Suicide Attempt Sparks 3-Alarm Fire At Pennsylvania Apartment Complex

A woman's failed attempt to kill herself by piling combustible materials on a stove and setting them ablaze resulted in a three-alarm fire in an apartment complex that left 50 residents homeless.

It was at 7:34 on a rainy Saturday night that York County, PA, Emergency Communications dispatched a first-alarm assignment of three engines, a truck, an EMS unit and a duty officer to a smoke odor in an apartment building at 2663 Carnegie Road in Springettsbury Township. Springettsbury Township Engine 16 with two firefighters, Truck 16 with two firefighters, Ambulance 16 with two EMT/firefighters and Duty Officer Rich Mellon responded. Spring Garden Township Engine 15 with two firefighters responded on automatic mutual aid. A third engine was out of service due to a temporary station closure as a result of damage from a recent ice storm. Those two firefighters rode out of Station 16 on the engine and truck.

The address was a familiar one and has been the site of many responses for automatic alarms, medical calls and routine incidents. On Christmas Eve 1989, the complex was the scene of a major fire resulting in the total loss of one building. The Suburban Park Apartments is a 15-acre complex with 22 buildings, each containing 11 apartments. The complex is entirely ordinary construction and was built in the late 1960s. Each building is three stories with a center lobby and stair tower. The lowest level is called the terrace level and contains three apartments; the second and third floors each contain four apartments. The terrace level is a half-flight of stairs down when entering on the A side and exposed at ground level on the C side of the building.

The duty officer arrived on the A side of the building and reported nothing showing from that side. With in a minute, Engine 16 and Truck 16 arrived at the same location. With the additional light from the apparatus, the duty officer could see light smoke from the soffit on the A side of the structure. He established Suburban Park Command and requested the assignment be upgraded to a working fire response, which would bring two additional engines. As crews moved toward the building, they noticed smoke coming from heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) vents on the second floor.

Command immediately requested a second alarm, knowing the incident would require more manpower. Because this request was made within a minute of the working-fire assignment request, the 911 center dispatched the assignments together at 7:40. These assignments brought Engine 21 from Hellam, Engine 24 from Manchester Township, Engine 19 and Truck 19 from York Township and Rapid Intervention Team 34 from Red Lion Boro as well as a recall for off-duty Springettsbury Township firefighters.

Engine 15 arrived and laid a five-inch line into the complex from a hydrant on Carnegie Road. One member of Ambulance 16's crew stood by at the hydrant, made the connection and charged the supply line. Engine 16's operator began establishing water supply and then advanced a 1¾-inch handline to the front door for the interior crew to utilize. Truck 16's operator set up the truck to access the third-floor balcony. The riders of Engine 16 and Truck 16 paired up and entered the building to locate the fire and conduct searches. At this time, residents were still evacuating and it was unclear how many remained in the building.

Once in the lobby, the crew encountered a light to moderate smoke condition. The firefighters headed to the second floor, where evacuating residents reported a fire on the first floor. Immediately, they proceeded to that area and found heavy black smoke issuing from a hot door. The crew entered the apartment, encountering high heat and heavy black smoke. After moving in only a few feet, they ran into the occupant standing in front of them. She took one step toward the firefighters and collapsed. The crew reported the find to command and began to drag the woman from apartment. In the lobby, a firefighter from Engine 15 assisted in removing the over-200-pound victim. Once notified of a victim, command requested more ambulances to the scene. This brought Ambulance 13 from Spring Garden Township and Medic 102 from Memorial Hospital. Medic 97 from York Hospital was in the area and was also committed to the incident.

At the same time, the operator of Engine 15 helped the Engine 16 operator establish the water supply. When that was completed, Engine 15's operator was assigned the Operations Sector. Truck 16's operator climbed the aerial ladder and entered the third-floor apartment from the balcony. Upon entering, he encountered heavy smoke and a large volume of fire in the kitchen area of the unit. He searched the apartment and exited back to the ladder. Meanwhile, on the terrace level, the interior crew removed the victim to the outside and awaited EMS before returning to the building and advancing a 1¾-inch handline into the fire apartment. The kitchen was well involved. The crew knocked down the fire and realized it was rapidly extending up the common ventilation shaft.

