Fire & Ice - Plus A Flood

Lawrence E. Phillips recounts the triple disasters that assailed a North Dakota city and challenged its firefighters.


Grand Forks Fire Department Chief Richard J. Aulich Suppression & administration staff: 64 people Three fire stations: Central (headquarters) engine, tower ladder, rescue, hazmat, battalion chief; Columbia Road engine; South engine Population: 52,000 Area: 20 square miles It was...


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"I took my Suburban through about 2 1/2 feet of water, about as far as I could," Anderson said. "I radioed a boat and they came and picked me up. We went and surveyed the situation, hopefully trying to set up some kind of water curtain. We were hampered in our firefighting efforts because when we should have been setting up our attack and bringing in additional equipment, we ended up having to rescue the people that we tried to get out all day but they wouldn't come. Once the smoke started to bank down, they got scared and started showing up."

Upon arrival by boat and National Guard trucks (the fire apparatus went as far as possible but was stopped short about a 1 1/2 blocks away by water almost five feet deep), the main concern turned to rescue.

"We verified that we had a fire on the roof of the Security Building but we had no immediate way to get to it or at it," Flermoen said. "Our first measures were to make sure everybody was out. A lot of effort was put on the rescue operation, especially when people that (we thought) had already been evacuated, allegedly, started appearing at windows and doors. We started directing some of the National Guard trucks and boats to those areas. Instantly, we found out that there were a number of people downtown that were in an area that was (supposedly) mandatory evacuated almost 12 hours earlier. These people were holdouts, and just didn't want to go.

"All of a sudden, they're now in some pretty deep trouble, and they're hollering. We used a megaphone and the horns on the Guard trucks to try and alert others that still might be in the building but weren't aware of the situation. We wanted them to come down from the upper levels to our level so we could take them out. We also had people showing up in the building next door, which was wall against wall."

Another concern was utilities the electric and natural gas supply to the city.

"NSP (Northern States Power Co.) was monitoring our radio traffic and was on the scene about as quickly as we were," Anderson said. "Our first concern was electrical power, as we were working under real high-powered, heavy electrical lines." NSP also took care of the gas situation.

Engine 519 was driven into the water toward the fire as far as the crew thought possible (at least 1 1/2 blocks from the structure) and a hydrant hookup was attempted. Under water, Firefighter Mitch Steien and others did get two three-inch lines with 21/2-inch couplings on the hydrant. Steien, at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, was surprised that the hookup succeeded he had never made a hydrant hookup "with water up to my waist," he said. "But we broke it down when we couldn't get much water out of it." Steien and Firefighters Orlin Anderson and Randy Johnson were later treated for hypothermia.

"When you've got ice floes going by in the street that are as big as a car, it's gonna be cold," Flermoen said.

Added Anderson, "Some firefighters had on hip waders and others had on regular bunkers. Regardless, the water just came up, over and into their clothing as they were bending over, feeling under the water to try and find a hydrant. We finally found the hydrant, got it hooked up, but that didn't work as there wasn't any water in the system.

"We then started drafting right out of the street but, remember, all this time the pumper was still running. We carried a portable deck gun to the top floor of a nearby parking ramp and hoisted up hoselines to connect to the gun. We did reach across the street to the roof of another building that was starting to catch fire, and we were getting ready to move the gun to the other end of the parking ramp so we could reach yet another building, which we barely reached, when it was reported to me that there was oil all around the pumper doing the drafting. When I got to the pumper, there was a huge amount of oil coming out of the pumper and I just told them to shut down so we could possibly still drive it out of the water instead of having to be pulled out."

Chad Cutshaw, Grand Forks Fire Department master mechanic, said, "The oil capacity of the pumper's diesel motor is seven gallons. When the pumper came back in, I immediately pulled the drain plug and let the water run out of it for a long time before I had to catch any oil. I probably got close to 10 gallons of water out of the diesel because it floated the oil up and out of the motor but it still kept filling the motor with water as it continued to run."

Anderson added, "We got the pumper as close and as deep (into the water) as we could but we still weren't close enough."