16-ALARM FIRE: BROOKLYN, NEW YORK

16-ALARM FIRE: BROOKLYN, NEW YORK

BY STEVEN C. DeROSA

On August 26, 1995, at 0331 hours, the City of New York (NY) Fire Department was called to respond to a report of smoke at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn. This was to become one of the largest fires and fire operations in the city`s history.

THE BUILDING

The landmark St. George Hotel once was one of the most glamorous hotels in all of New York City. It spanned an entire city block and was a focal point of the community of Brooklyn Heights. It was the largest of all New York hotels, containing 2,632 rooms and a 5,000-square-foot saltwater swimming pool.

The hotel complex was comprised of nine attached buildings, including the original St. George Hotel at 100 Henry Street, a 200- by 100-foot, 12-story concrete building constructed in 1885; the Marquee Building, a 50- by 85-foot, 13-story building of ordinary construction; the Clark Building, a 75- by 90-foot, 11-story building of ordinary construction; the Tower Building, a 170- by 150-foot, fire-resistive (protected-steel) structure, built in 1929; and various ordinary-constructed buildings between four and 10 stories high. All the attached buildings were interconnected by basement walkways and an interior-connected courtyard.

Over the years, most portions of the hotel were converted to residential use. Only the original building on 100 Henry Street remained in use as a hotel. This section housed some 80 residents at the time of the fire. About half of them were homeless people or AIDS patients placed there by city agencies.

The Clark Building, at 51 Clark Street, and the Marquee Building, adjacent to it, were vacant. The fire originated in 51 Clark Street. It had been vacant for at least seven years, but vagrants were known to use the building.

All buildings in the block were equipped with standpipe systems. The Tower Building was equipped with a fire pump in the basement and contained automatic sprinklers in subgrade areas and in central hallways serving living spaces.

RESPONSE

Three engine companies, two ladder companies, and a battalion chief responded, as per SOP, to the hotel lobby fire command station at 100 Henry Street. First-in units questioned the desk clerk about the possible fire, but the clerk knew nothing about it. Brooklyn Dispatch was asked to verify the cause for the alarm at 0338 hours. The dispatcher had no callback number but notified Battalion 31 that Dispatch had received a few calls reporting a fire in that location.

At this time a firefighter assigned to the roof position on the St. George Hotel reported that he could see a fire somewhere in the middle of the block on Clark Street. Battalion Chief David Maxwell transmitted a 10-75 signal for a working fire at 0344 hours. This automatically dispatched an additional engine company, a squad company, a rescue company, and a battalion chief.

Size-up from the street yielded little information, as the building was boarded up, but it was obvious there was a fire in 51 Clark Street. Two truck companies forced entry into the tightly boarded-up structure. The building was equipped with a standpipe siamese, so engine companies proceeded up the center stairway with rolled packs of 212-inch hose. As the firefighters ascended the stairs, they noticed numerous large holes in the floors (made to remove furniture and fixtures). This information was relayed via portable radio to Maxwell. Members performed a quick primary search for any squatters or vagrants who still might be in the building.

The engine crews arrrived at the eighth floor and observed heavy fire above them, in the middle of the ninth floor, dropping down through various openings into the eighth floor. The main body of fire was to the rear of the building. Firefighters connected their lines to standpipe outlets on the eighth floor and prepared to attack the fire. Outside, hydrant and siamese connections were made and the standpipe supplied.

The water never made it to the interior crews–the standpipe system had been vandalized in the basement. With the standpipe system out of service, the firefighters descended to the fourth floor and dropped their lines out of windows to members below for an exterior stretch. The fire now was well-advanced on the eighth, ninth, and 10th floors. In addition to its vertical progression, it extended downward via holes, stairways, and elevator shafts (hoistway doors had been removed) and horizontally into exposure #4, the Marquee Building, through open interconnecting doorways on several floors. The exterior hose stretch was completed, and engine companies started to attack the fire.

Meanwhile, Maxwell special-called a 95-foot tower ladder and transmitted a second alarm. It was now 0402 hours. He ordered the tower ladder to prepare for an outside master stream attack from Clark Street. Based on reports from the building and his own size-up, he ordered all interior units to withdraw from the fire building, as the rapidly extending fire was beyond the control of the interior hose streams.

Deputy Chief John W. Kelly, responding on the second alarm, arrived at 0403 hours and requested a third alarm, notifying Dispatch of the water problem in the building and of the fire extending into exposure #4. Kelly assumed command.

