LANCASTER -- A state police report details how what seemed to be a manageable fire quickly deteriorated into a tragedy that ended with the death of firefighter Martin H. McNamara V. The report, which the Sentinel & Enterprise obtained through a Freedom of Information request, also shows how McNamara pleaded for help during the November 2003 fire, but repeated attempts to rescue him from the basement failed.
"It basically got totally dark down there and you could tell it was going to s...," Clinton Deputy Fire Chief John E. McLaughlin said.
The Fire Investigation Summary Report, which was completed on Dec. 2, 2004, includes statements from numerous area firefighters and residents who lived at the 2 1/2 story apartment house at 76 Mill St., where McNamara died in the basement.
State Police believe the fire began near or at ceiling level in the basement. An exact point of origin could not be determined.
"It is further the opinion of investigators the most likely cause of this fire was an unspecified electrical event in the area of origin," according to the report.
This is what happened on the day of the fire, according to statements included in the report.
The day of the fire
Residents awoke soon after 3:30 a.m. to noise and smoke.
"I heard a noise that sounded like a small backfire or an explosion. It woke me up," said Loraine B. Moeckel, the building's owner. "I looked down and saw smoke coming up from the forced hot-water pipes in the baseboard."
Moeckel went downstairs and opened the basement door.
A wave of smoke hit her face before she started waking up the house's tenants and getting them out of the house, according to her statement.
Lancaster Deputy Fire Chief Sean Ford told McLaughlin to take a line directly into the cellar when he arrived at the fire around 3:45 p.m.
Ford assumed command after arriving on scene, according to his statement to police.
"I went down cellar by myself with the thermal imaging camera to see what we had," McLaughlin said. "I went back up to the top of the stairs and made contact with Clinton Firefighter Eddie McNamara ... I told him it didn't look like a big deal and to send the 1.5-inch line down."
Lancaster Firefighter Steve DiMeco, McNamara and Eddie McNamara brought the line down while Clinton Firefighter Terry Parker stood at the top of the stairs keeping kinks out of the line, according to McLaughlin's statement to police.
McLaughlin thought the firefighters had the situation under control.
"Steve and Marty worked the nozzle, passing it back and forth and Eddie helped out with the handling of the line," McLaughlin said. "At some point, I thought we had knocked it down because the smoke started to lift and visibility was coming back."
Ford, who had been a member of the Lancaster Fire Department for 17 years, sent down Lancaster Fire Capt. Andy Mortimer to see how things were going.
Mortimer told Ford that McLaughlin said "there was too much (stuff) down there" and to not send anyone else.
There was still no fire at this point, just a worsening smoke condition, Ford said.
Starting the fan
Ford told State Police that McLaughlin told him they had knocked down the fire in the basement and to start the Positive Pressure Ventilation fan at the front door.
The PPV fan was started and the ladder crew was ordered to start taking out cellar windows, Ford said.
But the smoke turned charcoal black after firefighters knocked out the windows, which made Ford believe the fire was not "knocked down," according to Ford's statement.
Ford then ordered firefighters to turn off the PPV fan.
A separate report, written by the National Institute for Standards and Technology in March 2005, warns that turning on a PPV fan can actually make fire conditions worse.
Ford saw fire with blue flames coming from the cellar windows, indicating they had a gas-fed fire. Ford called dispatch to have the gas company shut off the gas.