Engine Company, Fire Dynamics, Firefighting, Structural Firefighting

Modern Building Materials Are Factors in Atlantic City Fires

BY JAMES M. FOLEY

The members of the 4th Division of the Atlantic City (NJ) Fire Department (ACFD) were beginning their day tour on September 23, 2007, when the speaker opened for a structure fire at the Water Club Tower at the Borgata Casino hotel at 0731 hours. Fire companies from Fire Station 3, Station 1, and Battalion 1 immediately began to move to the apparatus floor to respond. Little did they expect what they were about to witness when the apparatus bay door opened on that clear Sunday morning.

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(1) The fire at the Water Club Tower. The debris in the air is the aluminum cladding on the exterior siding. [Photos courtesy of the Atlantic City (NJ) Fire Department.]

As Battalion 1 Chief John Johnson responded, he reported heavy smoke in the area of the Borgata Casino hotel. As his car turned into the connector service road, he began to see large pieces of aluminum flying off the face of the new Water Club Tower. He stopped his car at the main casino entrance and exited his vehicle to begin his size-up. Johnson reported fire showing from the third to the 38th floor on the Alpha side of the new high-rise structure. He quickly realized that he could not stay on the Alpha side and that the fire would have to be approached from the Charlie side to gain access to the building. By this time, Engine Company 3 had already entered the driveway on the “A” side and set up the aerial with a master stream appliance from the road, applying water on the third-floor roof at the base of the fire in the high-rise tower while dodging the falling building debris. They were also backed up by Engine Company 4. All additional responding engines and ladder companies were directed to the rear “C” side, and Deputy Chief Dan Tamburilla immediately requested a third alarm.

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(2) Fire raced up 38 stories on the face of the building.

At first glance, Tamburilla, a 30-year veteran firefighter, thought that a scaffold was on fire on the outside of the building, but he quickly realized that the entire exterior wall of the high-rise tower was involved. The flame development was massive, and structural debris rained down for about a quarter-mile, blocking many of the main roads coming into the property and hindering the response of emergency vehicles.

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(3) Debris blocked fire apparatus on the roads approaching the fire scene.

There were construction workers on the roof of the building. Fire companies immediately contacted the elevator hoist operator to take one company to the third floor and the ladder company to the roof. Within minutes, automatic sprinklers began to operate in rooms from the fourth to the 10th floor on the affected “A” side of the building. Fortunately, these rooms were not yet furnished.

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(4) This is the third-floor area, where the fire started. Fire marshals are making an initial assessment. The high heat of the burning plastic completely deformed the metal studs.

According to reports of the construction workers, the flames were 30 feet above the roof on the 41st floor. As firefighting crews were organized and assigned, the fire began to subside, as all of the available fuel was being rapidly consumed. Within 10 to 15 minutes, the bulk of the fire had subsided, and only burning window frames and spot fires remained on the 35 stories of charred structure. ACFD fire companies and mutual-aid companies worked late into the day until all of the spot fires were extinguished. At this point, the fire investigation unit began a detailed investigation into the cause of this horrific blaze. 

INVESTIGATION 

The Atlantic City Fire Prevention Division is responsible for all city fire investigations. I gathered my investigation team of six fire captains and a police department detective. The investigation began on the third-floor level, where the fire first broke out of the building, according to multiple witnesses’ statements. The cause of this fire is still part of an active investigation, but for this article, we will examine the contributing role of the building materials that allowed the fire to grow, develop, and propagate up the structure so quickly.

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(5) The Water Club Tower after the fire was extinguished.

The investigation revealed that a material called Alcan Alucobond® panels were used in the exterior wall of the structure as a decorative finish. This product is a composite panel composed of 1⁄8-inch aluminum sheets with ¼-inch polystyrene plastic in the center. The panels were white in color and were intended to appear like a sail on the side of the new high-rise tower. Fortunately for the fire department, there was a concrete shear wall six feet behind these exterior panels that prevented major fire extension into the interior of the building. There were no direct openings into the interior portion of the void space other than on the third floor and the roof on the 41st floor.

