On The Job – Texas: Apartment Cockloft Fire Taxes Houston Firefighters as 30 Units Are Destroyed in Fast-Spreading Inferno

Tom McDonald reports on a fire in a non-sprinklered building that gave more than 100 Houston firefighters one of their toughest assignments in many months.


HOUSTON FIRE DEPTARTMENT Chief: Phil Boriskie Personnel: 3,877 career firefighters Apparatus: 87 engines, 37 ladders (including three towers), one heavy rescue, two tactical rescues, three air cascade units, plus fully integrated EMS operations, a Hazardous Materials Response Team and ARFF...


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Acting District 68 Chief Jeff Cook arrived and assumed "Forum West Command," the name of the street facing the fire apartment (also the street on which the complex was addressed). A parking lot lined most of exposure A, which was the side facing the fire apartment, and where Engines 68 and 51 and Ladder 51 set up.

Cook ordered Engine 51 to take a 1¾-inch backup line to the second floor to assist Harris' crew. Engine 10 was ordered to lay two four-inch supply lines from a nearby hydrant, just inside the entrance gate, to Engine 68, and then to take a 1¾-inch line to the third floor to cut off fire extension. While these engine crews worked initially without truck assistance to get water to two burning apartments on two separate floors, the fire spread into the cockloft.

With two of the regularly assigned first-alarm engines out on other assignments and the first-due ladder company also unavailable, it took longer than normal to bring a full first-alarm worth of fight to the fire. Third-due Engine 82 was involved in a disabling traffic accident only six blocks away and had to be replaced by Engine 73, which was returning from another call. All of these delays became even more significant when dispatchers relayed reports that there was the possibility that one or more people were trapped.

With the potential for a serious life-hazard problem developing and compounding a growing fire problem, District 83 Chief Calvin Petrosky ordered that Rescue 10 be dispatched to the fire as well. Manned by four highly trained firefighters, Rescue 10 is one of three such companies in the city. Quartered only a couple of miles from this fire, Rescue 10 had just been assigned permanently to the area after a new, third such company went in service near downtown a few days before.

Cook followed up Petrosky's order with a Signal 1-11, indicating a serious working fire. For apartment fires, the signal tells dispatchers to supplement the first alarm with eight more firefighters and an ICS officer responding on an engine, ladder truck and a district chief unit. An air cascade truck was also dispatched, as a matter of routine, to fill self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottles.

Harris' engine crew advanced up the ground ladder dragging the line to the second floor through the adjoining apartment to the fire. They began to snuff out all of the flames they could, but their slack ran out midway into the burning unit.

"When we first got up there, the second floor was relatively clear of smoke," Harris said. "The fire apartment had a self-closing door, so smoke was really only coming out of light fixtures in the hall. We found a resident in the hall a few units from the one on fire who I told to get out, but to knock on doors as he left to get any other people still in their units alerted. We were by ourselves for several minutes and had to handle a bad situation as best we could."

As Harris' crew advanced the line into the fire apartment, they radioed for any available company to assist with slack on the line. Engine 51's crew pulled extra line for 68's, then went back to advance another backup line to the second floor. As 68's crew moved into the apartment, smoke billowed into the second floor hallway, reducing visibility there to zero.

Conditions on the third floor began to deteriorate just as rapidly. With a limited number of companies on hand in the first few minutes, the fire gained headway in the third-floor apartment directly above the unit of origin and in the cockloft while it was being contained on the second floor.

With a non-specific report of potentially trapped residents, Cook ordered Ladder 51 to search and evacuate the building. He also ordered both arriving ladder truck operators to raise their aerials to prepare to cut a vent hole. He then pulled a second alarm.

Captain Rodney Mersiovsky, detailed for the shift to Ladder 51, took his crew up the stairwell in the elevator building to the third floor to begin searching. "There was no smoke in the elevator lobby," he said, "but once you opened the fire door into the third-floor hall, the smoke was so thick that you could only see with a thermal imager."