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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Mersiovsky's crew tried to get into the apartment next to the one on fire, but it was locked and could not even be forced. So, they breached the wall next to the door, entered and began searching. "We were fairly deep into that apartment when we heard a couple of really loud explosions that sounded like they came from the burning apartment next door," he said.

The explosions were later determined to be from oxygen canisters used by a resident there, and their release helped fuel the fire even further. With these explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known, the order was given for firefighters to evacuate the building and switch to a defensive mode of attack until an assessment of the blasts could be made.

Top Priorities

With much of the first-alarm response delayed, Cook had made the rescue of residents and exposure protection the top priorities for his first units on scene. The fire building had the capacity to house 50 or more residents and was becoming untenable on the top two floors.

On the exposure A side, there was a third apartment building immediately exposed to radiant heat. It was perpendicular to and due south of the elevator structure and only 10 yards from the main body of fire. Ladder 76 pulled in on the opposite side of this building from the rest of the companies already on scene and set up its aerial. The company was supplied with water and used its pipe to contain fire spread to this southern exposure. That same truck company was excellently positioned to contain fire in the cockloft of the fire building that was spreading into the elevator structure, the only separation between the large fire building and another one just like it. Engine 83 and Tower 69 were ordered to the north (C) side of the fire building, opposite the side of origin, to contain fire rapidly spreading through the open cockloft in that direction.

The west-side (B) exposure had an outdoor handball court and another surface parking lot. On this west end of the fire building, there was an enclosed stairwell where crews later advanced hose lines defending that end of the structure. Exposure C was entirely a parking lot with only one or two cars parked next to the fire building. At the east end of the fire, the D side contained the elevator structure and Building A beyond it, which housed 30 more mostly occupied units. As flames destroyed sections of the roof and third floor on the fire building's east end, a steady easterly breeze helped push the flames back west through its cockloft.

As one key element for containment had been to protect the elevator building on the east end and keep flames from passing it into another building, the cockloft fire in the original building started to spread in the other direction. Additional handlines were ordered into the third floor via the west end to cut off the fire, but conditions on the top floor were brutal. The fire front had expanded across almost the entire width of the building as the cockloft fire fed off the fresh breeze that pushed the smoke and heat right back into the faces of fire crews attacking it.

As the complex was only two blocks from one of Houston's busiest freeways, the start of the evening's rush hour slowed the response for many companies responding on the second alarm. The prominent column of smoke given off by the fire, although blowing away from the freeway, attracted enough attention from drivers on it that traffic came to a standstill.

As more companies arrived, they were initially assigned to relieve first-in crews who, by now, were exhausted. The HFD rehab unit, manned by one career firefighter and a team of volunteers, worked feverishly to manage the needs of overheated crews. Despite the intense heat of the day and thick smoke from the fire, only one firefighter required transport to the hospital and he was later released.

As there was never any fire on the first floor and only the origin apartment burned on the second, the remaining fire was confined principally to the cockloft and third floor. However, that fire protected itself from elevated heavy streams by burning well ahead of collapsed roofing while pushing heat and smoke on crews trying to stop it from underneath.