On The Job - California

Santa Monica Fire Department
Chief Richard Bridges
Personnel: 96 career firefighters
Apparatus: Five pumpers, one truck, two ambulances, one aircraft rescue unit, one light and air unit, one hazmat unit
Population: 86,900
Area: 8.2 square miles

As the dawn was breaking on Feb. 1, 1996, the Santa Monica, CA, Fire Department responded to a structure fire that ended up requiring units to pump 8,000 gallons per minute for 3 1/2 hours.

Photo by Vyto Valavicius
Numerous hoselines are trained on the vacant beachfront apartment building. Seven Santa Monica companies and four from Los Angeles City were required to extinguish the blaze.

Photo by Mike Garcia
The fire continues to rage 35 minutes after the arrival of the first apparatus. It took 70 firefighters nearly six hours to control the blaze.

The fire was reported at 5:58 A.M. in. the Sea Castle apartments, an 11-story, 178-unit un-reinforced masonry building erected in 1926. The structure originally was a beach club hosting such screen stars as Joan Crawford, Frank Sinatra and Ida Lupino. The building was converted to apartments in the 1960s. Two years earlier, as a result of the Northridge earthquake, the structure had sustained severe damage to many floors and exterior walls. All the occupants and their belongings were removed, and the building was boarded up until repairs could be made.

Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
Fire officers confer near a Los Angeles City Fire Department lifeguard truck as the smoky fire burns out of control.

Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
Beachgoers are attracted to the scene of the blaze as battalion chiefs from the Santa Monica and Los Angeles City fire departments discuss strategy for fighting the fire.

As the first-arriving units approached the scene, smoke was visible from the top of the south tower. Engine 2 and Truck 1 laddered the old exterior fire escape to make an attack on the sixth floor. With only smoke showing, and some heat, crews used chain saws to open up the boarded window.

Photo by Dan Steinberg
Santa Monica Fire Department Truck 1 is prepared for ladder pipe operation.

Photo by Dan Steinberg
firefighters from Santa Monica Trucks 1 and 6 can be seen operating ladder pipes in the background while Santa Monica and Los Angeles City chiefs, in the foreground, evaluate the structural integrity of the building.

As the engineer loaded the standpipe, crews advanced onto the sixth floor, experiencing heavy black smoke and heat. Truck 1's crew finished helping Engine 2 gain entry and noticed smoke coming from the two floors below Engine 2's position. Reporting this to the incident commander, Battalion Chief William Kolberg (who had established his command post south of the building), the crew started opening up all ground-level openings. Although the building was boarded up after the earthquake, transients had found their way inside to seek shelter. Units knew it was likely some of those people were inside the building at the time of the fire, so they opened up the doors to let them out. Reportedly, up to 20 people then exited the building. At 6:10, a second alarm was called, sending two additional engines.

Photo by Dan Steinberg
A view of the fire scene taken from the Santa Monica Pier.

Upon getting reports that smoke was on the floors below his personnel and seeing for himself that flames were now visible from the upper floors, Kolberg ordered all units out of the building and set up for a defensive operation. This order was given just 20 minutes after the first unit arrived on the scene.

The Santa Monica Fire Department has five engines, one truck, two paramedic squads and a battalion chief on duty each day. At 6:20 A.M., Kolberg ordered a third alarm, which sent all remaining Santa Monica units to the fire. Mutual aid was requested from the neighboring Los Angeles City Fire Department, which sent one engine, two 100-foot ladder trucks and a battalion chief to assist at the scene. Also, one Los Angeles City engine was ordered to Santa Monica's station as backup.

With this fire starting just before 6 A.M., members assigned to the on-coming shift began arriving at their stations by 6:30, which allowed the city's three reserve engines and reserve truck to be placed in service to handle other calls as well as assist at the fire scene.

As the fire progressed, aerial ladders were placed at all four corners of the building. Due to the design of the building as well its beachfront location, four portable monitors were placed in service on the east and west sides of the structure.

Safety was a prime issue the entire time the fire was being fought. Ever since the earthquake, the department had been pre-planning in the event such a fire broke out. Plans called for attempting an offensive attack if units arrived when the fire was small. But as soon as it was known that fire was below and above the firefighting units, an offensive attack was ruled out and a defensive mode was ordered.

Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
A firefighter from Los Angeles City Ladder 5 works atop an aerial as the fire burns on the roof of the hotel. The roofs of both towers eventually collapsed.

For the next three hours, heavy streams pumped millions of gallons of water into the structure. The weather was clear, so the heavy smoke was visible for miles. As the fire progressed, it began spreading from the south tower to the north tower. Both roofs collapsed and the upper floor began falling onto the floors below.

By the end of the day, with only hot spots left, units were told they were restricted from making entry until the following day. A structural engineer was called in to evaluate the structure to determine which areas were safe to enter. Until that go-ahead was given, there was no way for firefighters to determine if anyone was still inside.

At noon on the following day, six search dogs from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department were brought to the scene to search the burned-out shell of the building. As the day became night, the search was concluded, with no victims found in the parts of the building searched (the dogs were not allowed into portions of the building that were structurally unsafe). The building, a Santa Monica landmark for 70 years, was ordered demolished. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

2 Firefighters Killed in California Blaze

Two Stockton, CA, firefighters died and another was critically burned in a house fire on Feb. 6, 1997.

Firefighters Brett Laws, 29, and Bryan Golden, 21, died when the structure's roof collapsed on them at the early-morning blaze. Golden was fighting his first fire.

Fire Captain Oscar Barrera was hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns. An elderly woman who lived in the house also was killed in the fire. Laws and Golden were searching for her when they were killed.

It took firefighters more than four hours to extinguish the fire, which was reported at around 4 A.M. The cause was not known.

Craig Collier is a 27-year veteran of the Santa Monica, CA, Fire Department. He is currently division chief of Support Services Division, which handles public education, public information, disaster preparedness and communications.