On The Job – Ohio: Firefighters Narrowly Escape Backdraft at Fire in Converted Tobacco Warehouse

Chief: John J. Sauter
Personnel: 84 career firefighters
Apparatus: Three engines, three quints, three ALS ambulances, three reserve engines, two reserve ambulances
Population: 51,000
Area: 25.85 square miles plus 1 square mile of contract territory

On Feb. 22, 2004, a fast-moving fire destroyed a 40,000-square-foot building that contained three businesses in Middletown, OH. Two firefighters barely escaped from the interior before a backdraft occurred.

Ninety-six of the building’s original windows were replaced shortly before the fire with modern double-paned thermally efficient window units. This masked the interior conditions, as the first firefighting units on scene reported only a wisp of light gray smoke.

The four-story, L-shaped, 118-by-135-foot brick structure was built of typical mill construction with an unprotected heavy timber infrastructure and a flat roof with load-bearing brick exterior walls on a stone foundation. The building was originally constructed as a tobacco warehouse in the 1860s.

The Middletown Fire Department was dispatched to a reported structure fire involving Recker Custom Woodworking at 1210 Girard Ave. at 1:54 P.M. The Engine 1 crew (operating reserve Engine 8), Engine 3, Quint 4, a 75-foot aerial, and an ambulance responded with 11 firefighters under the command of Deputy Chief Robert Kennedy. (Middletown operates out of five stations. All in-service engines and quints are staffed with three persons. Ambulances are each staffed with two paramedics. A deputy fire chief operates alone as the shift commander.)

The owner of the building told Lieutenant Brian Oliver from Engine 1 that everyone was out and that the fire was on the second floor in the southeast area of the building. Engine 1 proceeded to a parking lot on the east side of the structure. Upon arrival at 1:57, Kennedy found a light smoke haze issuing from the first and fourth floors of the southeast portion of the building.

Oliver and Firefighter John Scranton advanced a 1¾-inch line from Engine 1 into the first floor toward the east stairway and encountered heavy smoke and moderate heat conditions. Engine 3 was positioned at the A-B corner and its crew and the crew from Medic 1 operated as one unit and advanced a 1¾-inch line into the first floor through a door on the Girard Street (A side) of the building under the command of Lieutenant Jeff Spaulding. This crew found moderate smoke in this area of the building. A positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) fan was set up in the doorway to aid that crew, but was shut off when the smoke conditions changed to heavy black pressurized smoke. The crew from Engine 3 could advance only 25 feet inside the building before encountering extreme heat conditions. Officers from both crews decided to evacuate the building because of rapidly deteriorating conditions.

Kennedy, observing conditions on the outside of the building, ordered the apparatus air horns to be sounded for evacuation. The crew from Engine 1 had advanced approximately 30 feet inside the building when the evacuation was sounded. Oliver reached the exit door, but found it difficult to open the inward-swinging door due to the pressure inside the building. He also saw debris falling inside the building as he exited.

Immediately after the evacuation, a roll call was taken and all firefighters were accounted for. Kennedy switched to defensive operations to protect the exposures that included vehicles and trailers in a U-Haul parking lot, a vacant two-story house located 100 feet off the D-A corner and the 100,000-square-foot Franklin Box Board Co., located 35 feet off side C and six feet off side D.

Kennedy ordered a second alarm at 2:05. Quint 5, a 75-foot aerial, Engine 2 responded with six firefighters. The second alarm also initiated the recall of off-duty personnel. Quint 3, a 110-foot aerial, responded with off-duty personnel.

At the same time as the evacuation, fire vented itself through an exterior wall opening on the south (C) side of the building. It was decided to leave Engine 1 in the collapse zone until Quint 5 was set up and operating to protect the C-side exposure. Before Quint 5 was operating and Engine 1 could be moved, a partial collapse of the east wall (side B) at the third and fourth floors occurred near the south (B-C) corner of the building. All firefighters were accounted for, and the handline exposure protection was discontinued. Engine 1 was abandoned at this time.

Engine 3 was repositioned east on Girard Avenue to the A-B corner of the building out of the collapse zone. A portable monitor supplied by Engine 3 was set up in a parking lot across the street from the front of the building. Quint 5 was positioned off the B-C corner of the building to protect the C-side exposure. This unit operated its elevated master stream and a handline to protect the exposure.

Quint 4 was positioned in the parking lot on the B side of the building for possible roof ventilation, but this was not attempted due to the rapid collapse of this side of the building. Quint 4 placed its ladder pipe into operation to protect the east B and north A exposures. The crews of Quint 3 and Engine 2 operated Quint 3’s ladder pipe and several handlines to protect the west (D) exposure building, located only 10 feet from the fire building. As the fire progressed, six collapses and several explosions occurred.

Kennedy declared the fire under control at 5:42 P.M. Eight firefighters suffered minor injuries. There were no civilian injuries. Engine 8 sustained $251,000 worth of damage in the collapse. Quint 5 received $5,000 in damage and had to have its right side repainted and the aerial device tested.

An investigation into the fire was conducted by the Middletown Fire Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The cause of the fire remains undetermined, although it does not appear to be criminal in nature. Damage to the building was estimated at over $1 million.

Jay K. Bradish/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.