After the fire was controlled in the original fire apartment, the crew withdrew and advanced the line to the second floor to search for victims and attack the fire. Engine 24 arrived on scene at 7:52 and was assigned to complete searches on the third floor. This crew took a 1¾-inch handline and proceeded up the stairwell. They made entry to the lobby and began to encounter fire. Unable to complete further searches, they began to attack the fire from their location. By this point, the fire had spread via the ventilation shaft to apartments on all floors. It had also spread to the attic where it was growing rapidly. The fire had a strong hold of two of the four third-floor apartments and had self vented from windows on three sides of the building.

Truck 16's operator repositioned the ladder to the roof in anticipation of incoming crews being assigned to ventilation. Command assigned Engine and Truck 19 to enter the scene via Northern Way and to access the B and C sides of the building as best as possible. Truck 19 was first to arrive and dropped a line at Eastern Boulevard and Northern Way and laid into the C side of the building. Due to a dead-end street, trees and soft ground from recent snowmelt and rain, the truck had to remain on the road approximately 100 yards away. Crews from Engine and Truck 19 advanced several 2½-inch lines to the C side of the building. At 7:59 P.M., command requested the third alarm for additional manpower. Engine 25 from North York Boro, Truck 1 from West York Boro, Rescue 8-4-1 from Columbia Boro and Ambulance 19 from York Township filled this assignment.

In the next few minutes, conditions deteriorated rapidly. The smoke issuing from the soffit increased in volume and pressure as well as darkening from brownish gray to black. Fire volume in the involved apartments increased and small pockets of fire began to break through the roof at the ridgeline. At 8:03, command evacuated the building. As the evacuation tones were sounded, the entire attic space flashed over and heavy fire vented from the soffit on the A and C sides of the building.

Within seconds of evacuating the third-floor lobby where Engine 24's crew had been operating, it was heavily involved in fire. A personnel accountability report (PAR) was conducted and after all crews were accounted for, the switch to a defensive operation was made. Truck 1 was assigned to the A side of the exposure building to trench the roof and protect the exposure. Crews from Engine 21 and Engine 15 were assigned to the interior of the exposure to run handlines and pull ceilings to prevent any extension into this building. Engine 25 was assigned to Eastern Boulevard and Northern Way to pick up and pump the hydrant supplying Truck 19 operating on the C side. Rescue 8-4-1 was assigned as a second rapid intervention team and positioned near the A-B corner. Rapid Intervention Team 34 had previously been assigned to a position on the A side of the structure. Engine 16 began flowing its deck gun and advanced a portable master stream on side A. Truck 16's ladder suffered heavy fire involvement when the attic flashed over, but was still operable and flowed its elevated master stream on the A side as well. Truck 19 flowed its elevated master stream as well as several 2½-inch lines on the C side of the building.

Once it was clear that the fire would not spread to the adjoining structure on the D side, the water supply was briefly shut down so that Engine 24 could be placed on the original hydrant on Carnegie Road to boost pressure to the multiple master streams now in operation. At 8:41, command requested an additional engine for manpower. Engine 9-1 from Dover Township was assigned. For nearly two hours, units flowed master streams on the structure and command declared the incident under control at 10 o'clock.

With the incident now under control, command began releasing units, but held Engine 15, Engine 16 and Truck 16 to continue hydraulic overhaul on the partially collapsed structure. New off-duty crews were brought in as replacements for the crews on Engine 15, Engine 16 and Truck 16 and the fire was declared out at 1:53 A.M. Firefighters remained on scene working with Pennsylvania State Police fire investigators and dousing hot spots. The final units were released at 4:59 A.M.

Police filed 66 arson-related charges against the 58-year-old woman who was rescued from the building. While enroute to the hospital, she admitted to piling combustible materials on her stove and turning it on in an attempt to commit suicide. Fifty residents were left homeless by the fire.

Early on, Mellon realized that the incident would tax his personnel and had the potential to grow rapidly. Because of his experience with similar incidents in this type of structure as well as pre-planning, he quickly requested additional resources. This action let firefighters attack the fire aggressively and prevent it from spreading to the attached building.



BRIAN BASTINELLI is a career firefighter for the Harrisburg, PA, Bureau of Fire. He has served for 17 years in the fire and EMS services, the past 10 in Harrisburg. Bastinelli also has served in several volunteer EMS line officer positions as well as assistant and district chief positions in a suburban combination fire department.