The tower ladder was soon fully extended and ready for water supply. The interior operations officer transmitted an urgent message to command not to operate the tower ladder stream, as units were still exiting the fire building.

ORGANIZING THE RESPONSE

Citywide tour commanders usually respond on second alarms. I was on the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge when Kelly transmitted the third alarm. As we drove over the bridge from Manhattan, I observed a glow in the sky amidst tall buildings–not a good sign. As we approached the intersection of Clark and Henry streets, I heard firefighters in Truck 119`s bucket asking for water due to the severe radiant heat.

The command post was located opposite the fire building on Clark Street, which is only 40 feet wide. Kelly and Maxwell briefly reviewed conditions with me, and I assumed command.

Within a few minutes of my arrival, the fire had full possession of the top floors of the Clark and Marquee buildings. Flames were shooting above the roof more than 100 feet in the air. All exposures were threatened. Huge embers the size of baseballs were rising over the fire area and falling into the street and onto roofs in the neighborhood. Hoselines were burned. The radiant heat was intense. All the surrounding buildings were occupied. It was a summer night, and windows were open. Flying brands were everywhere, some rising over the roof of the 31-story Tower Building. The building`s age, size, and openness; drought conditions at the time of the fire; and a considerable load of combustibles and junk in the building combined for a very large and fast-spreading fire.

I realized that the potential for a collapse would be very real in light of this accelerating fire. The narrow street placed exposure #1–an eight-story residential hotel with elderly, handicapped tenants–in the collapse zone. All firefighters in the vicinity of the fire building were in danger.

Confronted with these immediate problems–the collapse factor, evacuation of exposures, flying brands, extension to exposures, and hazards to personnel–we reorganized our attack to gain better control of the incident.

A collapse zone was established in front of the fire building, and two chiefs were assigned as sector officers on sides 2 and 4. The command post was moved out of the collapse zone up the block, toward Henry Street. I transmitted the fourth and fifth alarms at 0411 and 0418 hours, with a request for another deputy chief. All incoming units were directed to report to the exposure #3 side of the fire on Pineapple Street.

We divided the incident into three sectors, or branches: the Clark Street Branch, the Hicks Street Branch, and the Pineapple Street Branch. A second tactical radio channel was designated for the units operating from the Pineapple Street Branch. A staging area was established at Clark and Henry, and a staging officer was assigned. Our field communications unit responded and located units on the command board, set up a command channel for chief officers, monitored all transmissions on the tactical and command channels, kept contact with the staging area, and coordinated all communications from the field to the dispatcher.

I quickly requested an additional alarm to respond to calls for embers igniting roof areas of surrounding buildings. Anticipating the need for many streams required to protect exposures and extinguish the main body of fire, we requested the city water department to augment our supply, which it did by opening up grids to increase pressure in the mains. The police department was requested to secure the fire scene.

We soon had expanded our incident command system to accommodate the needs of this growing incident. This included establishing a safety sector, headed by two battalion chiefs [early in the operation we called for F.A.S.T. (rapid intervention) teams to stand by]; an information sector; an arson task force, comprised of fire department, police department, and ATF representatives; a support units sector, including two rehab units, the mask service unit, repairs and transportation, tactical support, and the Maxi-Water unit (large-capacity pumper and two satellite hose units); a communications sector; a staging sector, including a relocation staging area in addition to the primary staging areas; and the operations sector.

OPERATIONS

Clark Street Branch. This branch included the fire building, the Grill Building (exposure #2), the Marquee Building (exposure #4), the Weller Building (exposure #4A), the St. George Hotel, and the subway running under the fire buildings.

A second tower ladder was positioned on Clark Street in front of the Marquee Building. The department`s Maxi-Water unit set up manifolds to supply hoselines and coordinated water delivery to the tower ladders. By the time the tower ladders were operating their master streams into the fire buildings, interior collapse had begun. The collapsing walls and floors caused brands to rocket skyward and radiant heat to ignite surrounding buildings on the exposure #2 and #3 sides.

A third tower ladder was positioned behind the second and directed to operate into the penthouse area of the Marquee Building, which was fully involved.

The strategy in this sector was to knock the fire down near the front walls of the fire building (the Clark Building) and exposure #4 (the Marquee Building), then reposition the tower ladders outward to corner-safe areas, toward the 10-story Grill Building (exposure #2) and the Weller Building (exposure #4A), a four-story residential/commercial structure. We accomplished this by moving one tower ladder at a time, notwithstanding considerable anxiety, as portions of the roofs were beginning to fall into the street.

