The Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse Fire: Box 5-1438

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...


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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Firefighters who went out to change tanks reported the that fire was "really going" on the second floor. This was at the same time that the reports from companies above were reporting "lousy" conditions.

"One of the two original firefighters from Rescue 1 reported they were near a window," McNamee said. "There were no windows. I ran outside again; the only windows were by the office area and they had been cleared out or burned through. The only other windows were at the B stairwell.

"I found out later from someone who had been inside the building that there were frameouts in some of the cold storage areas that would make you think you were near a window. The trapped firefighters reported that they were near a window, out of air, on the floor and they were buddy breathing."

Venting Like A Blowtorch

The heat from the fire on the second floor was venting up the shaft like a blowtorch. It was an hour into the search and, McNamee recalled thinking, "time is not with us."

"I said we have to call it," he said. "It was not accepted well. Over the radio I told command from interior command 'Evacuate the building.' I stood in the doorway and wouldn't let anybody else back up. Unless these guys found another way out, they're gone. The dozen firefighters standing in the stairwell were screaming, 'What are you talking about? They're still up there!'

"I said we already lost four, we're not going to lose anymore. Let's go outside and set up defensive operations. Anybody who had been upstairs knew the conditions that were in the building."

The dispatcher made an announcement over the radio and air horns sounded on the apparatus outside. Most of the interior hoselines were abandoned. Another head count was made after the evacuation.

"At that point, we realized we were missing two more firefighters from Engine 3 who had hooked up with Ladder 2," McNamee said.

One more attempt was made a few minutes later to try the stairwell, but to no avail. "Leaving the building, all you could see was a little smoke coming from a few places," McNamee said. "When you walked back to the lot across the street, you could see the Roman-candle effect shooting from the vent."

Numerous tower ladders were requested to the scene from neighboring departments. Several were positioned on I-290 adjacent to side D of the fire building. Apparatus were pulled back, flanked at the corners and the ladders were positioned across the street and they set up their ladder pipes. The fire went to five alarms, bringing 18 of Worcester's 23 units to the scene. After the fourth alarm, a shift of 106-110 firefighters was recalled. These firefighters man spare apparatus or beef up remaining in-service companies. The entire department was recalled after the fifth alarm.

The following morning, a crane was brought in to assist in the recovery operations. The sixth, fifth, fourth and third floors burned and collapsed onto the deck of the second floor. Miles of refrigeration piping snaked back and forth in the rubble. Power saws and cutting torches were needed to cut the pipes.

Three to six feet of ash and charcoal remained. The crane took down a portion of the B side. Surface searches were conducted. The crane removed large debris and then the surface was searched again. To remove the small debris took old fashioned "bull work." Dirty, filthy work, bucket-brigade style. Two Bobcats were also used on the deck. Eventually, three cranes were used. Specialized units responded to assist in any possible way. Search dogs were used.

The Boston Fire Department sent its rescue and collapse units to the scene. When a large void was discovered, fiber optic cameras were used. Chiefs from Boston were used as safety chiefs monitoring the work in the collapse area. Engineers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used transits to monitor any movement in the walls. Firefighters from departments across the region arrived at the site to volunteer their services at the fire scene. They were used to search the rubble and assist with removing debris. During the eight-day search, the early December weather blessed rescuers with mostly mild conditions. One night it rained and there were a couple of windy days.