On The Job - Baltimore

Chief Herman Williams Jr.
Personnel: 1,768 career firefighters
Apparatus: 36 engines, four aerial towers, 22 trucks, 18 medical units, one heavy rescue
Population: 736,014
Area: 94 square miles

Firefighters visiting Baltimore, MD, in 1995 fondly remember the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards and the hospitality offered by the Baltimore City Fire Department that beckons them back year after year.

The pleasurable summer, however, was the calm before a storm of firefighting challenges that Baltimore's bravest won't soon forget.

The Mainland Club. When you pull six alarms in a 104-year-old building, there usually isn't much left. But when the last engine departed on Aug. 20, the Maryland Club on Charles Street was still standing. The exclusive men's club was a gathering place for the city's elite, its ornate exterior dominating the neighborhood in the shadow of Baltimore's Washington Monument.

The late-night blaze began in a rear athletic facility and spread into the massive mansion. Firefighters were proud of their aggressive stop, but club members were just thankful their prized art treasures were rescued.

Hollins Street Exchange. Stretching over a city block in a hilly section of southwest Baltimore, the Hollins Street Exchange was a group of multi-story buildings housing a furniture warehouse, apartments and other industries. The Pre-Fire Planning Data Worksheet told the story: "numerous renovations ... unprotected utility openings ... buildings abutting each other."

The complex was sprinklered but the vacant warehouse across tiny Lipps Street wasn't. That's where a fire started just after midnight on Nov. 9. Flames jumped the street into the occupied apartment building, bringing an 11-alarm response that included units from Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

When the fire was placed under control just after 7 A.M., only piles of bricks and the shell of the apartment building remained. Veterans say Hollins Street will go down as one of the city's major operations. Assistant Chief Gary Frederick sums it up by simply saying: "This was one of the queens."

The Clipper Mill. Between the victory at the Maryland Club and the loss of the Hollins Street Exchange, a fire at 3500 Clipper Road in northwestern Baltimore caused the death of a young firefighter and devastated the department.

The Clipper Mill Industrial Park was a part of early Baltimore history. The Poole and Hunt Co. turned out firefighting steamers there in the 1800s. Columns supporting the dome of the U.S. Capitol were cast in its foundry. Recently, a colony of artists were using Building 3, a large one-story warehouse that stretched over 450 feet into the complex.

On Saturday night, Sept. 16, an occupant noticed wires burning at a utility pole there. Flames also seemed to be coming from the roof of the 140-year-old structure. When Engine 21 pulled up, Lieutenant Steven Patrick saw fire enveloping the roof. Alone on the call, he requested a full box assignment.

Exposures were everywhere. The building directly behind the warehouse was so large it housed a rock climbing gym. Across the narrow alley was another web of multi-story industrial buildings. The lieutenant couldn't wait for the chief he struck second and third alarms. It was 9:48 P.M.

Responding as the department's public information officer, Battalion Chief Hector Torres expected another blaze in one of Baltimore's old mill buildings. A light rain was falling but radio chatter indicated that things were getting worse. For Torres that meant camera crews gathering shots for the 11 o'clock broadcast and calls from newspaper reporters. But this fire held some surprises.

Lieutenant Paul Novak and the members of Engine 13 heard the Clipper Mill turn into a quick second alarm. They rolled out the doors of their McMechen Street firehouse on the third. Heavy fire engulfed the center of the building and was rolling toward the rear exposures. Water was a problem, the shallow creek on the south side of the building denying both a drafting operation and access for apparatus. Units entering the narrow service road jockeyed for position. The good news was that first-due Engine 21 was getting help. The bad news: its tail-lights were melting.

Four alarms were now in and the rear-guard action fell to Assistant Chief Ray Lehr. The veteran commander had his work cut out for him. A row of connected buildings ran another two blocks the total depth of the complex ran some 900 feet.

