On The Job - California

Craig Collier gives an account of a major fire that destroyed a Santa Monica landmark.


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...


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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.

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


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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.

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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.

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