"It Felt Like a Bomb Went Off!" — Part 2

Feb. 3, 2010
As we noted last month in Part 1 of this column, for most firefighters, odds are your most common structural fires involve single-family dwellings. In addition to construction concerns, "what's inside" is a major factor that can lead to close calls, or worse, for firefighters. In this case, for members of the Independence Fire District in northern Kentucky, "what's inside" at a working house fire turned out to be eight oxygen cylinders. Again, our sincere thanks to Independence Fire District Chief Richard A.

As we noted last month in Part 1 of this column, for most firefighters, odds are your most common structural fires involve single-family dwellings. In addition to construction concerns, "what's inside" is a major factor that can lead to close calls, or worse, for firefighters. In this case, for members of the Independence Fire District in northern Kentucky, "what's inside" at a working house fire turned out to be eight oxygen cylinders. Again, our sincere thanks to Independence Fire District Chief Richard A. Messingschlager and all the officers and members operating at this fire, including Assistant Chief Jeff Armstrong, Captain Dave Murphy, Lieutenants Chad Dietz and Ron Crone, Firefighters Bryan Claybern, Larry Gross, Paul Heringer and Steve Maselli, Firefighter/Medics Darlene Payette, Joshua Cox and Rick Sturgeon, and Captain John Bidwell, who assisted with this column.

This account is by Fire Chief Richard A. Messingschlager:

One of our ambulance crews was first on the scene and gave their size-up of the fire and gave aid to a patient. Assistant Chief Armstrong advised, prior to his arrival, for companies to go to defensive operations due to information by radio of oxygen bottles in the home — with heavy fire conditions. The officer in command agreed with that message and did so with two attack lines, a 1¾-inch line on the D side at a window and a 2½-inch line on the A side at the front door. After the main body of fire was knocked down, an interior crew went in to mop up hot spots with a 1¾-inch line, entering through the front door on the A side. It was during this operation that the bottles exhausted and one exploded. At the time of the explosion, I was at the A side, tracking the accountability of firefighters inside, and it was a relief to see both firefighters exit the building.

Firefighters should understand that aluminum cylinders have a significantly different loss of strength over steel cylinders, although we need to be concerned about any compressed cylinders in fire conditions. A partially pressurized heated cylinder can fail before the burst disk actuates. These bottles can fail at 400 degrees.

The force of this explosion burst out one interior garage wall, striking a van and did heavy damage. It punched several holes in the floor and knocked siding off the house. A total of eight cylinders were found in the house, all but one in a bedroom.

This account is by Firefighter Bryan Claybern with information from Lieutenant Chad Dietz (the injured members):

While we were enroute on Engine 452, Kenton County Dispatch advised us of an elderly woman rescued from the home who had minor burns on her body and that several oxygen cylinders were inside the residence. Units arrived on scene to find a single-story, single-family dwelling with fire coming from a rear-bedroom window on the D side. Ambulances 463 and 464 were with the victim in the front yard. Engine 453 was the first on scene and was positioned on side A/B. Crew members of 453 stretched a 2½-inch pre-connected hoseline to the front door. Engine 451 arrived at nearly the same time (positioned at D/A) and deployed a 1¾-inch line to the D-side window. Truck 460 arrived at the same time as our crew and the truck positioned on side D, with Engine 452 positioning on the D/A side behind Engine 451.

The scene appeared to be moving smoothly. Engine 453 crew members were securing a water supply (100-foot five-inch line) in the front yard. A 2½-inch supply line was then stretched from the hydrant to Engine 453 to allow for water supply. Command officers decided that a defensive attack was most appropriate during the initial phase of the incident, and that information was relayed to all on-scene members.

As the lieutenant and I exited our apparatus and donned our SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus), we could see crew members of Engine 451 initiating the defensive attack through the D-side window, which was the victim's bedroom. The 2½-inch hoseline was charged and being used at the front door to knock fire down in the entryway and living room. This was done by Engine 453 and a member of Ambulance 463. Our crew (Engine 452) was assigned to open the garage door, which we found locked. I returned to Engine 453 and retrieved a saw with which I would cut the door open. I made a large triangular cut in the center of the door, removing the locking mechanism. Crews now had a means of egress, if they needed it.

