Sept. 16, 2009
On Friday, March 20, 2009, fire swept through multiple horizontal void spaces at the Empress Casino in Joliet, IL, quickly outpacing fire department resources during the initial stages of the fire. The fire burned within horizontal void spaces, running the roof and truss system for an undetermined amount of time prior to the arrival of fire crews.

On Friday, March 20, 2009, fire swept through multiple horizontal void spaces at the Empress Casino in Joliet, IL, quickly outpacing fire department resources during the initial stages of the fire. The fire burned within horizontal void spaces, running the roof and truss system for an undetermined amount of time prior to the arrival of fire crews.

By the time the fire was brought under control 10 hours later, some 150 Joliet firefighters, along with tanker companies from 35 other departments, poured more than 4 million gallons of water into the structure. The fire eventually consumed most of the land-based building portions of the casino that housed the casino's restaurants, ballrooms, lounges, some storage and kitchens, but firefighters saved the 50,000-square-foot casino, as well the docks and part of the corporate administrative building. No lives were lost, but ambulances transported one casino patron to the hospital for minor injuries and one firefighter for a back injury.

The Structure

The Empress Casino opened in 1992 and, under then-existing gaming laws, operated two riverboats that provided gambling cruises to patrons of about an hour at a time. Eventually, state laws relaxed to let the riverboats remain permanently docked, essentially creating permanent, floating buildings. The Empress had been remodeled several times and at the time of the fire was undergoing another renovation at an estimated cost of $50 million.

These successive renovations included multiple ceilings (at least three), one stacked on top of the other with a three-by-five-foot void space between each roof, supported by gusset-plate wooden trusses and some light industrial steel supports. Throughout all remodeling periods, the building remained a light industrial building, with a combination of interior steel supporting beams and columns and wooden trusses, joists and walls.

The exterior of the casino had been covered with a prefabricated textured styrene-type product to give an exterior look of desert-swept pyramids. The casino floor floated on a barge with a wooden and steel building constructed on top of it. This barge housed all gambling operations, and was permanently attached to the land-based portion of the casino known as the "pavilion."

The casino floor measured more than 50,000 square feet with more than 30 table games and 1,100 slot machines, while the pavilion measured an additional 50,000-plus square feet. The pavilion housed three upscale restaurants, large kitchens, administrative offices, personnel lounges, storage rooms, several large ballrooms and a host of other spaces.

Early estimates indicate that the land-based businesses accounted for less than 5% of the casino's revenue, while the casino floor accounted for the remaining 95%.

Though the official cause of fire (and the property damage value) is still under investigation, it is believed the fire was sparked by a welder working in the southwest corner of the pavilion above the kitchen area. At some point, sparks from the torch or welder are believed to have ignited the kitchen ventilation system. The ventilation system is believed to have been coated with atomized grease deposited in the kitchen exhaust over years of use. The grease along the duct work caught fire, resulting in heat buildup and direct flame impingement on material in the roof spaces. The fire ignited material within the roof trusses and joists, resulting in self-sustaining flame spread. It is unknown how long the fire burned in the roof's void spaces prior to the arrival of fire personnel.

Initial Still Alarm

Firefighter/Paramedic James Rudnicki, a seven-year veteran on the Joliet Fire Department (JFD), started his shift at the Empress Casino on the morning of March 20 at 5:45 as part of the department's on-site 24-hour paramedic coverage of casino patrons. The casino pays the City of Joliet to provide off-duty firefighters for this service. At 9:54 A.M., Rudnicki heard radio traffic come across the casino's security band mentioning smoke in the southwest portion of the pavilion (the land-based portion of the casino). The area included the casino's kitchens.

Rudnicki recalls that he started heading toward the area in question with the security supervisor. As he approached the incident area, he said, "I was thinking about where the closest extinguishers were located and whether the sprinkler system was still working in that part of the pavilion (because of the remodeling). The kitchen area was in a section of the pavilion that was being heavily remodeled. When we entered the area, there was a lot of smoke (in the ceiling area) and small burning debris was falling from the ceiling. There was a long section of ductwork, high in the ceiling, that had fire rolling above it approximately 15 feet long and spreading."

