On The Job - Iowa: Des Moines Firefighter Survives Christmas Day Building Collapse

Steve Meyer reports on the heroic efforts by firefighters to rescue one of their own from a collapsed burning building.


DES MOINES FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Charles Morgan Personnel: 294 career firefighters Apparatus: 10 pumpers, four aerials, one snorkel, one quint, five medic units, two attack units, one power unit, one tanker, one hazmat unit Population: 191,000 Area: 79 square miles Christmas is a time...


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DES MOINES FIRE DEPARTMENT
Chief Charles Morgan
Personnel: 294 career firefighters
Apparatus: 10 pumpers, four aerials, one snorkel, one quint, five medic units, two attack units, one power unit, one tanker, one hazmat unit
Population: 191,000
Area: 79 square miles

Christmas is a time of thanks, peace, family togetherness and hope. For Captain Jim Hartzer, a 33-year veteran of the Des Moines, IA, Fire Department, Christmas Day 1995 was definitely a day of thanks for having been spared his life.

On the afternoon of Dec. 25, Hartzer and his crew from Pumper 4 responded to a house fire at 1120 21st St. in Des Moines. The structure was an older home which had undergone considerable remodeling. There had been at least two additions to the structure and it had been converted into a 10-unit apartment building.

The fire began when a candle ignited an over-dry Christmas tree, which witnesses said went up in flames in seconds. Residents of the apartment tried to combat the fire by throwing water on it for several minutes before calling the fire department. In that time, the fire only worsened. Within two hours, all 30 of the apartment building's residents would be homeless, and Hartzer would be in a hospital bed after being trapped for nearly an hour.

When Pumper 4 was dispatched, Hartzer the initial incident commander knew the crew was going to a working fire. Station 4 is located nearly a mile from the fire's location, and when Pumper 4 rolled out of the station, smoke could already be seen billowing into the sky.

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Photo by Gary Fandel/Courtesy of The Des Moines Register
Des Moines firefighters rescue Captain Jim Hartzer, who was trapped inside a burning multiple dwelling for nearly an hour on Christmas Day 1995.

On arrival, Hartzer's initial assessment found fire belching from windows on both the first and second floors of the 2 1/2-story frame building on both the north and west sides to its rear. With just his single crew on scene and with the extent of the fire, Hartzer knew an interior attack was out of the question. Had the fire been facing him, he would have squelched the flames with a deck gun attack, but instead he resorted to an attack with two 1 3/4-inch handlines from the exterior. This attack only slowed the fire.

On an initial alarm to a structural fire, the Des Moines Fire Department dispatches two engines, an aerial, a squad and a district chief. This provides a complement of a dozen firefighters. As additional apparatus and personnel arrived on scene, more hoselines and hose crews were put into operation and command was passed to the acting district chief, Captain William Burke.

The blaze was stubborn; it used the made-over construction to its advantage and firefighting efforts could not, after more than an hour, bring it completely under control. The "chopped-up" construction from so much remodeling made getting to the fire, which had spread extensively in the balloon construction, difficult in fact, nearly impossible. Even blasts from the hose streams of two aerial trucks could not completely subdue the fire. Burke and Hartzer had a conference and a line was drawn in the sand firefighters would make a stand and save the front half of the structure, which was undamaged by the fire. As firefighters worked toward this objective, Hartzer directed a hose crew at the back of the structure.

In his 33 years on the Des Moines Fire Department, Hartzer has seen a lot of building fires and has been an ardent student of fire behavior and building construction. He's been bruised and burned, had strains and sprains, had things fall on him, and he has seen many unfortunate circumstances, but nothing like what was about to happen.

Hartzer is a fire officer who would not intentionally endanger himself or another firefighter. Fellow firefighters acknowledge him as one of the best on the department and an officer whose wisdom and firefighting savvy were never in doubt.

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