Harvey Eisner interviews the initial incident commander at the fire that claimed the lives of six firefighters. Editor's note: This article is based on an official interview between Harvey Eisner and the initial incident commander six months after the devastating fire. At press time, the incident...
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There were three stairwells in the building. The A stairwell went only to the second floor office area. The B stairwell served all six floors. This was adjacent to two elevator shafts. The C stairwell went only to the third floor in the rear. This was adjacent to an elevator shaft (see diagram). The rescue company was split into teams to search for people and fire extension.
Engine 1 stretched a 13/4-inch hoseline into the building. There was a light haze inside. The fire was located on the second floor in a large room on the B side. The warehouse was separated by a fire wall. To the left of the fire wall was known as the A building. The other side was designated B.
When the second alarm was requested, the on-duty deputy chief responded and took over command. McNamee then became interior command. Fire alarm called and said it had received a report from the police that homeless people were known to be living in the building. Two 21/2-inch handlines were stretched up to the second floor. A 21/2-inch handline was stretched to the base of the rear shaft. Another 21/2-inch handline was stretched up the rear stairway.
Before the handlines were in position at the opening in the fire wall between the A and B sections, firefighters were holding the door shut, keeping the fire back. Conditions were so clear initially that self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) facepieces were not needed. The 12-by-15-foot elevator shaft in the rear was vented.
As companies worked the fire with handlines, McNamee went up to the third floor to check conditions. He entered the third floor and went through three doorways. Conditions were mild. He turned around to come out and didn't like what he saw. There were several doors. He recalled that he wasn't sure which door he had gone through.
"I went through all of them and one looked like the right door, so I waited and listened and I heard some noise coming from the direction of one door," McNamee said. "It turned out the stairway was a door or two past in that direction. I found my way back to the stairway. It was quite confusing on the third floor as to which way I came in. The smoke conditions were still very mild. I made it a point to keep checking up at the ceiling to see if any heat was building and it wasn't.
"I started to go up the stairs between the third and fourth floors.This was 20 to 30 minutes into the fire. Things went bad in three to four seconds. It went from a mild haze to zero visibility. Thick, black, acrid smoke. There was no heat on the lower levels, just smoke. I ordered all personnel down from the upper floors and I wanted a head count. I gave that order very loud verbally in the stairwell and by radio.
"My main concern at that point was that I was going to leave companies operating on the second floor to keep hitting the fire. I wanted to get the people down from the upper floors. I wanted to control the stairwell. I didn't want anybody else going up, so I knew who was operating where and what they were doing. As people were coming down, I was talking to them and they were saying, yes, we are all here.
"One of the reports was from the Rescue 1 lieutenant, who said keep an eye out for Jerry Lucey and Paul Brotherton, two of his firefighters from Rescue 1. I haven't seen them. He went out to see if they were coming out. He came back in a minute or two later and said, I don't know where Jerry and Paul are. We received a report on the radio from the two rescue firefighters. They were disorientated, they couldn't find their way out."
McNamee asked the firefighters what floor they were on. They replied that they were "two floors below the roof." The problem was knowing how many floors were in the windowless building. The only windows in the building were on the second floor in the office area. There were staggered windows at the landings in the stairwell on the exposure B side.
McNamee again asked the firefighters whether they knew which floor they were on. Again, the said they were "two floors below the roof." McNamee took a run outside to look up and see whether he could figure how many floors were in the building. "They were counting from the top down and I was counting from the bottom up," McNamee said.