5-Alarmer Rips Pennsylvania Warehouse

Chief: Richard C. Lengel
Personnel: Combination department (13 career firefighters, 45 volunteer firefighters, 16 career EMS personnel)
Apparatus: Five pumpers, three aerials, one heavy rescue, one Special Operations rescue truck, two service/light trucks, five ALS units, two BLS units
Population: 22,000
Area: 5 square miles

On July 13, 2004, fire destroyed a 100-year-old building in downtown Pottstown, PA. Firefighters from three counties were needed to control the fire in the three-story, mill-type building. The brick building, measuring 50 by 200 feet, was constructed of heavy timber, thick wood plank flooring, a heavy wooden roof truss and a corrugated sheet metal roof.

The building was one of seven interconnected buildings in the former Doehler-Jarvis complex. At one time, the building had a sprinkler system, but it had been taken out of service several years earlier. This building was occupied by the TOPOS Mondail Co. and served as a warehouse for used commercial baking equipment. All three floors were filled with metal machinery and accessory equipment. The building was occupied at the time of the fire as employees were just arriving for work.

The Pottstown Fire Department is a combination department comprised of the Goodwill Steam Fire Engine Company 1, Philadelphia Steam Fire Engine Company 1, Empire Hook & Ladder Fire Company 1 and North End Fire Company 1.

The Pottstown Fire Department was dispatched to reported “smoke from the roof” of the warehouse located at 26 S. Washington St. at 6:59 A.M. Responding on the initial alarm were Squad 69 (a rescue pumper), Engine 69-7, Ladder 69 (a 100-foot rear-mount aerial), Squirt 69 (a pumper with a 55-foot articulating boom) and two advanced life support (ALS) units with 20 firefighters under the command of Chief Richard Lengel. (Squad 69 was also operating as Rescue 69, as the department’s new heavy rescue apparatus was on display at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore.)

First-in Squad 69 laid three supply lines to a position 150 feet off of the northeast corner of the fire building. Upon his arrival, Assistant Chief Harvey Hiembach of the Philadelphia Steam Fire Engine Company reported heavy smoke coming from the entire third floor and roof of the building with fire visible on the second floor west side.

Exposures on the east side were the remaining six interconnected buildings. To the west, 50 feet across South Washington Street, was a vacant manufacturing building. One hundred feet north was the public library. A nine-story senior citizens apartment building was located on the northwest corner 100 feet away. Norfolk and Southern Railroad tracks were located on the south side of the building. Railroad personnel were on scene coordinating rail traffic with fire commanders during the entire incident. Rail traffic was slowed, but never stopped.

Firefighters deployed several 1¾-inch and 2½-inch handlines from Squad 69 to cover the exposure roofs on the east side of the fire. Engine 69-7 laid out 500 feet of five-inch supply line from a hydrant at Queen and Adams streets to the extreme eastern end of the complex. The crew hand-laid dual 600-foot three-inch attack lines with a blitz monitor into the complex building and extended to the inside east wall of the fire building. These deluge monitors were used to stop the fire from spreading into the eastern warehouse.

Ladder 69 was positioned on Apple Street at South Washington Street and was supplied with a 400-foot four-inch supply line that was hand-laid to a hydrant on the northwest corner of High Street. Crews placed both the bed pipe and the ladder pipe into operation.

Firefighters laddered the exposed vacant 1½-story manufacturing building 50 feet across the street from the warehouse with ground ladders. One 1½-inch handline was advanced to the roof and another 1½-inch handline was placed into operation at street level. Both of these handlines were supplied by Ladder 69. Firefighters hand-stretched a four-inch supply line to supply a portable deluge gun positioned at the rear of Ladder 69 on South Washington Street from the ladder. Crews also stretched 200 feet of three-inch attack line to the west side of the building on South Washington Street to supply another portable deluge gun. Squirt 69 was positioned in the rear parking lot of the library on the C side of the building and was supplied by a five-inch line from a hydrant on the south side of High Street at Washington Street. Squirt 69 operated its elevated master stream and two 1¾-inch handlines on the north side of the fire building.

Lengel requested a second alarm at 7:04. Responding on the alarm were Pottstown Quint 69 (a 75-foot tower ladder), Ringing Hill Fire Company Engine 59-1, West Pottsgrove Township’s West End Fire Company Engine 57-2, Humane Fire Company of Royersford Engine 84-1 and Ladder 84 (a 100-foot aerial), Sanatoga Fire Company Engine 58-1 and Heavy Rescue 64 from the North Coventry Fire Company in Chester County. All were ordered to respond directly to the scene.

Quint 69 was positioned in the public library parking lot and supplied with two four-inch lines from Squad 69. One supply line was placed into the rear intake and the other into the pump. Quint 69 operated its elevated master stream and two 1¾-inch handlines that were deployed on the north exposure roof. Ringing Hill Engine 59-1 was positioned on the hydrant at the corner of High and Franklin streets and supplied Ladder 59, positioned on Apple Street at South Washington Street. Ladder 59 operated two master streams from its aerial platform. West End Engine 57-2 was positioned on South Washington Street at the railroad bridge. It was supplied by a 200-foot five-inch supply line from the hydrant at South Washington and South streets.

