helicopters hovered, relaying dramatic images of aerial ladder rescues followed by flames devouring offices on the top two floors. The video was broadcast live, not just locally, but on national cable news channels as well. Local network affiliates pre-empted evening network news programs to maintain live coverage of the unfolding drama.

At approximately 6 P.M., or 45 minutes into the fire, the captain from second-alarm Engine 8, who with two firefighters was searching for occupants on the fifth floor, became separated from his crew. The two firefighters, both running out of air, made it down the interior stairwell where a rapid intervention team aided them out of the building, but Captain Eric Abbt was not with them.

Soon, the officer was heard on the radio calling for a Mayday. Following department policy, the dispatcher pulled an additional (fourth) alarm, while the incident commander ordered two rapid intervention teams, Engine 27 and Rescue 42, to ascend the stairwell to find him. The crew of Ladder 19 was ordered to the roof to make sure the hatch was open in the stairwell for maximum ventilation, while Ladder 20, positioned on the north (B) side of the structure, raised its aerial to knock out plate-glass windows on the fifth floor near where the captain reported being.

For what seemed like an eternity, firefighters searched for the missing captain as it became clear he was running out of air in what all knew was a deadly environment. At one point, only his breathing could be heard on fire department radios. A dispatcher made out from one of his transmissions that he was "near a window on the fifth floor" and relayed that information to searching firefighters, but rapid intervention teams were unable to find the officer. A few minutes later, attempts by the incident commander to get Abbt to respond verbally were answered only with silence. All feared the worst.

As the crew of Ladder 20 reached the top of its aerial to enter the fifth floor through a broken-out window, they were amazed to find themselves face-to-face with a soot-covered Abbt, standing there without his helmet, lugging his empty airpack. The smoke conditions on the floor were still extremely heavy, but the 14-year veteran captain managed to make his way to one of the broken windows to get life-saving air and a desperately needed ride down. The captain on Ladder 20 had to wave the weary Abbt away from the window until the aerial was properly positioned. Abbt then collapsed onto the ladder and was carefully lowered to the ground where an awaiting EMS crew took over. He was rushed to a local hospital, where he was treated for severe smoke inhalation.

Abbt and his crew had been searching for trapped occupants. Indeed, after the fire was contained, firefighters began to find victims in the very area near where Abbt was rescued. The bodies of two women, both employees of a state agency on the fifth floor, and a male victim, the owner of a trucking company on the sixth floor, were soon found.

After Abbt's rescue, the fire was fought in a defensive mode. Ladder pipes were trained on the blaze from three sides, quelling the flames on the fifth and sixth floors. At least one large medical gas cylinder fell from the building during the fire, raising the possibility that oxygen cylinders in some of the medical offices might have given added fury to the fire. Firefighters later noticed a crack in the building's exterior wall that necessitated relocation of some of the apparatus. The building was so badly weakened by the fire and by the tons of water poured into it that investigators were delayed in entering the structure for several days while a specialized contractor reinforced the building's structure.

A week after the fire, a nurse employed by a cosmetic surgeon with an office on the fifth floor was charged with arson and three counts of murder after she reportedly confessed to investigators that she set the fire in an office closet hoping to cause postponement of a medical licensing audit the following day. According to those investigators, she claimed she had fallen behind with paperwork to be reviewed in the audit and feared losing her job.

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