The wind that Sunday was also blowing toward the Atlantic Ocean and away from the tower. This wind direction helped to keep burning debris, smoke, and heat from penetrating the building’s interior, although several rooms along the A/B corner were damaged or had sprinkler activations up to the 10th floor.

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(6) The test burn of the panel at the Atlantic City Fire Academy.

The exterior wall panels were set into aluminum frames and had butyl rubber gaskets as a weather seal. The rear of the panel was to be covered by ¾-inch polystyrene insulation with no fire barrier because of the shear wall. At first, we believed that perhaps the polystyrene may have been the culprit in the fast fire development, but that was quickly discounted through fire testing the ACFD conducted. A review of polystyrene literature showed that this material was fire retardant. To ensure that this product on the building was the same, the fire marshal acquired samples from the contractor and conducted full-scale fire testing at our Atlantic County Fire Academy. Vertical burn tests of the polystyrene verified that this material was not the one that accelerated the fire 38 stories in minutes. The polystyrene material would shrink and produce carbon particulate, but it was not the primary or secondary fuel source in this fire.

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(7) The panel failed. Note the ground fire in the test panel.

I also acquired several of the wall panels from the building for fire testing. These panels were erected at the fire academy in the burn building and subjected to fire exposure from small to large heat sources to determine how much energy was necessary to get the panels to ignite. After extensive small-scale testing of the panel, we discovered that the only way to involve the panels was to apply significant heat quickly to the panel, causing the polystyrene to liquefy and burn like a flammable liquid. In tests the ACFD conducted at the fire academy on a full-scale panel, a bale and a half of dry hay were necessary to replicate the burn effects the fire department witnessed at the fire scene that day. This fuel source was sufficient enough to cause the aluminum to deform and the polystyrene to liquefy and delaminate from the aluminum facings.

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(8) The fire spread from the boardwalk to this building on the boardwalk.

Although our testing simulated the fire result, we still needed to apply science to the testing to really understand how the panels became so rapidly involved. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) assisted us with the fire investigation and laboratory testing. The ACFD fire marshals worked with ATF on many fire scenes and found its assistance and expertise most helpful. Because of the complexity and magnitude of the dollar loss on this fire, the ACFD called on ATF agents to assist in the scene examination and the eventual testing of the plastic composite panels.

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(9) It rapidly involved the foam exterior cladding and spread to the roof and five stores.

The panel manufacturer, APG America, assisted us in the investigation by providing additional panels for testing, which it shipped directly to the ATF laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. The ATF conducted more than 10 fire tests on the panels from small- and large-scale heat sources. The laboratory results indicated that to ignite the panel, you would need at least 250 to 400 megawatts/cubic meter of heat applied to the panel surface. This amount of heat is considerable, but once the materials reach a temperature at which they liquefy and burn, the fire intensity is incredible.

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(10) It is approximately seven minutes into the fire. Note the upper wall. The plastic is buckling. The wall collapsed several minutes later.

The International Code Council (ICC) approved the exterior panels involved in this fire and which are used all over the world. Typically in exterior wall construction, these panels would be protected by fire-resistant drywall on the interior side. A question, however, arises from exterior fire exposure. A fire in an adjacent structure or even in a vehicle fire on the ground in close proximity to this exterior wall material could result in the same rapid fire spread we witnessed in Atlantic City. As a result of this fire, the CEO of Borgata applied a different exterior panel system to the tower when it was reconstructed. The ACFD estimated the dollar loss to be $35 million. The opening of the Water Club Tower was delayed by six months. 