Rudnicki also said he noticed "a couple of spent extinguishers on the ground," as if workers had attempted extinguishment, but by the time he arrived, "the workers were starting to exit the area." Rudnicki then instructed the security supervisor to begin evacuating the pavilion and the casino, and he asked two nearby construction workers to bring a couple more extinguishers to the kitchen area and then evacuate the casino. He then attempted to call for a still alarm with his JFD radio, used normally to request ambulance services. The radio malfunctioned, and he had to return to the paramedic station to get a replacement. The replacement worked and he initiated the still alarm, which came across at 9:59.

At that point, Rudnicki recalls, "a maintenance employee and myself then cleared a route from the fire area to the front of the pavilion for the first-in company to advance their (hose) lines."

The initial still alarm brought in Joliet's standard still of three engines (with three personnel each), one truck or tower (with three or four personnel), two ambulances (with two personnel each) and a battalion chief.

On the Attack

The first-due company was about two miles away at Station 7 along Houbolt Road. Station 7 was commanded that day by Captain Greg Blaskey, a 23-year veteran of the JFD, who started shift at his regular time. He and his crew had just finished morning duties at the engine house. Blaskey recalls that "when I heard Jim Rudnicki's voice on the radio overhead, I knew we had something."

The casino is hidden by a large manicured berm just off U.S. Route 6. As Engine 7 and Ambulance 7 approached the casino, Blaskey stated, "We didn't catch smoke until we reached the top of the hill leading to the casino," but at the top of the hill, "there was heavy smoke volume from the middle section of the building." He directed Engine 7 to the main entrance of the casino, where he was met by Rudnicki. Blaskey and Firefighter Scott Harmon went with Rudnicki for a quick look to see what they needed for an initial attack.

The kitchen was under remodeling with heavy smoke and heavy fire all along the ceiling, about 20 feet off the ground, but the smoke was not banking down at that time. Blaskey sent Harmon back to Engine 7 and radioed for the ambulance crew to help deploy the skid pack — a three-supply line with a reducer, a 2½-inch blitz nozzle, a wye and two 100-foot 1¾-inch hoselines. Blaskey and Harmon manned Attack Line 1 and the ambulance crew, Firefighter Patrick Adelmann and Apparatus Operator James Ryan, manned Attack Line 2.

Blaskey recalled, "We made decent progress, knocking down the fire. But as soon as we backed off to see what progress we made, it came blowing back. I could hear the vent crew cutting a hole (Tower 6, Captain Mark Wagner), and they were in the perfect spot." Unfortunately, the fire was burning in the roof trusses above the drywall ceiling, and the crews were hitting the fire through pre-existing holes in the ceiling created by the remodeling.

"We couldn't reach the drywall with our pike poles because the ceiling was too far off the ground," Blaskey said. "So we took it out with a straight stream; it was already sagging, so it came down pretty quick."

While the crews kept hitting the fire, Attack 1 crossed the kitchen floor to get a better angle and Attack 2 remained at the kitchen entrance. Blaskey went to check for extension in the adjacent room around the corner and saw fire and smoke moving into the adjacent room's ceiling. He also checked to ensure that Attack 1 had an alternate point of egress if the kitchen ceiling failed and cut off the crew from Attack 2's position near the door. Noting the available exits, he returned to the attack line.

"At that point, visibility started to fail," Blaskey said. "A few seconds later, I heard a crack and looked up and saw one of the horizontal joists had cracked and fallen onto the ductwork and piping below it inside the ceiling. They were gusset plate wood-frame trusses, and so I radioed the truck crew to let them know about the truss failure…My worry was, obviously, collapse."

Blaskey told Attack 2 to back out of the room and stay near the entrance out from under the ceiling. "A few minutes later," he said, "the whole ceiling failed — ductwork, piping, everything." Debris had fallen into the kitchen, cutting off access through the entryway where Attack 2 was stationed. He radioed the truck crew again, to let them know of the ceiling conditions. "Then I yelled to the ambulance crew (Attack 2) that we were all going to bail and to pull outside. Attack 2 withdrew through its initial access point while Attack 1 exited through its alternate egress and met back at the engine. The whole attack was maybe 10 minutes tops. It was surprising how quickly the ceiling failed. Makes you wonder how long that had been burning up there. I'm just glad nobody got hurt or killed."

