Close Call While Searching For Life

April 1, 2004
While searching for trapped children, fire broke out in the walls, causing firefighters to exit just before flashover. Harvey Eisner reports on this a two-alarm structure fire that took place Feb. 28, 2004 in Buffalo, NY.
At 12:26 A.M. on Feb. 28, 2004, in Buffalo, NY, a first-alarm assignment consisting of three engines, two ladders, Rescue 1, Battalion 3 and the division chief responded to a house fire at 84 Eller St. The location was one block from the eastern city line. A second alarm was transmitted within a few minutes of the initial alarm.
Photo By John Cetrino Captain Mike Lombardo comes down a ladder as the room is ready to flash over. Firefighters had been searching for trapped children when water was lost and the fire burned through the walls of the balloon-frame house.
Photo By John Cetrino One minute after Lombardo exited the structure in a hurry, the top floor flashed over.
Photo By John Cetrino The fire was knocked down with exterior streams after it was confirmed that all the children were out except two who perished.

Captain Paul Craver reported heavy fire on the first floor of a two-story wood-frame dwelling extending to the exposure 4 side and received a report of people trapped. On the second alarm, three engines two trucks were dispatched. An additional ladder was requested. Rescue 1 arrived as the fourth unit on the scene behind Engines 31 and 23 and Ladder 14.

As Captain Mike Lombardo and his crew from Rescue 1 approached the scene, a woman close to hysterical was screaming that 10 children were in the house. Engine 31 put a line down the alley on the exposure 4 side. Heavy fire was showing from the second room in the front, and heavy smoke was visible throughout. The chauffeur of Engine 31 was treating a man who was burned and who turned out to be the father. Two firefighters found the body of a badly burned child in the kitchen.

The lieutenant from the first-due engine found the body of a second child and the firefighters expected to find more. Rescue 1 had already had three people killed that month in fires. The rescue members made a quick sweep of the rear rooms with a thermal imager, then headed upstairs, where they found there were no true rooms, just open areas. Everywhere they turned there were beds.

The firefighters continued to search and to vent windows as they moved forward to the front. Engine 23 had a line with Ladder 14 and Ladder 7. As it turned out, only two children were trapped; the others had made it outside. The building was of balloon-frame construction. The second floor had knee walls along both long sides of the dwelling, except for the stairs and where a dormer was located, and fire had extended to the knee walls. One section was opened and heavy black smoke just ready to ignite vented.

The crew called for a line and the area was hit with water. On the other side, firefighters were opening the wall in the room toward the front. Conditions were changing, and Lombardo thought the firefighters might have to leave the second floor. A report came over the radio from Division Chief Don McFeely that all the children were accounted for. Lombardo and another firefighter called for a portable ladder to the front. The smoke was so thick that by the time they left they couldn’t see any rigs in front of the building. Engine 23’s low-air alarms were ringing as they headed down the stairs.

As the firefighters from Rescue 1 started to head down, one firefighter reported fire in the room behind where they were operating. A firefighter descending the interior stairs was forced to pass through fire. Two firefighters from Ladder 14 went out the window and down the ladder. Lieutenant Dennis Brown of Truck 7 went out the window. Fire was showing on one side of the second-floor front room and heavy, black smoke was just ready to ignite on the other side. Lombardo remembered that he couldn’t get to his feet any more because of the high heat.

Lombardo called on the radio and yelled to make sure everyone was out. A firefighter he was looking for was reported outside, so Lombardo went out the window. One minute later, the entire room flashed over. The fire had burned through a hoseline on the second floor and the crew had lost water at the same time everyone had begun to back out. An accountability check of all units was requested after Lombardo exited the building. The roof was sagging and exterior streams knocked down the heavy fire.

Lombardo recalled that the search was difficult. Firefighters had been told that 10 children were trapped inside, and when they found two, they expected that there would be more. Communication is crucial, as in this case, when firefighters searching for victims were quickly told that the children were already out. Accountability on a basic level is tough, especially when several crews are working together in heavy heat and smoke. It was difficult for firefighters to open the roof when most of the truck company members were heavily engaged in the search.

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