Castle West Apartment Building Fire, Colorado Springs

BY RANDY ROYAL

On January 16, 2007, the members of the Colorado Springs (CO) Fire Department (CSFD) experienced one of the most dangerous and devastating fires in its more than 100-year history. The Colorado Springs Communications Center received the first 911 call at 00:47:06 hours on Tuesday for a structure fire at the Castle West Apartments located at 3770 East Uintah Street, on the east side of the city. Within seconds, multiple calls began pouring in from trapped occupants as well as from witnesses to the fire. Some callers were frantic and reported that an accelerant had been poured in the hallways and that the heat and smoke had entrapped occupants in their apartments. Units from the CSFD were immediately dispatched and soon were confronted with a horrific situation that necessitated immediate crucial decisions. We addressed the obvious challenge and priority of the life safety need by calling for an “all-hands” rescue.

Because of the suspicion of arson, the follow-up investigation, and the resulting arrests, in addition to the fire’s being a high-profile incident that had a significant impact on hundreds of people, the presiding judge placed a suppressive gag order on all information related to the case. This gag order was lifted only recently, allowing us to release details of the incident and lessons learned for the first time more than two years after the incident occurred.

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(1-2) These photos were taken about 20 minutes after dispatch. When placed side-by-side, they offer a panoramic view of the early stages of the incident. (Photos by Steven D. “Smitty” Smith.)
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On the night of the Castle West fire, weather conditions were poor. Temperatures dropped to below 5°F and had been in the single digits most of the night. Light snow was falling off and on, adding to the snow and ice that had accumulated over the past week. Fortunately, the wind was mostly calm; a light breeze occasionally blew from the north.

 

THE BUILDING

 

The Castle West apartment building was a three-story, wood-frame (Type V), garden-level, center-hallway apartment with 135 units. This building was classified as a Group R occupancy (an apartment house). The longest portion of the building faced east and ran from north to south. Two wings ran off the main building about a third of the way down from each end toward the west. The building covered most of a large city block area and was approximately 120,000 square feet in size. Each floor consisted of 39,230 square feet of living space. The first floor also had a recreation area, a swimming pool, and an office. The building was constructed in 1969 and was reviewed according to both the 1967 Uniform Building Code and the Pikes Peak Regional Building Code. At the time of construction, the City of Colorado Springs had not yet adopted a fire code; thus, provisions for fire sprinkler and standpipe systems were not included.

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(3) Heavy fire conditions exist at both ends of the northwest wing. (Photo by Steven D. “Smitty” Smith.)

The city adopted the Uniform Fire Code in 1970. After adoption of this code, there was never any retrofitting of sprinkler, standpipe, or alarm systems in this building. Under the building codes of the time, there should have been a minimum requirement of one-hour fire-resistive construction based on the size of the complex. Wood fire doors with steel frames were supposed to be in place at the time of the fire but many, if not all, of them had been blocked open by residents. The blocking of fire doors had long been a problem at this complex. It also appears that at some point prior to the fire the door frames had been changed to wood.

The stairways were vertical shafts that were open at all floors; no doors or barriers were present. The main entrance stairway was a very large area, again completely open on all three levels. There were no requirements for extinguishers at the time of construction, although some cabinets were later placed on each floor. Some of these extinguishers were still in their cabinets after the fire. Smoke alarms were in the common areas, and there was one in each apartment unit. Some of the common hallway smoke alarms are known to have been working during the fire, although some residents claim they were unable to hear them. During a survey of an accessible portion of the building after the fire, it was found that 38 percent of the apartment smoke alarms were missing or without batteries.

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(4) Firefighters rescue a trapped occupant on the second floor as the fire reaches the southeast entrance/exit.

All hallways were lined with wood paneling on one side, from floor to ceiling. The reverse side of this paneling was marked as having an ASTM flame spread rating (FSR) of 200 or less (Class III or C). In some areas, multiple layers of wood paneling had been placed on interior walls. Based on the Uniform Building Code, these hallways and stairwells should have had Class 1 (Class A) interior finishes with an interior finish flame spread rating of 0-25, not the 200 that was found. FSR is used to describe how building materials burn across their surfaces and is usually referred to as the “Steiner tunnel test.” This test measures the speed and distance at which flames move across a burning sample while being exposed to a gas flame. The FSR is documented as a number on a continuous scale where inorganic cement board is zero and red oak is listed as 100. The materials in the Castle West building were pushing the 200 level. It appears that there was fire blocking in some areas, but the exact condition of the building at the time of the fire is unknown. The building had a flat roof; there was a void space above the third-floor apartments. This roof also had a false mansard-type overhang that covered the exterior of the third floor with wood shingles. This facade created a large void space that surrounded the structure’s top floor.