THE SECOND FIRE 

The second fire that brings modern building systems into question happened in July 2006 on a Sunday afternoon on a crowded boardwalk in a building that was just two years old. The building was a two-story structure covered in expanded polystyrene systems. The fire started under the boardwalk and spread to the building’s exterior wall. Within minutes, the structural walls deteriorated, and the fire spread significantly across five stores. ACFD Deputy Chief Vincent Grenese and Battalion Chief Robert Solari were on the scene with Engine Companies 1 and 7 within three minutes of the 911 call. They were confronted with heavy fire in five mercantile stores and significant ground fire. Within minutes, the decorative walls began to fold and collapse, and a building collapse zone was established on the A/B corner of the structure. The flames in this fire were dark orange, and the smoke was intensely black—all indicative of flammable liquids. Ground fire was also visible in all of the stores, again indicating burning liquids.

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(11) The ground fire is evident; it is similar to a flammable liquid fire that occurs in warehouses.

The fire marshal’s office and ATF also investigated this fire, which also is an ongoing active fire investigation. The fire, however, started outside the buildings and spread into the buildings from the exterior. The main mechanism that led to the destruction of the block of five businesses was the exterior insulation finishing system (EIFS). Heat transfer through the hard cement coating on the exterior wall surface caused the interior polystyrene to liquefy and collapse, producing flammable liquid and gases, which rapidly enveloped the structure. The ICC also approved this material, which is also used throughout the world. This is the same material that was on the exterior of the Las Vegas Monte Carlo Casino Hotel’s exterior when it caught fire last year. The fire was caused by a welder’s torch.

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(12) The fire plume extends out from the foam decorative column as the plastic liquefies.

According to a Las Vegas Sun reporter, “At 250 to 275 degrees Fahrenheit, it (the polystyrene) shrinks back from its coat, and at higher temperatures begins to melt. At 650 degrees, the liquid foam becomes flammable.” Although this material is approved by the ICC, it presents unique challenges from exterior fire exposure. It would be akin to wrapping a building in a gasoline bag once the material liquefies. The fire retardant additives only reduce the ignition resistance of the foam from small heat sources such as an electrical outlet or a torch. Any significant thermal loading of an EIFS wall will result in the fire’s engulfing the structure. In New Jersey, there have been several exterior mulch fires that have led to destruction of the building when it was covered in EIFS materials. This occurred at a fire at a TGI Friday’s restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, several years ago.

LESSONS LEARNED 

There are important lessons to be learned from these fires with regard to potential fire dangers and, more importantly, firefighter health and safety. Here are some considerations:

  • Building code organizations’ acceptance of new building materials may not indicate the true potential for fire development when in use.
  • Fire testing data on new building materials may not be totally accurate for the way these materials are used. Often, fire tests are one-dimensional and limited in size and scope for a particular product.
  • Plastic materials, even those that are fire resistive or fire retardant, will become significant secondary fuels if exposed to considerable radiant heat from an exterior fire.
  • Once involved in fire, plastic building materials have high heat-release rates and produce dense and deadly toxic smoke and run like flammable liquids.
  • Firefighter safety must be effectively managed in these buildings, since the fire condition can turn on a dime.
  • Foam and plastic fires are similar to warehouse hazmat fires. Ground fire is often evident because of liquefied running fuel loads.
  • When fighting fires in these plastic-covered buildings, incident commanders (ICs) need to carefully watch for signs of collapse and component failure.
  • ICs must consider debris falling from buildings and obstructing traffic patterns and approaches to the scene. The command post must be remote from the scene.
  • Strong accountability procedures, safety officers, Mayday procedures, evacuation procedures, and a collapse plan are all required to maintain firefighter safety in these buildings.
  • In large-loss or complex fires, ask for help, especially in the area of fire investigation. Agencies like the ATF have great capability and experience in fire investigation and laboratory support.
  • Preplan your buildings; know where in your community these materials are being used.

JAMES M. FOLEY is a 34-year veteran of the fire service and the chief fire marshal for the Atlantic City (NJ) Fire Department. He is a faculty member of Camden County College’s fire science program and also instructs for Kean University. He was a founding member and former task force leader of NJ-TF1. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland and has a B.S. in fire science. He is a NJ Division of Fire Safety-certified level II and live burn instructor. 

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