"I wrote off the roof as soon as I got there," Lehr said. Luckily, a ladder truck and aerial tower were able to move into position at the huge rock gym. Brush units from Baltimore County were working ember patrol in the neighborhood.

The Collapse

The service road on the north side left limited access so attention turned to the front of the building on Clipper Road. Rescue 1, which operates out of the downtown Steadman Station, and Truck 16 began cutting an opening in a lone overhead door. Novak's company hit a hydrant across the street and dragged a 21/2-inch line to the door. They were going in. At one point, a puff of smoke or dust shot out one of the two front windows. Crews moved inside.

"We could see the fire ahead of us and we began working the line," Novak said.

Five minutes later, though, Novak knew the fight was unwinnable the fire was chasing the ceiling above them under the peaked roof. He gave the order to pull out. Retreating firefighters stepped through the opening as Novak and Firefighter John Scarpati awaited their turn. Just then, a rumble came from deep inside. The two dove onto the sidewalk. Novak rolled away from Scarpati onto his back. Thoughts of "we made it" surged through his mind as firefighters ran over to help.

Suddenly, the overhead door right above him began falling the front of the building was coming down. Everything was dropping, the facade, the peaked roof and the thick granite wags. It was 10:12 P.M.

"The corrugated door folded down over me," Novak said. "I tried to hold my arms up to cushion the impacts."

Hundreds of pounds of granite pounded the door, drilling the officer into the sidewalk. News cameras caught the front roof peak topple back into the building. It was the end of a chain reaction that began when the roof trusses in the rear collapsed. The energy surged through two tension rods that ran the length of the structure, creating a powerful strain on the front wall. The front roof section tumbled inward, pushing the granite facade outward. More than a dozen firefighters were buried in the rubble.

Hearing the crash, Torres saw the cloud of dust and ran toward it. Chief of Department Herman Williams Jr. pressed rescue teams into service. Dust hung over the street as Torres came upon fallen Firefighter Barry Blackman, who was moaning in the rubble. His serious injuries included a punctured lung and bruised ribs. "I tried to reassure him as we waited for help," Torres said.

Firefighters frantically clawed at the rubble, digging out their comrades. Novak was waiting in darkness for the deafening thuds to end. Suddenly, it became eerily quiet. "I couldn't hear anything except the humming of the engines and guys screaming," he remembered. His attention turned to Scarpati. "Take it easy," he shouted. "They'll get here, just hold on."

This wasn't Novak's first close call. Years earlier, he was on the third-floor of a Carey Street rowhouse when it pancaked into the cellar. Lying in the basement, he thought the worst was over until he realized it was on fire. He got out then and he knew he'd get out now. He was sure of another thing too. "That door saved my life," he said.

The fire was roaring out of control. The front of the building was packed with apparatus and they couldn't get enough ambulances in. A halted light rail train nearby was commandeered to shuttle the injured to the next stop, where emergency vehicles were directed. It was 10:35 P.M. and nine alarms were in.

Novak's ankles were hurting. Rescuers were walking on top of his corrugated cloak. "It hurt like hell," he recalled. A pair of boots appeared near his feet. It was a chief. Novak reached for a loose brick and tossed it. "Please stay off my ankles," he hollered. It got the recipient's attention rescue was imminent. He had been buried for 15 minutes.

As Novak climbed aboard the rail car, he heard talk that somebody was missing. He knew he was the last man out of Building 3 and couldn't figure what they were talking about. A short time later, rescuers uncovered an air bottle in the dusty debris. Pulling away loose granite, they found Firefighter Eric Schaefer of Rescue Company 1. He had been killed by the collapsing wall.

In The Fire's Aftermath

Sunday morning revealed a gutted building. Firefighters saved the complex but a young firefighter was dead and everybody wanted answers. Torres didn't have any.

In the next days, rumors circulated as investigators from multiple agencies picked through the rubble. Was the puff of smoke prior to Engine 13's entry a backdraft? Did commanders disregard signs of an impending collapse?