The parking lots, which nearly surrounded the building, were full of cars at the start of the fire, making firefighter access extremely difficult. The building had an open courtyard between the two wings on the west side of the structure. This courtyard was inaccessible to vehicles but did allow for ground ladder placement.

 

INITIAL RESPONSE AND ATTACK

 

The night leading up to the Castle West fire was not particularly busy; in fact, because it was the middle of the week and temperatures were so low, alarm activity was really quite low. At the time of the incident, most of the 360 residents of Castle West were already asleep. Trauma Squad 7 (TS7), which was stationed approximately two blocks away, had come to within a block of the apartments while returning from a medical call approximately six minutes before the initial dispatch. Yet, none of the crew members noticed any sign of fire.

At 00:47:30, 24 seconds after the call was received, the first alarm was dispatched. Because the building had been designated as a Target Hazard-High Life Threat, three engines, two trucks, a trauma squad, and a district chief were dispatched on the initial alarm:

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(5) Firefighters prepare to make another rescue as the fire continues to blow out of the southeast entrance/exit. (Photos by Steven D. “Smitty” Smith.)

Battalion Chief Rich Brown, who was on duty as district chief (DC) 2 that night, was first out the door. As soon as he turned south onto Academy Boulevard, he saw a large plume of smoke and the glow of fire. He immediately initiated a working fire response that activated the heavy rescue unit, the hazmat unit, and DC1. Brown arrived on-scene in less that one minute and was shocked by the volume of fire and the dense smoke pouring out of multiple areas of the structure. At 00:50:21, Brown called for a second and third alarm, which sent an additional four engines, two trucks, a mobile air unit, and a third DC. On surveying the scene, Brown noted fire raging unchecked from the north and east ends of the structure. Exit stairways were fully involved. Heavy black smoke and fire poured from the complex and out of individual apartment windows. Brown noticed dozens of occupants already hanging off balconies, leaning out of windows, and preparing to jump. Heavy fire quickly engulfed literally dozens of apartments and began blowing over the heads of the desperate occupants. Units from Station 7 arrived at 00:50:32 and were gearing up to go to work. Brown realized that lives would be lost if direct rescue operations were not initiated at once, so immediately after establishing Castle West Command at the northwest corner of the structure, he gave the order for an “all-hands rescue.” This order directed all incoming and on-scene units to concentrate their efforts on the imminent life safety threat facing them, and every effort possible was made to remove victims from the building.

I was stationed at Station 1, approximately five miles to the southwest of Castle West, when I heard the initial dispatch and recognized the address. Being familiar with this building and realizing the potential for a devastating fire, I was approaching my vehicle when I was dispatched as part of the working fire assignment. As I turned east out of Station 1, I saw a glowing sky and the biggest smoke plume I had ever seen within the city. While responding, I listened as dispatch relayed the frantic calls for help from trapped occupants. Citizens, in fear of losing their lives, gave dispatchers their apartment numbers and told them the number of people in need of rescue. Some callers asked if they should jump; others asked if they should drop their children from their balconies; still others described the horrific conditions and intense heat from which there seemed to be no escape.

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(6) A view of the extreme south end of the building, opposite where the fire started, and the center hallway of the second floor. The wood-paneled hallways on the second and third floors, along with open stairways and poured gasoline, produced conditions that spread the fire completely through the occupancy in a matter of minutes. [Photo by Steve Schopper, Colorado Springs (CO) Fire Department.]

When I arrived, I saw the rapidly moving fire raging through the structure. I drove to the north end of the building, where I enlisted the help of a medical lieutenant to establish a staging area for incoming resources. I directed a police officer to completely shut down Academy Boulevard, in anticipation of the need for a large staging area. As I made my way around the structure, I noticed dense charged smoke and fire moving through the second and third floors, engulfing exit stairways on the east and south sides of the building. The speed at which the fire spread through the structure was amazing; it prevented residents from leaving the building through their normal routes of egress. Command assigned me to the East Division at the southeast corner of the building, and all units operating under my direction were assigned to a separate radio channel (Command 8). The remainder of the firefighting crews remained under the direction of Command and stayed on Command 4, the channel on which they were originally dispatched.

All crews were met by desperate occupants, most wearing only their nightclothes, and many were in bare feet. These victims provided information about trapped residents and asked for help in locating missing loved ones. Initially, firefighters could only direct them away from the building and toward a church across the street. This church became a refuge and played an integral part in medically treating and managing the many needs of literally hundreds of residents.

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(7) Ladder trucks work fire streams and assist investigators. The fire started within the right portion of the building and rapidly worked its way to the far end to the left. Command vehicles are on the north end of the building. A portion of the church used for medical and victim services can be seen to the west. [Photo by Steven Schopper, Colorado Springs (CO) Fire Department.]