Handlines were positioned in exposure #4A (the Weller Building) and operated into the Marquee Building through the interconnecting floors. Fire doors prevented lower-floor extension. We also used handlines on the roof of exposure #4A, from which position we could hit fire in the rear of the Clark Building and the now involved eight-story, 25- by 40-foot building directly behind it.

Firefighters conducted primary search and evacuation of the Grill Building, a residential occupancy at the corner of Hicks and Clark streets. Hoselines were stretched into these occupancies, and examination holes were made. Fortunately, the fire did not extend into this area because window openings had been bricked up and sealed with masonry. Also, access doors between the buildings were of the rolldown metal variety and were in the closed and locked position. Hoselines were brought to the roof of the Grill Building and operated into the Clark Building.

The building directly across the street from 51 Clark was in the collapse zone. We directed building management to evacuate the elderly, handicapped residents via the rear of the structure. We were told that was not possible using the rear exit. Therefore, with debris falling from the fire building, we decided not to evacuate the building until conditions improved.

A subway ran directly underneath the fire area. We designated a unit to monitor the tunnel for downward extension of fire and significant water accumulation. These concerns proved not to be problems during the incident.

This was a very difficult operation from the standpoint of extinguishment because the fire`s location was not accessible. The aerial master streams could keep fire out of the front half of the fire building but could not effectively reach the main body of fire toward the rear. The fire was surrounded by large buildings on all sides and was of such size that handlines operated from exposures had little knockdown effect.

Hicks Street/Pineapple Street Branch. Originally, Hicks Street and Pineapple Street were two separate branches. Initial requests for units to operate in 111 Hicks Street, the Tower Building, were received at the Clark Street command post, and we assigned at least four engine companies, four ladder companies, and a battalion chief, serving as the Hicks sector officer, into this exposure from the Clark Street side.

We were not aware at the time that 160 feet of the Tower Building also fronted Pineapple Street. Units from the Pineapple Street branch also were operating in this building and requesting help from the Pineapple Street branch command. This created some confusion in accounting for unit operating locations. With the arrival of Deputy Chief David Corcoran on the fourth alarm, the two branches were integrated under his command. This branch command post was set up at the corner of Pineapple and Hicks streets, and a secondary staging area was established near this location. Units operating from this sector were to use a separate tactical frequency, and I directed Corcoran to request additional resources directly through Brooklyn Dispatch.

The Tower Building, a fully occupied residential building containing hundreds of condominium apartments, was the largest and most severely threatened exposure at this operation. It wrapped around the rear of the fire building, with more than 200 of its windows (many wide open to the warm August air) exposed to fire. As such, fire rapidly extended into numerous apartments. The fire department received scores of calls to this address. The concierge at this address also was receiving numerous calls from residents and directed firefighters to the distress locations.

One apartment fire in a building of this size and occupancy type would require an all-hands assignment (three engine companies, two ladder companies, and a battalion chief). Fire companies found seven apartments with extensive (multiple-room) fires (on floors four, eight, 13, and 16) and many others with minor extension. The smoke condition generated by seven all-hands fires occurring simultaneously in one building complicated both occupant removal and firefighting efforts.

Further complicating the objectives was the fact that this large, L-shaped building contained only two stairways; hallways were long. The two stairways had to serve as both fire attack and evacuation routes.

Several apartments in this building sustained heavy damage. Some fire apartments were duplex apartments, with living areas on the lower level and bedrooms on the upper. Other apartments had been expanded to encompass the adjacent apartment. These conditions–large, multilevel apartments–added to our fire problem.

With fire extending into multiple apartments, initial units were overwhelmed with the amount of forcible entry and search required. In the early stages of the operation, to expedite search for fire, ladder companies forced entry if the apartment door was hot to the touch. When fire was found in an apartment, doors to the adjacent apartments were also forced. A total of 86 apartment doors were forced during this operation. Primary and secondary searches were conducted in all the apartments.

Certain lines of apartments were more exposed than others; and when firefighters observed cracked window panes, a hoseline was stretched from the standpipe system and operated out of the window, protecting the unit from extension via the intense radiant heat from the fire column. All windows in this building were of the thermopane type. The heat from the fire was so intense that many of the windows failed completely–both outer and inner panes broke.

With the fire burning at an intense stage for more than an hour, both radiant heat and flame impingement required hoselines positioned at numerous apartment windows. The hallway windows opposite the elevator lobby were severely exposed, and many hoselines were positioned and operated from these locations as well. Firefighters managed to control the extending fires and remove occupants without serious injury to either occupants or firefighters. Sixteen 212-inch handlines in all were employed in the Tower. There were no significant fires above the 20th floor, except for fire on the roof.