We could see that smoke conditions inside the residence were changing dramatically. The crew members at the front door were pinned to the ground with highly pressurized, dense smoke pushing out the door. This type of smoke color and aggressive movement would remind you of smoke you would see seconds before a flashover. The two members at the front door attempted to continue knocking fire down; however, at that point, the 2½-inch line at the front door had run out of water and one of the crew member's low-air alarm was sounding.

The members on the D side continued to flow water through the window and knocked down most of the fire. Mutual aid departments were requested for manpower and to establish a rapid intervention team (which was accomplished by a unit from Erlanger). At that point, the captain of Engine 451 decided that an interior attack could be used to "mop up" the small amount of fire that was left. Our crew was ordered into the structure and an additional 1¾-inch line was brought to the front door off Engine 451. I returned to Engine 453 briefly to secure a tool for the lieutenant and me, then we entered the structure.

Entry seemed like any other normal structure fire that you have entered. I had the nozzle and the lieutenant was close behind with the thermal imaging camera. However, steps into the residence, we encountered our first oxygen bottle. The bottle was attached to a pull cart and was right inside the front door. The lieutenant promptly grabbed the bottle and took it out the front door. Returning to the line, I decided that we would make our way to the main fire room, which still had fire seated deep into a laundry room/bathroom area.

We passed a stairway and made our way to a hallway on our right side. We encountered medium heat and zero visibility in the hallway. Exterior crews that had been flowing water through the side-D window ceased their operation as we made our way to the bedroom. Upon entry to the bedroom, the lieutenant and I could see a significant amount of fire to our left. We had pushed four to five feet inside the room and were fighting the fire from the foot of the victim's bed. This fire was seated at the B/C side. Using the thermal imaging camera and instruction from the lieutenant, we extinguished the fire in the rear of the home.

Radio traffic from command advised us that our smoke conditions behind us had changed significantly (pressurization and color) and that it appeared fire in the attic area might cut us off in the hallway. The lieutenant and I made our way back down the hallway and to the living room, where we encountered a significant amount of fire in the ceiling. Again, we encountered significant heat and zero visibility. The smoke was so thick that we could not identify a window that was only three or four feet away. Zero visibility, combined with the amount of debris and personal belongings blocking the window, probably contributed. There was stuff everywhere. Insulation soaked from the amount of water used seemed to be nearly a foot thick where we were crawling around. The floors of the residence still appeared to be sound.

Using the thermal imager, we identified and found the fire in the roof and I extinguished the fire above us. It appeared that all fire in the dwelling had been extinguished. We had managed to find the window at the C side of the residence and I attempted to execute hydraulic ventilation, but zero visibility and the items blocking my route kept me from doing so. The lieutenant called for positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) to be set up. The PPV fan was placed at the front door and visibility quickly changed to where we could see to some degree. Visibility had increased so much that we could stand and move around with minimal limitations.

With visibility increasing, the lieutenant made his way back down the hallway to ensure the fire was not rekindling after getting the air. He communicated to me that a small amount of fire could be seen right inside the doorway of the bedroom. I walked down the hallway with the attack line.

We were two to three feet from the bedroom doorway when out of nowhere there was the sound of a quick hiss followed by a tremendous roar, as if someone had fully opened an SCBA bottle. The gush of air was immediately followed by two small "explosions." These happened very quickly and were not very loud. However, not two seconds after the small "explosion," there was a tremendous boom that reminded me of firing a high-powered rifle. The force of the explosion felt like someone hitting you in the chest with a 50-pound sledgehammer. We could literally feel the force push us down the hallway. It felt as if we were pushed a foot or two down the hallway. In fact, somehow the lieutenant was pushed past me in the hallway.

Debris was flying down the hallway and hitting me in the front of my body. Immediately after the explosion, the room went from looking like an ordinary burnt-out room to fully engulfed. I held onto the attack line and opened the nozzle to hit the fire. I was unaware that the lieutenant had been knocked behind me, and I believed he was inside the room that was now rolling with fire. Another bottle was hissing very loudly; it seemed to me to be the sound of someone screaming. I'm assuming this was due to the disorientation of being hit by the shock wave from the explosion.