Defensive Operations

Battalion Chief Laroy Aldridge arrived on the scene at 10:08 and assumed command. He elevated the fire to a box alarm after one minute on scene and to a 2-11 within three minutes. In the City of Joliet, a 2-11 fire results in an immediate callback of the prior day's crews, which in this case was Gold Shift.

Across the city, four miles away, Fire Chief Joe Formhals was in the administrative offices at the department's headquarters at 101 E. Clinton St.

"When I initially heard the still alarm, I thought they had a small kitchen fire," Formhals said. "Once Chief Aldridge boxed it, and then issued a 2-11, I called dispatch and told them to make it a complete department callback and headed down there."

By 10:30, off-duty crews began reporting to their engine houses for assignment. Reserve equipment was staffed. Some crews were sent to the fireground and others were sent to staff the empty engine houses whose crews were already at the fire.

Captain Mark Wagner and his crew on Tower 6 arrived on scene at 1006, less than one minute behind Engine 7 and was the first aerial apparatus company on scene. Pursuant to departmental standard operating procedures (SOPs), he and his crew established roof access and began ventilation operations above the kitchen in coordination with Engine 7. Shortly after attempting a limited trench cut to contain the fire to the kitchen area, Tower 6 was ordered away from the area due to safety considerations. It was around this time that Blaskey radioed to Wagner about failing roof conditions over the fire area. This initial ventilation attempt was not completed due to safety concerns.

After it was evident that a quick initial attack was not going to stop the fire, fire crews led by various officers turned offensive operations toward establishing a long trench cut farther from the seat of the fire running north and south the full length of the pavilion and east of the fire area. Crews on the roof were assigned the task of cutting the trench while other crews were sent inside to pull ceiling.

Apparatus Operator Matt Hornbuckle, who worked with the crews on the roof, explained: "We started a trench cut right about the location where the ballroom area (roof of the add-on) met the roof of the old pavilion." The trench cut on the top of the roof went quickly, but the crews realized that there was another roof below the first one, with gusset-plate wooden trusses in between. Another set of crews began cutting a second trench cut below the first. Smoke and heat conditions held steady for some time, allowing the crews to work. Once the second roof was opened, a third roof was found, and crews began a third trench cut below the other two.

Meanwhile, Captain Jeff Carey and Captain Matt Baxter were sent inside the pavilion along with several crews to pull ceiling ahead of the trench cut. The lowest ceiling was 20 feet high, so extension ladders and long pike poles were used along with 1¾-inch handlines to knock down any potential hot spots as the ceiling was opened. Starting at the south end of the pavilion, the crews pulled all the ceiling.

"There was very little smoke in our operations area, and once we opened the ceiling, you could shine your flashlight into the exposed area and there was no smoke immediately above that" Carey said. "Instead, we found another ceiling."

The crews pulled the ceilings from the south end below the trench cut to almost the north end of the pavilion, moving ladders and pikes as they went. Occasionally, they pulled an inspection hole to make sure no fire was above them. At the north end of the building, however, it was discovered that the fire had run ahead of the crews and jumped the trench cut area through one of the horizontal void spaces composed of wooden gusset-plate truss construction. Parts of the ceiling at the northern end of the building had begun to sag with potential collapse, so Carey pulled out his crews to reassess. On the roof, smoke and heat conditions had worsened to the point that the Division A battalion chief ordered all crews off the roof.

Water Supply

By 11 A.M., it was apparent that the fire would require a larger water supply than city hydrants at current pressure could provide and that water supply plans would be a major issue should the current incident plan to contain the fire by trench cut fail. Part of the initial design features of the casino property had been high-pressure dead-end hydrants that could provide very-high-pressure five-inch lines, but not across all hydrants on the property. Planning had assumed that any fires would be isolated and mostly contained to the area of origin by sprinklers and a system of fire doors. Due to the remodeling project at the property, however, the alarm system had been shut down and the sprinklers shut off. In fact, the fire alarm system did not trigger with Joliet's dispatch center during the entire fire. Even worse, part of the remodeling project included the replacement of several fire doors, which were inoperable at the time of the fire.