Firefighters hand-stretched two 2½-inch lines to portable deluge guns positioned on the South Washington Street Bridge. Engine 84-1 laid dual five-inch lines from a hydrant at the corner of Cherry and South Washington streets to the parking lot just south of the railroad tracks. Engine 69-6 hooked on to the hydrant and pumped one of the five-inch supply lines to Engine 84-1. Sanatoga Engine 58-1 picked up Engine 84-1’s other five-inch supply line and reverse-laid an additional 700 feet of five-inch supply line to a hydrant at South Washington Street and Industrial Highway. Engine 58-1 hooked on to the hydrant with a short five-inch supply line and pumped two 50-foot three-inch lines into a manifold on the five-inch supply line. Ladder 84 was positioned in the parking lot next to the South Washington Street Bridge. Engine 84-1 supplied Ladder 84 with two 100-foot three-inch supply lines for its ladder pipe operations.

Lengel requested a third alarm at 7:19. Collegeville Fire Company responded with Rescue 34, a heavy rescue; North Coventry Fire Company from Chester County sent Engine 64-1 and Tower 64 (a 95-foot tower ladder). Also responding on the third alarm were Limerick Fire Company Engine 54, Trappe Fire Company Engine 77, New Hanover Fire Company Ladder 37 (a 75-foot aerial ladder) and the Montgomery County Communications Unit.

As the water supply diminished, Squad 69 asked for an additional water supply. North Coventry Engine 64-1 reverse-laid a five-inch supply line from Squad 69 to the hydrant at High and North Warren streets. Once this supply was established, Squad 69 disconnected from the original hydrant supply. Collegeville Rescue 34 was positioned at High and Washington streets and used as a manpower pool.

North Coventry Tower 64 was positioned on South Washington Street at the railroad bridge and was supplied by Engine 57 with a 100-foot five-inch supply line. Tower 64 operated two master streams from the aerial platform on the south side of the fire building. North Coventry Rescue 64 was positioned on the south side of the fire and used for manpower. Limerick Engine 54 laid a five-inch line from a hydrant on the southeast corner of High and Adam streets to supply Ladder 37’s ladder pipe operation. Pottstown Engine 69-6 was positioned at the hydrant at South Washington and Cherry streets and supplied Engine 84, using 300 feet of five-inch supply line. The Montgomery County Communications Unit was positioned at the intersection of High and Washington Streets and used as the command post.

Lengel assigned the following sector officers: Pottstown Goodwill Chief Michael Campeggio – Washington Street side; Pottstown North End Deputy Chief Marty Durchin – library side; Pottstown Philadelphia Chief Joseph Groff – east side and interior; Royersford Chief John Major – south side at the railroad; Pottstown Empire Firefighter Mark Gibson as safety officer; and Pottstown Deputy Fire Marshal Raymond Lopez as logistics officer.

At 7:34, Lengel ordered all firefighters to evacuate the building. The first structural collapse occurred at 7:37, as the west center wall area of the fire building collapsed over half of the wall into the structure. Lengel requested a fourth alarm at 7:47. Pennsburg Fire Company Engine 65, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Boyertown Ladder 15, a 100-foot aerial from Bucks County; Boyertown Salvation Army Canteen and the North Penn Goodwill Service Canteen 41 responded.

Pennsburg Engine 65 and Boyertown Ladder 15 were positioned on the south side of the fire for manpower, and Trappe Engine 77 was stationed at High and Washington streets for the manpower pool. The Boyertown Salvation Army Canteen was stationed on the south side of the fire south of the railroad tracks to support units operating on the south side. Canteen 41 was positioned on High Street in front of the library and used for a rehab center for firefighters.

Lengel requested a fifth alarm at 9:05. Skippack Fire Company Engine 86, King of Prussia Fire Company Heavy Rescue 47 and Lower Providence Township Fire Company Tower 53 ( a 75-foot aerial) responded and were placed on standby at Pottstown Station 69A for coverage of the municipality.

A second structural collapse occurred at 9:21. This collapse involved the entire roof and remaining walls, including the east wall. Approximately one hour into the operation, the water department advised the fire command that the water treatment plant was down. This was due to the high water level and debris in the river as a result of recent heavy rains clogging the intakes. The two water system reservoirs were pulled down significantly. One reservoir dropped to 42% of capacity and the other to 70% of capacity before the plant was brought back on line after about two hours. At no time was there a water shortage at the scene; however, plans for tanker support were in place at the command post.

Lengel declared the fire under control at 10:51 A.M. In addition to the master streams and handlines already in use, firefighters stretched two 1¾-inch lines to the roof on the north side of the building to knock down hot spots that were under the collapsed debris. Mutual aid companies began being released at 1 P.M. The last Pottstown unit left the scene on Thursday, July 15, at 9:16 A.M., 52 hours after the initial alarm.

Firefighters operated 10 engines, seven aerial devices, two deck guns, seven portable monitors and numerous handlines to extinguish the fire. No injuries were reported by any of the 124 suppression personnel, 12 EMS personnel and 19 support people on the scene.

An investigation was conducted by Lengel, who also is the borough fire marshal, with the Montgomery County Arson Fraud Unit, Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal’s Division, Pottstown Police Department and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), but the cause of the fire remains undetermined. Damage 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.