One of the multiple-alarm engine companies called was from Manhattan. This unit is a high-rise command post company (a unit trained in high-rise elevator control, command post logs, etc.). Each member in the company is equipped with a portable radio. Aware of the unit`s special status, Corcoran assigned it as an elevator control company. This helped ensure that we had control of this critical high-rise firefighting factor.

Apartments sometimes are identified by a floor number followed by a letter. Firefighters would assume that apartment 5A is above Apartment 4A. However, this assumption did not hold true in some cases: On the eighth floor of the Tower Building, we had heavy fire in Apartment 8O. On the 13th floor in the same line, the apartment was 13L. This change in apartment designation created some confusion when checking for extension. Directions to units operating above were given using the stairway location as a reference point, alleviating the problem.

In addition to ongoing operations in 111 Hicks Street, units were evacuating, searching, and fighting fire in the two exposure #3 structures, on Pineapple Street. Units were operating a tower ladder into the fire area and hoselines from the roof/rear of 60 Pineapple Street, attached six- and eight-story, fully occupied residential buildings of ordinary construction. This structure experienced one extensive upper-floor fire, which was handled by the fire department. During the evacuation of the buildings, the roof water tank on the eight-story section caught fire. It was in danger of collapse, adding another concern to our list of problems. Fortunately, the fire was brought under control before the tank collapsed.

* * *

I declared the fire under control at 0709 hours. The fire in the rear of the Clark Building had consumed all interior combustibles; only the exterior walls were left standing.

In all, nearly 700 firefighters and more than 100 companies–the equivalent of 16 alarms–were required for this massive defensive-offensive firefight. The outcome was as successful as could be hoped for, given the magnitude of the fire and circumstances surrounding the incident. All residents in exposed buildings were safely evacuated. Although civilians were treated by emergency personnel, none were hospitalized. Firefighters experienced only minor injuries.

Investigators declared the fire to be deliberately set and shortly placed the alleged perpetrator in custody.

LESSONS REINFORCED

Large, combustible vacant structures in proximity to occupied exposures pose a significant fire danger. This fact was certainly underscored by this fire.

Prefire plans for large vacant structures in proximity to occupied buildings must be in place. Familiarization drills should be conducted with a frequency that affords all first- and second-alarm units to be informed. Operational protocols, contingency plans, water supply plans, etc. should be identified.

Organization is the key to successful large-scale operations. The incident command system allows the chief in charge to delegate problems and concentrate on overall strategy.

Coordination with other agencies is essential when confronted with a major operation. Other agencies–police, EMS, traffic, building, water, etc.–all have something to contribute and should be contacted by the fire department liaison officer.

Staging areas for apparatus and manpower are mandatory for large-scale operations. Anticipating the need for additional units, the Brooklyn Fire Dispatcher moved a second-alarm assignment to a nearby location. When we asked for more help, the units were rapidly dispatched to our staging area.

Respect the collapse potential of a fully involved fire building at all times: Anticipate exterior wall collapse and establish and maintain collapse zones. Operate aerial master streams from corner safe areas.

Interior collapse of large nonfireproof buildings will result in a burst of radiant heat that will ignite exposures and produce clouds of flying brands. Designate units to accomplish brand patrol and extinguishment.

Fire attack on vacant structures should not automatically be a defensive operation, particularly where occupied exposures are involved. Obviously, quick knockdown of the Clark Building fire would have preempted a 16-alarm fire and all the serious hazards associated with it, both to firefighters and neighborhood residents.

Units responding to this fire were confronted with an extensive fire on the upper floor in the rear of a vacant structure surrounded by occupied buildings. After forcible entry, the decision was made to initially attack the fire with interior hoselines. Many factors were considered by the first-arriving chief and company officers, including

–the condition of the stairways and floors and the location and extent of fire, as determined by interior size-up;

–the advantages of rapid water application from the interior to delay extension;

–the accessibility for outside master streams; and

–the potential for squatters/vagrants in the building.

The decision-making process for interior attack in vacant buildings is not uniform. Each situation requires on-scene evaluation based on a variety of factors, particularly those that affect the structural integrity of the building.

Fire officers can enhance their ability to make such decisions by preplanning for fires in vacant buildings located within their response areas.

Firefighters will continue to work hard and even extend reasonable physical limits when the fire battle continues over an extended period of time. Rest and rehabilitation at incidents of long duration must be provided. Consider your relief needs well in advance.