This string of events resulted in a larger fire and necessitated a larger water supply than the hydrants on the property could provide. As the incident grew in size, the command staff explored its options, and was faced with drafting from the river, boosting citywide water pressure, starting a tanker shuttle operation or some combination of those choices.

Deputy Chief Jon Stratton of the Plainfield Fire Department was called in to help in the decision-making process, as he has 28 years of fire and EMS service and a long-standing experience with drafting and tanker shuttle operations for the surrounding rural communities. Stratton, Formhals and Joliet Deputy Chief Ray Randich performed a survey and walk-around, and spoke with various agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and the City of Joliet Water Department. Within a half-hour, they had explored all their options.

"I was on scene just a little after 11 A.M.," Stratton said. "Our first option was obvious — drafting from the river, but the U.S. Coast Guard advised that nowhere along the river was there acceptable access. All nearby locations for drafting were 50 to 60 feet below grade. I relied on their expertise and from there advised that we go with a tanker shuttle operation." Formhals, as incident commander, gave the go ahead.

Illinois uses a Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) that provides statewide move-ups for resources as needed for major incidents. Joliet belongs to MABAS Division 15, which Stratton used initially in his capacity as the water-shuttle supply officer.

"I did some quick calculations based on the volume of fire, distance to supply points, and made up box cards right there," he said. "I requested 28,000 gallons' worth of tankers right off the bat. Once they were on the way, I went ahead and divided the building up into larger pieces, and as the fire progressed, I kept my tanker requests out ahead of the fire."

As the day progressed, resources would be pulled from other divisions, including MABAS Divisions 7, 10, 14, 19, 24 and 27. According to Stratton, "From being given the go ahead at 11:52 A.M., we had our first tanker of water to the fireground pumpers by 12:20 P.M."

The water-shuttle operation eventually grew to include 35 departments, some from dozens of miles away.

"At its height," Stratton said, "we had five other chiefs helping to coordinate the tanker efforts, 36 tenders from 35 departments, two 6,800-gallon tankers donated from A&R Transport (a local trucking company), three engines at fill sites and four different porta-tank operations." One portable tank operation was set up on the east side of the building to supply Division B, with Engine 8 drafting from the tank to supply two aerial operations and several street guns, another was set up on the southwest side in Division D, and two were set up on the northwest side in Division A — one supplying Tower 6's master stream, and another supplying Engine 7 and various deck and street guns there.

There were some problems with the shuttle operation. A water main broke at about 2 P.M., and that delayed the tanker fill-site operation for about a half-hour while the pumper moved to a location without a broken main. One of the fill sites was Joliet's Caterpillar plant, which had a 1 million-gallon tank. At one point, the tank levels dropped too low and Caterpillar's water pumps had to be turned on to keep the tank filled to a minimum level. Finally, one shuttle location that was closer to the fire was not used and a location farther away was chosen. The close location was near a busy intersection and in addition to causing massive traffic problems would also increase the risk of apparatus operation safety.

"None of these problems were that significant, though," Stratton said. "By my estimates, the tanker-shuttle operation supplied 1,513,500 gallons of water over the course of 571 dumps, traveled 5,200 miles to fill sites up to two miles away, over the course of 10 hours. This supplied about 2,500 gallons per minute and we had no traffic accidents and no injuries, which is pretty amazing." The tanker alarm was pulled at 11:52 A.M. and struck at 7:25 P.M., but the last tender did not leave the scene until 12:49 the next morning.

To maximize water supply, at 12:13 P.M., Battalion Chief John Zagar asked the city water department to increase the water pressure, which gave the main hydrant on the property a gallonage of approximately 3,500 gpm.