The disorientation was immediate. It was difficult to get my senses and determine what had just happened. Once I realized that my lieutenant was not in the room, and we communicated that it was time to get out, we immediately went into self-rescue mode. The lieutenant staggered down the hallway and out the front door. I'm not sure how he did this because we were both so confused. I followed shortly behind him. Stumbling, I could see and follow the hoseline down the hallway and out the front door. Once outside in the yard, our brothers and sisters immediately tended to us.

The ringing in my ears was the first injury I noticed. I was literally unable to hear out of my left ear, which I'm assuming took the brunt of the blast injury, and I had minimal hearing in my right ear. Once out of my PPE (personal protective equipment), I had several bruises and cuts that occurred from the flying debris. These injuries were on both arms and on my chest. The lieutenant and I were transported to the local hospital for evaluation due to possible blast trauma.

Following evaluation, the lieutenant and I were able to return to the scene. Seeing the result of the blast and the damage it had done was amazing. We were truly "lucky" we were not three feet closer. The oxygen bottle that exploded was only feet from us when it blew. The bottle destroyed the interior wall next to the bottles and significantly damaged a van that was on the opposite side of the wall. It also blew several holes in the subfloor. Items within the garage became projectiles as they hit the garage door. The victim's bed frame and rails were blown to pieces. The destruction that this one oxygen bottle created was something to see. It literally looked as if a bomb had exploded only feet from us. The scary thing about the incident is that the home contained eight oxygen bottles. We had experienced the explosion of only one bottle.

The lieutenant and I escaped with minor injuries. Both of us suffered hearing loss and I had bruises and cuts. The mental harm may have been the biggest concern. Anytime you have an incident or close call, you start playing the "what-if" game. What if we had been inside the room? What if the oxygen bottle had blown to pieces instead of just opening up? What if more than one of the eight oxygen bottles had blown?

The days following the explosion were also interesting. My body felt like I had been involved in a car wreck. Everything from muscle soreness to achy joints to headaches to just feeling lousy followed. However, these symptoms subsided after a few days. Neither of us missed any time away from the fire department and neither of us has any lasting damage from our close call.

This account is by Firefighter/EMT Steve Maselli:

I was assigned as apparatus operator (AO) for Engine 453, Company 3, Shift 1 the night of the structure fire. While enroute, we were updated by dispatch that there were multiple oxygen cylinders in the residence, as well as an injured occupant who was out of the residence. Upon arrival, we noticed a large volume of fire coming from a window on side D. There was no obvious fire on sides A or B that we could see; however, a lot of smoke was beginning to vent from the eaves of the roofline.

I pulled the engine to the edge of side A/B so there would be room behind us for other companies. Ambulances 463 and 464 were both on scene, with Ambulance 464 parked in front of us. The EMS crews immediately located the victim at a neighbor's house and began treating her. We established that everybody was out of the residence and no interior rescue was needed.

Firefighter Lucas and I pulled the 2½-inch pre-connect with a one-inch smooth-bore nozzle, while Lieutenant Ron Crone was doing his "360" walk-around and size-up of the structure. Once the attack line was pulled and charged, I immediately laid out my five-inch supply line because I knew I would be out of water quickly. Once that was done, I supplied lighting to the front yard. Other units were arriving during this process, including Engine 451, which was positioned directly behind us, directly in front of the hydrant in the front yard.

Initial attacks were made on the fire and I ran out of water quickly. I attempted to notify command via radio when I was at a half tank, but got no response, so I found the incident commander, Assistant Chief Armstrong, in the front yard and informed him face to face that my water was now gone and I had to shut down. Lieutenant Scheben and I got the water source established from a three-inch supply line from the hydrant; a five-inch supply line was going to Engine 451 from the same hydrant. I continued monitoring my pump and attack line, which was now in use again, as well as assisting firefighters with air bottle changes and retrieving tools.