Realizing that more units would be needed for rescue operations in the East Division, I requested a fourth alarm. Ultimately, the incident went to seven alarms and involved nearly 50 agencies and businesses. It became one of the largest ladder rescue operations in our department’s history. The first three companies made 40 ladder rescues. In all, nine fire companies from the first three alarms made 85 ladder rescues. This equates to almost 25 percent of the building’s occupants. In addition to the rescues, companies were able to search a large portion of the building before being pulled out for the changeover to defensive operations.

Firefighters were barely able to stay ahead of the large bodies of fire as they entered apartments through windows and performed quick searches one after the other. In some cases, firefighters awakened unaware residents and hustled them down a ladder to safety. One truck member looked up just in time to see a hand slide across the interior of a soot-covered glass slider on the second-story porch of a completely smoke-charged apartment. He immediately repositioned his ladder, climbed up, forced entry into the unit, and rescued the victim, who had collapsed just inside the glass. This victim made a full recovery.

While rescues were being performed, and as more resources arrived, attempts were made to attack the fire. Initially, all efforts were directed at trying to protect or knock down fire in the stairwells. A lieutenant, describing the intensity of the firefight, explained that the heat had increased so dramatically that he felt as though his “head was going to explode.” The growing fire pushed out of the building the three crews conducting the firefight with large-diameter handlines. Two engine crews were assigned to protect the main entrance and to try to make a stand between the large body of spreading fire and the victims needing rescue. Their attempt to slow the advance of the fire was short-lived; the tremendous amount of heat and fire pushing through the hallways forced them out of the building as well.

About two hours into the incident, firefighters operating a handline on the south side of the structure were surprised by noise coming from behind a bush. The noise was created by an adult female who was self-extricating from her apartment. She had slept through the chaos and awoke when water dripped on her while she slept. A few minutes later, another victim came from the bottom floor toward the north end of the building. Firefighters braced themselves for the possibility that some occupants may not have been able to make it out safely.

The fire’s intensity was attributable to several factors that combined to make conditions extremely dangerous. These conditions were not fully understood until the investigation was complete. The factors included the fact that the fire was being fed by gasoline that had been poured down the hallways. The construction of the building also contributed to the fire’s rapid spread. The open stair shafts allowed the fire and heat to move unchecked through all three floors of the 40-year-old structure. Additionally, the rescues of the trapped occupants delayed the attack on the fire.

The fire ravaged the structure and created an imminent collapse situation. At this point, Command ordered all firefighters to evacuate the structure and prepare for defensive operations. Driver engineers on all sides of the building sounded apparatus air horns, indicating that all firefighters should immediately exit the structure. Once all the crews were out, a personnel accountability report (PAR) was completed, and the status of all crews was confirmed.

Elevated streams, monitors, and large-diameter hoselines went into action. Six ladder trucks flowed for most of the next six hours, each concentrating on a designated section of the complex. Monitors were used on all sides of the structure to hit the fire from below while hoselines were moved around to find the best access points for reaching the fire. Numerous partial collapses made it difficult to get to secluded pockets of the fire. Because of the difficulty in reaching all areas of this large structure, the fire was not called under control until 11:30:18 hours, nearly 11 hours after the first company arrived.

Early in the incident, a church adjacent to the apartments was opened up and used as a medical triage, treatment, and patient-packaging area. Firefighters administered medical treatment to victims who jumped and tended to uninjured occupants who needed protection from the bone-chilling conditions. Victims were brought here, some literally on firefighters’ backs, for evaluation, treatment, and transport or were transferred to this sanctuary for shelter. Amazingly, out of the hundreds of people evaluated, only 19 needed ambulance transportation to local hospitals. All hospitals had been put on alert that they might receive numerous ambulance patients, as well as an unknown number of those who had self-transported.

The church also served as the center for identifying and accounting for building occupants. CSFD’s Information Services and Fire Prevention personnel provided maps, building diagrams, and other information used to check off each apartment as occupants were identified and accounted for. The Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD) helped to control the area as well as access in and out of the facility. The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, along with members of the Springs of Life Church, provided food, clothing, and shelter to victims and responders. The CSFD Chaplain Corps provided much-needed support and counseling to the victims, family members, and responders. Also, arrangements to house victims with family members in hotel rooms or in other apartments were made at the church. In the days after the incident, the church served as a donation site for the residents. People from all around the community brought clothing, furniture, and household items for those who had been displaced. The responders continued to use the church for rehabilitation and press conferences for the next three days.