Conditions Worsen

Early firefighting efforts with the trench cuts had stopped the fire from spreading south to the floating barge that contained the casino floor, but the fire had run north instead, jumping ahead of the trench. Once the fire had jumped ahead of the trench, fire conditions continued to worsen, and crews were ordered off the roof. Interior crews pulling ceiling had already been pulled out, and full defensive operations were then undertaken in all sectors. At this point, the fire is believed to have spread through horizontal void spaces (the multiple ceilings) across the northern portion of the building and then east across the structure and then south toward the administrative annex, again threatening to reach the causeway leading to the casino.

Master streams were established well ahead of the fire in Sectors A (the north side) and B (the east side) using deck guns, aerials and street guns. At the height of water flow, it is estimated that about 6,500 gpm flowed into the structure. Over the course of the fire, early estimates of water flow indicate that approximately 4 million gallons were flowed at the scene.

The strategy for stopping the fire involved two tactical decisions. The first involved sending crews to the causeway leading to the docks to cut a 20-foot-wide swath off the causeway roof while ground crews tore out the walls. Blitz lines were hauled inside the corridor to create a "last-stand" position well ahead of the fire. The second decision was to bring in cranes to tear down existing portions of the administrative annex ahead of the fire while crews inside the annex held off fire spread with handlines and conducted overhaul to ensure that fire was not running the walls of the annex.

Over the next several hours, master streams slowed the spread of fire by coordinating the streams to contain the fire the best they could. The delayed burn gave crews the opportunity they needed. Crews found no fire spread in the administrative annex, and the master streams held the fire at bay long enough for the cranes to tear down a small portion of the administrative offices.

The fire was brought under control around 5 P.M., though crews continued to pour water onto hot spots for the rest of the evening, working with floodlights and crane operators to douse the embers and other smoldering portions of the building. The vast majority of crews had been released by 8 P.M., though the incident was not completely wound down until nearly midnight. An engine company and an ambulance were left on scene overnight to maintain jurisdiction over the scene for fire investigators and to prevent rekindles.

Lessons Learned

A fire of this magnitude will always be difficult to retroactively evaluate, but a report to the City of Joliet noted several potential problems encountered with this incident. Though the fire is still under investigation and the ultimate contributing factors have not been definitively determined, here is a list of some of the problems that may have contributed to making this fire one of the largest in Joliet's history:

  1. The automatic alarms in the facility did not trigger a still alarm, and it is believed the alarm system must have been taken off line for the remodeling project.
  2. The sprinkler system was inoperable, again for the remodeling project. Even if operable, it is questionable whether the sprinkler system would have been above the fire, if the fire started in the horizontal void spaces.
  3. Multiple remodeling projects had added layer upon layer of wooden gusset-plated truss systems that caused a significant delay in trench operations and ultimately resulted in contributing to fire spread, letting the fire run hidden through horizontal void spaces.
  4. Many structural members were exposed to direct flame impingement due to openings being created in drywall as part of the remodeling project.
  5. The fire burned for an indeterminate amount of time prior to the arrival of fire crews — the initial still was raised by an on-duty medic at the scene who had a radio malfunction.
  6. The vents and ducts where the welder was working were coated with grease. Early indications show that the welder did attempt to extinguish the fire, but instead he spread the grease that was on fire and panicked.
  7. Not all the fire doors in the structure were operational — part of this is because replacement of the fire doors was part of the construction.
  8. The Joliet Fire Department generally works fires of box-alarm size and lower, and fires of this magnitude, despite biannual training, can result in some command confusion until divisions are established and a hierarchy of command is established. Multiple radio channels were utilized by divisions, with each divisional chief having an open channel to the incident command post.

The casino floor, which is a large, 50,000-square-foot barge permanently attached to the landside structure, was the primary property-saving goal from the outset. A secondary property goal was saving the administrative facility where corporate records were kept. Approximately 95% of the casino's revenue comes from the casino floor; 5% of its revenue came from the restaurants and other damaged and destroyed portions of the building. After fire crews brought the incident under control, casino management did a walk-through of the casino floor — there was no smoke, water or fire damage anywhere. In addition, all the records and administrative facilities were saved.

CHRISTOPHER S. MONTGOMERY is a firefighter/paramedic on the Joliet, IL, Fire Department, currently assigned as a paramedic on Ambulance 1.

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