By Joseph Pronesti
We all know just how dangerous basement and cellar fires can be; the hazards are even more pronounced in a commercial building. However, an old tip that saved many lives 51 years ago today needs to be transformed into a modern tip for today’s fire service. When crews encounter a working fire in a cellar and they decide to advance a line down the stairs, it’s a standard tactic to order another line at the top of the stairs to protect the crews. However, when the conditions crews first encounter are not too bad, staffing issues will delay that protection line or crews will be in the cellar checking for extension, “mopping up,” and so on.
October 17, 1966, was one of the Fire Department of New York’s (FDNY’s) darkest days prior of course to September 11th, 2001; 12 firefighters perished when a floor collapse occurred in a building of ordinary construction on 23rd Street in Manhattan. FDNY Captain Patrick Murphy and Lieutenant Royal Fox were simply doing their job on that night, but the leadership and bravery they displayed should never be forgotten and should stand as a true measuring stick for all officers—today and into the future.
Firefighter Nicholas Cicero of FDNY Engine Company 5 (E5) was stationed at the top of the interior stairs located in the building’s front half, which led down to the cellar of the Wonder Drug Store. Cicero’s job was typical protocol in the days prior to portable radio usage on the fireground: Keep an eye on first-floor conditions (be on his company’s “6”) while the crew advanced a line down to the cellar to check for fire. E5, along with a ladder company (L3), had not encountered any poor conditions. However, just a few feet past them, a blazing inferno concealed by a concrete would soon cause the collapse of the rear first floor of the Wonder Drug, killing those 12 members.
Cicero noticed an unusual rush of air on the first floor and saw a three-foot square piece of cardboard move rapidly toward the rear of the store. He immediately yelled for Captain Murphy to advise him of this unusual happening. As Murphy moved toward the base of the stairs to hear Cicero more clearly, the heat from the first-floor collapse that was occurring in the rear forced Cicero to get down low and protect his face with his coat. He repeated his warning to Murphy again and then proceeded to the front door to escape. E5 and L3 members began taking up in an orderly fashion from the cellar when hearing Cicero’s first warning, but they expedited their egress on hearing his second call. The crews were just able to make it out, but several members received burns. Cicero’s warning kept at least 11 more members from severe harm or death that night.
Lieutenant Fox was part of L3. With disregard for his own safety, he remained in the cellar until he was certain all members had evacuated. In performing this selfless act, Lieutenant Fox was awarded the William F. Conran Medal for heroic actions.
“I am very thankful and grateful to be here today. I was the last one out of the basement. Engine 5 cleared a space to the windows which provided egress for us. The men deserve a lot of credit.”
– FDNY Battalion Chief (Ret.) Royal Fox
The wise, old legacy firefighting tip of keeping a member at the top of the stairs saved lives. But what about today? Do we think about assigning someone to this position? In today’s modern environment, one doesn’t need a collapse to occur to encounter a rapid change of conditions. With today’s communication and smaller staffing levels, we have let this option “slip by” us as we send entire companies below-ground, sometimes without protection of a firefighter or a hoseline.
We all want in on the action, but when heading to the cellar, even when conditions appear “light” or “minor,” remember Firefighter Cicero, and leave a member at the top as your “6.”
Click on the photo below to watch a video produced by the FDNY on the 23rd Street Fire.
JOSEPH PRONESTI is a 26-year veteran of the Elyria (OH) Fire Department, where he is an assistant chief and shift commander. He is a graduate of the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Executive Officer program and a lead instructor at the Cuyahoga (OH) County Community College Fire Academy. He is a contributor to fire service publications and sites, including Fire Engineering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE ‘FOG’ OF THE FIREGROUND