It was a search-and-rescue operation that fire companies across the city routinely perform: a thorough check of the floor above the blaze.
Carrying axes and fire extinguishers, six firefighters from Ladder Company 27 and Rescue Company 3 headed up to the fourth floor of the burning apartment building on East 178th Street in the Bronx yesterday to search for victims. Considering the dangers, they had pretty good backup: three engine companies had stretched hoses to the third and fourth floors, putting water on the flames and preventing them from spreading.
In an instant, the backup was gone. The two companies fighting the fire on the third floor with one hose abruptly lost water pressure - the reason is still unclear - and the company that had stretched a hose to the fourth floor was forced to descend one flight to help. Now, the six men remaining on the fourth floor, the team searching the floor above the fire for people to rescue, were themselves in deadly peril.
The flames shot up through the floorboards, cutting off the six men from the only doorway, trapping them in excruciating 1,000-degree heat, fire officials said. They radioed frantic Maydays and made their way to two windows. Then they went through them.
Neighbors saw at least two of the men frantically waving before jumping. One grappled with a rope before losing his grip. The falls killed two firefighters and left two others critically injured and two in serious condition.
"It has happened in the past that firefighters go out the window, but not in recent memory," said Louis Garcia, the city's chief fire marshal. "The only reason they go out the window is because they've got nowhere to go. They're going to burn. It's a desperate move. This is six guys going out a window."
In New York, with its vertical terrain, the department has honed one of the most aggressive interior attacks in use. It includes searching the floors above the fire.
"That's a routine search," Chief Garcia said. "Why? The people in the most danger, besides the ones trapped in the apartment that's on fire, are the people in the apartment above the fire. That's where the next greatest exposure is."
It is an offensive tack. And although the department has mastered its approach over a century, so that fatal fires for firefighters as well as civilians are now lower than ever, it has not come without the occasional deadly cost.
The freezing temperatures make all firefighting more difficult - hydrants freeze, as can water in hoses.
Yesterday, after the first reports of the fire came in at 7:59 a.m., the Fire Department dispatched two engines and two ladders.
Engine Company 42 and Ladder Company 33 arrived first. Firefighters leapt off their rigs on the snowy street to go inside. They were followed closely by Engine Company 46 and Ladder Company 27.
According to fire officials, the men from the two engine companies found that the closest hydrant was frozen. Instead, they attached their hoses directly to reserves of 500 gallons of water, which is stored on the engine in what is called a booster tank. Other firefighters stretched other lines to the next available hydrant, with the help of a third engine company, No. 75.
As other engine company firefighters pulled the heavy hoses inside, and those from ladder companies broke down doors and searched for victims, the firefighters outside were able to transfer the hoses from the booster tanks to hydrants, the officials said.
At first, the flow was strong. But then the pressure to the house on the third floor dropped, the officials said. Possible causes being investigated yesterday, they said, included freezing water or debris trapped in the hose, or a malfunction of the engine that pumps water from the hydrant.
The pressure was not lost to the members of Engine Company 75, who were on the fourth floor with the search-and-rescue team, so they headed down a floor to help fight the fire.