Houston Firefighters Make Dramatic Rescues at Office Fire

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.

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.

Key Operational Points

1. Fires in partially sprinklered buildings can spread flames unchecked everywhere there are not sprinklers, and can spread lethal smoke everywhere there are sprinklers. This fire is a perfect example of how a partial sprinkler system can result in the worst of consequences, including destruction of a large office building, multiple loss of life and serious endangerment of firefighters. The only way to ensure reasonable occupant safety in such buildings is with total sprinkler coverage, including all offices, shafts and storage areas.

2. The top priority at major fires in mid-rise structures like this should be to remove all occupants who present at windows on all floors by the fastest and simplest exterior means possible: aerial, tower or ground ladder. If occupants are waving from multiple windows or on multiple floors, remove those closest to and those above the main body of fire first. There may be little or no smoke showing from windows where people are waving. In fact, the main fire may be several floors above them, but they also may not have any other way out of the room they are in because of heavy smoke conditions outside their door. Those conditions can also change in an instant. These exterior rescues should be made first, but an interior search should be initiated as soon as additional manpower is available.

3. The direction and force of wind plays a huge role at fires like this. It can significantly worsen the conditions of a fire (as it did here), or reduce its lethality by taking smoke away from a building (had the fire initially been on the leeward side). When the main body of fire is on the windward side in an atrium office building, all the smoke will be forced back into the building's interior and will spread immediately to every floor, even into enclosed stairwells as they end up being frequently opened by firefighters and occupants seeking egress. Therefore, ventilation becomes the next highest priority after exterior rescue because, for all practical purposes, it will be necessary before any effective interior search or fire attack can be performed. Roof hatches, skylights, and leeward windows need to be opened as quickly and safely as possible, typically from the outside.

4. At fires in tall buildings such as this, ALL personnel on the ground but within the building's exterior collapse zone (including apparatus operators and EMS personnel) should be wearing helmets and bunker gear as minimum protection from flying glass that could drop instantly from windows broken by occupants.

5. If your radio system is capable, consider devoting the channel on which a lost or down firefighter is talking to nothing but communication associated with his rescue until it is completed. If possible, move all other tactical radio traffic for the incident to another frequency. The incident commander should also devote a divisional commander to oversee nothing but the rescue of the firefighter.

6. Remember that the fastest way to access a missing firefighter in a reachable upper floor of a smoke-filled atrium structure such as this may be via an aerial ladder through a window nearest the point where the firefighter last reported being. Interior stairwells can become filled with smoke, as they were in this fire, and severely delay rescuers using them. While the lost firefighter should be encouraged to make his way to an exterior window and to break it out, ladder crews on the outside should expeditiously open as many windows as possible for access and ventilation. Tag lines, a charged attack hoseline, and an extra breathing device should be deployed by crews entering the building from an aerial to search for a missing firefighter.

7. Fires in office buildings that cater to medical professionals can hold many added dangers for firefighters, most notably large cylinders of medical gases such as oxygen. Fire crews should be familiar with such facilities in their districts and know what types of gases are stored and where.

8. Company officers are the eyes and ears of the incident commander inside structures like this. From the outside, it is difficult for an incident commander to know exactly what conditions are being encountered, thus it is imperative that company officers give frequent, concise, yet descriptive, radio reports of what they see. If officers feel conditions inside become unsafe to continue interior operations, they need to convey that clearly and immediately to the incident commander and evacuate with crews intact.

9. Similarly, an incident commander can usually only see one side of a building well and maybe just one other side partially, so observations of any exterior structural problems (falling or hanging debris, cracks in walls, etc.) should be relayed to the incident commander quickly by anyone with a radio, not just an officer. An incident safety officer (ISO) should be immediately dispatched to examine the problem further, cordon off the area if needed, and give a follow up report to the incident commander. Obviously, any apparatus that positions close to a structure initially to perform aerial rescue should later be repositioned if structural integrity becomes questionable.

10. Pouring tons of water into the upper floors of a structure such as this can pose serious risks for various types of collapse, even hours later when the fire might appear to be out and firefighter access might appear possible. Five hours after this fire started, a large section of an upper floor collapsed onto the floor below it, sending tons of water cascading out the windows of the building, further weakening the overall structure. Never go inside such a building until it has been fully evaluated by structural experts, a process which could take days. There is just too much risk and absolutely no reward.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

9343 North Loop East (IH 610) and Gellhorn Drive Office building on fire

5:16 P.M. - First alarm: Engines 45, 41, 43, 27; Ladders 45, 44; Districts 45, 20; Safety 23; Medic 43; Shift Commander (Deputy) 27

5:23 - Second alarm: Engines 32, 20, 19, 53, 8; Ladders 20, 34; Tower 18; District Chiefs 19, 34, 8; Rescues 11, 42; Rehab 17; EMS Supervisor 17; Communication 11; plus numerous EMS units

5:43 - Third alarm: Engines 15, 39, 12, 17; Ladders 56, 29; EMS Supervisors 11, 33

6:06 - Fourth alarm (by dispatcher, automatic for Mayday): Engines 13, 60, 75, 83; Ladder 7; Tower 6