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.
Getting out of the basement
McLaughlin's low-air alarm went off, so he attempted to exit the basement.
"I headed in a direction I thought was where the stairs were, but couldn't find the line. I asked Eddie (McNamara) where the line was and he put my hand on it. I started following it back and made it to where it formed a loop, which I followed," McLaughlin said. "I bumped into Eddie somewhere around this time. The smoke was getting thicker and darker so I told Eddie to dump the cellar."
Ford then heard that a Clinton crew was exiting with low or no air and "he knew things were going to s...."
Soon after, he heard over the radio that there were two firefighters missing.
The whole front hallway filled up with firefighters trying to make their way down to the basement.
McLaughlin still couldn't find his way out of the smoke-filled basement.
"I couldn't find the rest of the line," McLaughlin said. "Someone grabbed me as they were going by and pulled me up but I fell back down again."
"I took the regulator off my face piece and put my face to the ground to get air. I was crawling and trying to find the stairs," McLaughlin said.
A deputy chief in the basement called a mayday at about 4:07 a.m., the NIOSH report said.
McLaughlin placed his face near the ground and waited for help.
Lancaster Firefighter Dale DiMeco went downstairs after being told there were firefighters in the basement and saw McLaughlin at the bottom of the stairs.
He helped pull McLaughlin to the stairs and out, DiMeco said in his statement.
Failed rescue attempts
After McLaughlin was brought out, Ford heard he still had another firefighter missing.
Eddie McNamara asked who was left in the cellar.
"I told him it was Steve DiMeco and I though Dale DiMeco was the other guy. I didn't find out it was (Martin McNamara) until a couple of days after when I got off the vent," McLaughlin said.
Sterling Lt. David Johnson and Sterling firefighter Kevin went back into the house and were told by another firefighter in the hall that there were two more firefighters in the basement and to "hurry up and help them," according to Johnson's statement to State Police.
Johnson met another firefighter on the basement stairs who said he was out of air and there was still another firefighter in the basement, which was now very hot and filled with smoke.
Johnson reached the basement floor, and was only able to see blue and red flames rolling and creating thick black smoke.
He and Grebinar crawled along the hose line searching for McNamara, yelling for him to turn on his Personal Alert Safety System device, but they heard nothing, Johnson told State Police.
They were unable to find the nozzle of the fire hose, but they came across McNamara attempting to crawl toward Johnson.
McNamara, who was not wearing a mask, yelled to Johnson to "get him out of here," Johnson said.
Johnson grabbed McNamara's harness and pulled him back to the bottom of the stairs where Grebinar was, but the two could not move him on their own.
Johnson called for radio help, but could not remember if anyone answered.
The basement then became "extremely hot" and the two firefighters had to abandon McNamara, Johnson said.
Lancaster Deputy Fire Chief Patrick McGloughlin jumped off of the Devens fire engine when he arrived and heard there was a missing firefighter.
McGloughlin and Devens Firefighter Marc Matthews made it halfway down to the basement before the "all out" was sounded, and they were forced to retreat, as "blue flames started rolling across the ceiling toward them," according to McGloughlin's statement to State Police.
Matthews could hear a faint PASS device at the bottom of the stairs, but after he turned to tell McGloughlin, blue and orange flames rolled toward them and the "all out" horns sounded and they were forced to leave, according to Matthews statement to State Police.
McGloughlin saw there was heavy fire on the second floor about five minutes later, which would reignite everytime it was "knocked down."
Ford ordered an exterior attack in an attempt to protect the side of the building with the staircase where McNamara was, he said.
Once Keyspan shut the gas down, McGloughlin's team went back into the basement with three other firefighters to find McNamara at the bottom of the stairs, in a foot of water.
"The basement filled with smoke again fast," and another firefighter pulled McGloughlin out of the basement after they had gotten McNamara halfway up the stairs.
A second team was able to get McNamara to the top of the stairs before they had to retreat.
It wasn't until firefighters knocked down most of the fire at around 6:30 a.m. that they were able to retrieve McNamara, according to the NIOSH report.
The NIOSH report listed smoke and soot inhalation as the cause of death.
"(Ford) got a report from the entry team and was still in disbelief that they still had a firefighter trapped," the State Police report said. "Upon that confirmation, he turned over command to Chief Alfred LeBlanc from Leominster and Chief David Hurlbut from Sterling."
"He couldn't think at this point," it states.
Carl W. Lindley Jr., an attorney for McNamara's widow, Claire McNamara, also asked for and received the State Police report.