I noticed the smoke was darkening down and becoming lighter as the firefighting and ventilation efforts were being done. After a short time, most of the fire had been knocked down and interior crews were rotating in and out doing mostly mop-up operations, knocking down hot spots and checking for extension. I was standing by the engine when, without warning to me, a large and loud explosion occurred. I could feel the concussion and shock wave from the explosion out on the street. I saw two firefighters running for the front door from the interior of the residence and make it to the front yard. I watched as they exited the house and just went to their knees in the front yard. I, like others, went to them to check on the extent of injuries. Lieutenant Dietz and Firefighter Claybern were both shaken from the explosion and command asked for additional EMS support to transport them for evaluation. I now saw a large hole in the garage wall, apparently from the explosion. We attempted to use Ambulance 464 to transport the firefighters, but it was blocked by fire apparatus, and we determined that we could not free it up. We waited for Ambulance 463 to return to the scene to transport the firefighters for evaluation.

This account is by Firefighter/Paramedic Joshua Cox:

While we were responding to the structure fire, dispatch advised us that all subjects were out of the residence and that there were oxygen bottles inside. Dispatch came back and advised that one subject had minor burn injuries. As I was the paramedic on Ambulance 463, my first priority was life safety of persons at the scene.

As I was getting out of the ambulance, I noted police in the yard with a patient and they were waving me down. I ran over to attend to the patient; as I did this, the fire apparatus began to arrive on scene. Ambulance 464 pulled down just past the residence to where I happened to be with the patient. I noted the patient to be in near respiratory arrest, breathing only four to six times per minute and that there was soot around her mouth and nose. The patient had a nightgown on and she was noted to have third-degree burns on her arms and the inside of her legs.

I advised the other paramedic that the patient was barely breathing. He grabbed his cardiac monitor and ALS (advanced life support) bag and he, his EMT partner and I began to work on the patient. The patient was placed on cardiac monitor showing initially a sinus bradycardia (a slow heartbeat) with a weak radial pulse. She was immediately intubated orally. The patient was placed on a cot and moved to my ambulance, as the other ambulance was blocked in by fire apparatus. By this time, patient's pulse was lost and CPR was started. Enroute to the hospital, the patient was treated per ACLS (advanced cardiac life support) protocol. She had a pulse, stable blood pressure and some voluntary breathing by our arrival at the ED (Emergency Department) at St. Elizabeth Healthcare Center in Edgewood. The patient's care was rapidly transferred to the ED.

Enroute to the hospital, Firefighter Paul Heringer, the driver, advised command of the crew onboard Ambulance 463 (Heringer, Firefighter/Medic Rick Sturgeon and me). While enroute to the ED, command stated that there was an emergency on scene. Command then advised there was an explosion and that there were injured firefighters on scene. Ambulance 463's crew quickly transferred care to the ED, gave a report, and cleared the ED to respond back to the scene to care and transport out the injured firefighters.

When we reported back to the scene, Lieutenant Dietz and Firefighter Claybern were on the front lawn, out of their bunker coats and visibly shaken, but with no obvious injuries. Both members advised they were in the residence when they heard and felt three separate explosions. Both members complained of ringing in their ears, but no physical injuries. Both members advised they were in the room where the main fire occurred and could hear bottles begin to bleed off air. When they heard that, they began to exit the room. As they were in the hall just outside the room, they heard the explosions and then felt the concussion from the third and loudest explosion. Both crew members rapidly exited the residence. They stated that they possibly jumped over a railing going down from a ramp that went to the front door of the residence. Both members were taken to the emergency department at St Elizabeth for evaluation. Fortunately, both were OK.

These following comments are by Chief Goldfeder based on discussions with Chief Messingschlager and others:

Each month, when we work with the firefighters and officers who submit their close calls, we (including me) learn from these fires. It's a continual process. And when we see departments that are learning from other close calls, that's a good thing. In this case, the "routine fire" again created a very close call for firefighters, but some good information can be shared:

