On The Job - Pennsylvania

Thomas Rehr reports on a rash of multiple alarm fires that damaged or destroyed numerous buildings, injured firefighters and civilians, and left dozens of people homeless.


City of Reading Department of Fire & Rescue Services Chief William H. Rehr III Personnel: 153 career firefighters Apparatus: Seven engines, three aerials, one heavy rescue Population: 80,000 Area: 9.9 square miles While many departments entered October 1997 with Fire Prevention...


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Crews began ascending to the ninth floor where they encountered smoke in the hallway and a hot door to Apartment 903. As a line was stretched to the apartment from a standpipe, additional crews began making their way to the six floors above the fire for search and rescue, in addition to searching the ninth floor. Eighty apartments from the eighth to the 15th floors were searched and their occupants evacuated. The nozzle crew had the fire knocked down in minutes and positive-pressure ventilation was started on the fire floor. The fire was placed under control at 9:34 P.M.

A 19-year-old occupant of the involved apartment was subsequently arrested on arson and other related charges after admitting to investigators that he had started the fire. The fire caused $15,000 in damage to the building. Seven engines, three aerials and a heavy rescue company along with numerous EMS and police units operated at the scene.

Oct. 16, 2:26 A.M. - 1330 Muhlenberg St. Most of the city's firefighters were in bed trying to rest, having put in work at the two previous incidents. But at 2:26 A.M., a box alarm was transmitted for a dwelling fire in the 1300 block of Muhlenberg Street. Responding companies were advised of people possibly trapped and others fleeing via the windows.

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Photo by David J. Reimer
Oct. 21, 1997 - Snorkel 1's bucket goes to work as handlines protect exposure 4 during the Neversink Street fire. The suspicious two-alarm fire destroyed one building and heavily damaged three others.

First-due Engine 13 reported heavy smoke on the approach and a working fire at 2:28. Fire involved the second floor and was spreading into the third and also dropping into the first floor of the three-story rowhouse. Engine 13 advised that all occupants were out of the building as firefighters began stretching lines.

Orlosky arrived on the scene and with the fire beginning to spread, requested an additional engine and ladder sent to the scene. The communications center dispatched next-due Engine 3 and Ladder 1. Additional lines were deployed to knock down the fire, as crews ventilated and checked the exposures. The fire was placed under control at 3:30 A.M. but units would remain on the scene for almost two hours mopping up.

The fire was listed as accidental; it was started by an unattended candle. The fire caused $25,000 in damage and displaced the family of four living there. A 57-year-old man was treated for minor burns, cuts and smoke inhalation after trying to extinguish the fire prior to the fire department's arrival. He had become trapped by the fire and broke through a second-floor window, where he crossed the porch roofs of two adjoining homes to safety.

Oct. 21, 3:04 A.M. - 16-18-20-22 Neversink St. A "working structure fire" was reported at 18 Neversink St. Units responding knew from the dispatcher's tone of voice and because the call was the being put out as a "working" incident that the communications center had received numerous calls or that dispatchers could see the fire from their 18th-floor location. After a short run from their station just four blocks away, Engine 5 arrived on the scene at 3:05 with "fire showing."

Fire heavily involved a vacant 2 1/2-story wood-frame dwelling and had already spread to the two dwellings attached to it, exposure 2 (vacant from a previous fire this year) and exposure 2A (an occupied dwelling), both of similar construction. With the heavy volume of fire and the construction of the buildings, Moyer transmitted the second alarm at 3:11. A line was used to protect exposure 4 (separated by a narrow alleyway) while companies gained access to the boarded-up homes at 18 and 20 Neversink St. Additional lines were stretched as companies began to go to work on the three buildings.

5_98_penn5.jpg
Photo by David J. Reimer
Oct. 21, 1997 - Fire Chief William H. Rehr III monitors the progress of firefighters at the Neversink Street blaze minutes before the building of origin collapsed. Damage to the buildings was put at $40,000.

Because of the heavy involvement of 18 Neversink St. and its unstable appearance, all companies were ordered to stay out of that building and a exterior attack would be used with handlines and Snorkel 1's master stream. This tactic would prove valuable, for without warning at 3:38, a total collapse occurred at 18 Neversink St. - the front wall collapsed onto the sidewalk, the side wall collapsed in a lean-to fashion and rested against exposure 4, and the interior floors and roof collapsed in a pancake fashion. With the main body of fire now reduced to a pile of rubble, companies contained and knocked down the fire on the second floor and attic of exposures 2 and 2A. At 4:33 A.M., the fire was placed under control. One firefighter suffered a minor ankle injury. The original fire building was destroyed, exposures 2 and 2A were heavily damaged, and exposure 4 sustained minor damage. The fire has been termed suspicious by authorities.