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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The third alarm had already been sounded. Two engines and one ladder - Engines 3 and 7 and Ladder 2 - were staged. The crews were ordered into the building as search groups. The second-alarm companies had been put to work earlier. Units inside the building immediately started a search to locate the missing firefighters. The responding units that had been dispatched were ordered to go in for search. Crews were lined up outside the stairwell on the first floor.
"We started to get more radio transmissions," McNamee said. "They were running out of air. We were fighting against time. I had search crews going and rotating through the third, fourth and fifth floors. When I ran outside and I looked at the height of the building, I figured it was 85 to 90 feet in height. I knew they ran forklift trucks in there, so we had tall floors on all floors. I figured it was five to six floors.
"I had people searching the third, fourth and fifth floors. I controlled that search from the stairwell. As a group came down, I'd say what floor did you come from, what were the conditions? They would say we came from the fifth floor. I'd assign another company, tell them fifth floor, stay on the search rope, which was anchored in the stairwell, come out before your low-air alarm goes off. Next group, stay together.
"I left the stairwell a few times. I said nobody else goes up until I get back. From a position in the stairwell between the first and second floors looking upwards towards the second floor visibility was lousy. The stairway was loaded with smoke. I was getting concerned with the conditions on three or four floors above what I could see.
"Companies coming down said it was starting to get hot up there. We kept rotating companies. Some firefighters were in the stairway wailing away on the banister with their tools to make noise to make sure firefighters could home in on it. This was also done early on in the fire as well as firefighters removing their face pieces to yell into the doorway to guide firefighters out when conditions went bad. Companies were also rotated on the second floor to try and get a handle on the fire.
"The stairway on the B side was very narrow like a fire escape stair. Solid treads, no risers. If you had two firefighters in the stairway with tanks on, you had to turn sideways and squeeze past each other. There were three turns to a floor. The doors to each floor opened out into the stairway."
A firefighter from Ladder 2 went outside to change his air tank. He called, "Ladder 200 to Ladder 2," trying to contact his officer, Lieutenant Thomas Spencer. After five attempts, he still didn't get a response. There was anguish in his voice.
"I said we were missing two more," McNamee said. "They were one of the crews I directed to go search upstairs. Lieutenant Thomas Spencer and I locked eyes as he was going up the stairs. I knew Spencer had gone to the fifth floor. I notified the crews that we were missing two members from Ladder 2 and they are on the fifth floor."
Building Held "Secrets"
McNamee continued, "I went outside three times to look to see if the building could tell me anything. The building held all the secrets, you could not read this building. There were no openings to read what was going on. When you looked up Franklin Street, you saw 85 feet of blank brick. The office windows on the A-D side were covered over with plywood. Those were opened later.
"I was in good radio communication with the first two trapped firefighters from Rescue 1. I asked them to activate their integrated SCBA PASS alarms. Some firefighters said that on some of their radio transmissions you could hear their PASS alarms going off. Nobody on the floors could hear the PASS alarms. They radioed that their low-air alarms were going off.
"Then they gave a Mayday. They were running low on air. I had a sick feeling in my stomach that we didn't have a whole lot of time to find these guys. Somebody was looking for them on every floor. A constant search.
"Crews started coming down and I asked them how are conditions upstairs. One of the first bad reports was that a company couldn't make the fifth floor. Then another company couldn't make the fourth floor. A very experienced lieutenant that I respect said, 'Chief we couldn't make the third floor on this try.'
"It was getting too bad up there. There were 12 guys lined up outside the stairwell ready to go and I looked at them and said if I send these guys up there they may not come down. Too much time elapsed."