Large fires require large fire flows, putting a strain on even the best municipal water supply systems. Work with water company representatives at the scene to augment water supply and/or plan alternative water supply sources. Designate a water supply officer.

Standpipe systems in vacant structures are prone to vandalism. All departments should have established tactical protocols for secondary means of getting charged lines to the fire floor.

Anticipate rapid fire spread in vacant structures enhanced by the age and size of the structure, weather conditions, openness, and accumulated combustibles.

Large-scale operations require multiple tactical and command radio frequencies.

Fire inspections must include vacant structures. The integrity of openings between vacant and occupied structures must be maintained. The presence of sealed window openings and fire doors between attached buildings was a signficant factor in slowing down fire spread.

Though exposed residential buildings require complete searches, initial forcible entry tactics should focus on priority apartments first. In this case, identifying potential fire occupancies by feeling their doors for heat was a good way to expedite fire attack and cut off fire spread.

When prioritizing exposed apartments, look for telltale signs of cracking glass windows, and stretch a line immediately into that apartment.

For high-rise operations, maintaining control of the elevators is absolutely critical. Designate an experienced company to serve as the elevator control company. Each firefighter in this company should be equipped with a portable radio, forcible entry tools, and a flashlight.

Fortunately, firefighters in the Tower Building were able to accomplish their objectives despite there being only two stairways in such a large building. Preplans for high-rises in your jurisdiction should include potential egress/evacuation problems. Furthermore, the locations of dead-end hallways–a characteristic of the Tower Building that could have been a major factor should rapid egress have been required–should be duly noted and understood by first-alarm companies.

Beware of possible changes in numerical or letter apartment designations from one floor to another. If such a change is detected, be sure to communicate positions above the fire via construction features/landmarks, such as stairway locations and elevator banks. n



(Top left) Tower Ladder 131 knocks down fire at the front of the fire building. The fire building was situated such that aerial streams on Clark Street could not effectively reach the main body of fire, to the rear. However, the front-side streams did prevent collapse of the front wall. (Top right) A tower ladder battles the upper-floors fire in exposure #4. (Center right) Clark Street. Foreground, right is the Marquee Building. Across the street is the exposed building filled with elderly and handicapped residents. (Center left) The aftermath, in daylight. Note that the photo shows only the destruction to the eight-story building directly behind the original fire building and only one-half of the fire building itself. Behind the fire-damaged wall, up to the Tower Building in the background, is equal destruction. (Bottom) A tower ladder “overhauls” the fire building after the fire is brought under control. (Photos by Steven Spak.)

COMMUNICATION AND CONTROL

FDNY companies are equipped with Handi-Talkies (portable radios) as follows:

Ladder companies 4

Engine companies 3

Rescue companies 6

Battalion chiefs 1

Battalion firefighters 1

Deputy chiefs 1

Division firefighters 1

Support officers 1

When you consider a large-scale operation requiring many firefighting units, communications discipline and control are essential and multiple frequencies are a necessity.

Each section of the city is assigned a Handi-Talkie frequency number when an incident requires a command channel and a secondary tactical channel.

At this fire, when the fourth and fifth alarms were transmitted, the dispatcher was directed to advise responding units to switch to Handi-Talkie Channel 2, which is a citywide frequency. The citywide dispatcher was advised not to transmit on this channel.

Our field communications unit is commanded by Captain John Timulty. He was assisted at this incident at the command post by Battalion Chief Jackson, the designated communication coordinator within the ICS.

The size of this operation mandated a command channel in addition to the two tactical channels for Clark Street and Pineapple Street. The command channel allowed us to communicate effectively with individual sectors and the staging area.

Unfortunately, the particular area of Brooklyn in which this fire occurred does not have a secondary command channel available, and branch commander Deputy Chief Corcoran`s request for a separate command channel could not be accommodated.

Due to the rapid extension of the fire into exposures, there were many urgent transmissions for help. Timulty`s experience as a field communications officer was an invaluable asset in the receipt and relaying of all the urgent radio transmissions. The value of a communications unit staffed with experienced personnel was again reinforced at this fire. n

–STEVEN C. DeROSA

STEVEN C. DeROSA, a 31-year veteran of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department, is deputy assistant chief and commander of Division 5, the Borough of Queens. He served for more than 12 years as a battalion chief and deputy chief in midtown Manhattan and developed numerous procedures for the department, particularly in high-rise tactics. He served as citywide tour commander on the day of this incident and had command of the fire.

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