Torres had been through big media stories since taking over as PIO four years earlier. There was the fire at the Camden Yards warehouse just prior to the Orioles' Opening Day. In 1994, nine residents died in a Hollins Street rowhouse. He weathered the national exposure every time but locally things were heating up.

A television reporter queried him about the tactics used in quelling the blaze. She refused to reveal the unidentified "expert" who was delivering the criticisms.

Footage on the 6 o'clock news showed the pre-collapse operations at the front of the building. The smoke surge from the window was followed promptly by the falling roof. But that wasn't the way it happened in reality, the station had edited the tape for broadcast, splicing together two separate incidents that occurred over a span of at least five minutes or more. There was no backdraft because the fire had fully vented. The window surge could have been a prior collapse in the rear. Still, it fueled the fire in viewer's minds.

"All this was occurring as we prepared to bury a firefighter," Torres recalled. "I think it added a lot of anguish to the situation, especially for his family."

The department was forced to deal with a line-of-duty death and an investigation at the same time. "It was very difficult to deal with the media's need for information," Torres said. "We deal with facts, not speculation, and that takes time."

Williams directed Assistant Chief Gary Frederick to chair a Board of Inquiry. Its mission: find out what happened at the Clipper Mill. In January 1996, after interviewing personnel, viewing news footage and analyzing department operations, the board issued a report. The Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory used a computer simulation to track the truss failure. It cited the 19th century connection as the culprit with un-reinforced load-bearing rock walls, the loss of trusses due to the fire and the transfer of energy along tension rods onto the front roof and wall.

The board offered these recommendations:

  • Use chin straps to supplement helmet protection against repeated blows in a collapse.
  • Purchase new personal distress devices to be worn by everyone operating on the fireground. Each comes with a blinking light so officers can confirm that it's on, and a heat sensor alarm if the temperature increases to a hazardous level. (At the Clipper Mill, many of the buried victims, who were operating outside the structure, could have been more easily located had they been wearing alert devices.)
  • Further study personal accountability procedures.
  • Replace the radio system.

A Firefighter Fatality

Investigators hoped to use video footage to determine Schaefer's location before the collapse. Unfortunately, apparatus blocked the area he was operating in. His lieutenant reported he was having difficulty with the saw he was using to remove a grating from the left window. The 25-year-old firefighter was found to the left of the doorway, approximately 20 feet from the wall. The report notes his position indicated that he was retreating from the front of the building when he was struck by debris.

The report notes: "His helmet was later located at the base of the wall, to the left of the overhead door. The chin strap was unhooked, indicating it had not been secured on his head. Damage to the helmet was minimal compared to others subjected to the same forces." It suggests that Schaefer could have been in the process of donning his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) mask, thereby reasoning why his helmet was not on. An autopsy indicated severe trauma to the head and numerous areas of the body the severe wounds indicating that he had been killed instantly.

The department's Fire Investigation Bureau has labeled the blaze "incendiary" although the initial 911 call reported wires arcing on a utility pole. That determination is based on them ruling out an electrical source, and an eyewitness who observed juveniles inside the building prior to the fire.

The tributes started appearing at the wall of Building 3 just days after Schaefer's death. As winter came, Clipper Mill artisans Paul West and Terry Steel built a small wooden roof to enclose sentimental gestures which included flowers and notes, even a teddy bear.

"Firefighters saved this park," said West, who wants to construct a memorial there using what's left of the collapsed corner wall. He plans a fountain and a plaque, and hopes to use some of the columns left over from the U.S. Capitol.

One spring day, West added a fresh coat of green paint to the enclosure. Inside is a framed picture of Schaefer standing proud in his uniform. A note from his parents says: "Peace Be With You, Eric. Love Mom & Dad." It ends with two kisses and two hugs.

Joseph Louderback, a Firehouse® contributing editor, served as editor of the FDNY's Publications Unit and as a government affairs reporter. He is a 19-year member of the Milmont Fire Company in Milmont Park, PA, and conducts media relations programs for the fire service.