  • Fire dispatchers' role — Wonderfully, the Kenton County fire dispatchers passed information along. Sound like no big deal? Unfortunately, it is. You have all read in this column (and others) where fire dispatchers or 911 call takers "keep" information and don't pass it on. That's a real problem for occupants and firefighters. A simple rule is that no information should be kept from responding companies. If a dispatcher or call taker knows it, we must know it as well. Keep no secrets! And while quick information related to rapid dispatch is important, all follow-up information must be relayed as we are responding. In this case, when the caller advised that there were oxygen tanks in the house, responding companies were also made aware and that caused a change in initial tactics. Kudos to the Kenton County fire dispatchers on this run.
  • Command-level pre-arrival direction — When we first read about the assistant chief giving orders to the first-due companies before he was on the scene, I wondered about that. But once I understood the reasoning, it was logical. While in most cases command officers would normally wait to be on scene prior to directing operations, there are, on occasion, some justified reasons for providing direction. In this case, while odds are that the first-due companies would have not entered due to the dispatchers' information about the tanks being inside, the assistant chief's radio transmission affirmed that and clarified any thoughts of doing anything different. As stated, it should be rare for a command officer to need to do that, but on occasion, there may be good reasons that goes well beyond "trusting" the first due, with some verified trust, and simply "looking out" for the firefighters in a positive manner.
  • Fire apparatus and non-apparatus placement — Apparatus and equipment placement is always a factor in fires. In this case, with two ambulances arriving first due, their "out-of-the-way" placement would help so that if they do have to transport, they can. I was at a very serious fire last year with numerous extremely critical victims and, in that case, several EMS units arrived prior to additional fire companies. When that happens, those units not only can be in the way, but can also get blocked in. A good reminder is to keep the fire area free for fire apparatus and for command units, ambulances and police cars to take positions that would generally allow the fire companies to operate.
  • Size-up — Size-up by the first-due officer sets the basis for the operations. In this case, as companies were laying out, the officer sized it up and that included a full 360-degree walk-around of the dwelling — outstanding. The "360" does just that — allows you to have a full view of the structure and the conditions you will be dealing with. If you see only the front, side A, and fail to do the "360," you literally are operating three-quarters blind.

    Also, keep in mind that there are two "major considerations" when sizing up. The first is what we traditionally do — we size-up to determine "what we have" — construction, occupancy, area, life hazards, weather, apparatus (and staffing) water supply, exposures, age, access, location of fire/determination of your fire problem, time, height, etc. But the "other" consideration of your size-up is, "Now that I know what I have, what do I have available right now to start dealing with that and what will I need as time goes on? The best way to plan for that is to pre-plan with "heavy" first-alarm assignments so that you are reasonably assured of the needed resources before you need them.

  • It's still hot in there — Extinguished fire debris can hold enough heat to affect and rupture aluminum tanks. Enter only when you are confident that this factor is under control. In all cases where entry must be made (sooner for life/rescue), the use of a thermal imager is critical.
  • Getting in...getting out — Determining how you are going in also includes how you are getting out. As a part of that, determining whether you must go in is a part of your size-up. In most cases, we do go in. In some cases, we may not. Your size-up determines that. When going in, keep multiple exit routes known, protected and open. In this case, the members made it out.
  • Accountability and tracking your members — Accountability in and out of structures must be a top priority. The best "accountability system" is, and always will be, good company officers ensuring that they know where and what their firefighters are doing at all times.
  • Rapid rescue and intervention — In this case, the rapid intervention team was on scene and ready to go, but thankfully both firefighters exited the building. Consider what is dispatched on their first-alarm assignments based on the reported fire. Do you have enough firefighters to deliver water, stretch lines, force entry, vent and search? What about command and control along with the other critical functions required on every dwelling fire?
  • Water on the fire — A (if not the) primary task of a fire department is our ability to get water on the fire, quickly and effectively, to protect ourselves, remove occupants, and confine and extinguish the fire. In this case, the use of a 2½-inch line on the defensive attack prevented more bottles from failure. Go with big lines when the situation may demand it while considering maneuverability and needed flow.

House fires, or "private dwellings," are what most of us do — but unlike our ability to pre-plan commercial, industrial and related "public" buildings where we can get in to plan and inspect, we cannot when it comes to single-family dwellings. Private dwellings are just that — private — and who knows what may be inside? While we can plan to respond to fires in neighborhoods and types of construction, the interior is a mystery. That's why it is essential that firefighters and officers operate expecting the worst possible "we-never-know" scenarios and conditions.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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