The magnitude of this incident necessitated the services of most of the on-duty CSFD units. Twenty seven pieces of heavy apparatus, including 16 engines and six trucks, and four battalion chiefs responded to the incident, greatly diminishing the number of units available to answer other calls in the city. The CSFD’s civilian staff responded in force as well; many employees filled positions in the expanding National Incident Management System (NIMS) organization. Because of depleted resources, the Fire Department Operations Center and the Emergency Operations Center were activated to assist with on-scene logistics and continued management of the remainder of the city. With only a handful of CSFD units available to respond, numerous outside agencies honored mutual-aid agreements to ensure no calls for service went unanswered. These units responded to 29 alarms during the first eight hours of the fire.

Defensive operations continued throughout the night while firefighters fought large bodies of fire as they erupted in different areas of the collapsed building. When the fire was determined to be under control, investigators secured the scene. Additionally, the property was completely searched; wherever possible, personal items were retrieved for the displaced occupants who were never allowed back into the building.

NIMS was instituted when Chief Brown established Command, just minutes after arriving on the scene. In the days that followed, Unified Command was established as it became apparent that the criminal investigation would necessitate the cooperative work of the fire department and law enforcement agencies to close the case. Fire Marshal Brett Lacey and his staff took the lead on these efforts; the Plans and Logistics sections played an integral part over the next couple of days.

 

THE AFTERMATH

 

Heavy rescue teams trained in urban search and rescue, along with building engineers and firefighting crews, safely and systematically searched the structure for victims who might have been unable to escape the fire. As search crews encountered structurally compromised areas of the building, heavy rescue personnel shored the area to allow for a thorough search. Heavy equipment was also used to assist with this painstaking process. Sadly, two fatalities were discovered (Figure 1). One was on the north end of the building close to the point of fire origin. The second victim was on the south end, in an area farthest away from the origin of the fire. The discovery of these two victims at opposite ends of the building is an all too real reminder of the speed and ferocity of a spreading fire. The room-by-room search also resulted in the rescue of a number of pets that were found alive; they were returned to their owners. The entire secondary search process took nearly four days to complete.

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Figure 1. Castle West Layout<br>The shaded red areas were shored to prevent further collapse during subsequent search operations. On the third floor, the red stars indicate where the two fatalities were found.

Another unfortunate complication of this fire was that very few occupants had time to take any personal items as they fled the fire. Medications, identification, wallets, purses, car keys, heirlooms, and other valuables were lost. To further complicate things, the building was found to have asbestos throughout, severely limiting the items that could be returned to occupants. All personal items retrieved by firefighters had to be decontaminated prior to being returned to their owners. Most victims lost everything they owned; tragically, many did not have a lot to start with.

The arson investigation was long and arduous. The CSFD Investigations Unit; the CSPD Major Crimes Unit; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation participated in a unified effort. It was determined that two adult males intentionally set the fire. One was the boyfriend of a woman who lived in an apartment on the north end of the complex. The couple had fought earlier in the evening, at which time he threatened to kill her. He, along with his accomplice, later filled a large gas can at a local convenience store, walked back to the complex, and poured gasoline down the hallways before lighting it off.

On January 2, 2009, after more than two years of the investigative process and a grueling multimonth trial involving more than 200 witnesses, the prime suspect, Derrick Johnson, was convicted of murder and given two life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole. The use of large amounts of accelerants, along with plenty of combustible materials and well-ventilated hallways and stairwells, led to the deadly and destructive event that negatively impacted hundreds of lives.

During the fire, tens of thousands of gallons of water flowed from the ladder pipes, deluges, and hoselines. Approximately 120 firefighters were involved in the initial rescue operations and firefight. Nine firefighters were injured, six from falls on the ice, resulting in extremity injuries; the other injuries included a minor burn, a traumatic hand injury, and a dog bite. Throughout the incident, the CSFD mechanics made rounds of the scene checking apparatus; only one mechanical failure was reported.

In the year following this incident, the CSFD identified many agencies that assisted with resolving the event. Local, state, and regional agencies and numerous businesses and nonprofit organizations were recognized for assisting Castle West residents. Finally, the International Association of Fire Chiefs recognized the crew members of CSFD Truck 8 (who made 20 ladder rescues) with its highest award, the International Ben Franklin Service Award for Valor. This recognition reflected the heroics of all of the firefighters who performed rescues that night. Their efforts, no doubt, saved the lives of many Castle West residents.

On January 25, 2007, at 12:24 hours, nine and a half days after the initial dispatch, the last CSFD unit left the scene and returned to service. Nearly all fire departments record fire fatalities; in this case, the CSFD lost two victims. However, the statistic no one will ever know is the number of lives saved by the bravery and dedication of the CSFD firefighters.

 

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

 

As with any major incident, there are always lessons learned and good practices affirmed. The following are some of those lessons and practices from the Castle West fire.

Enhance your response early. Call for resources early; it is better to have resources in reserve than to be in need of resources that have not yet arrived. Take into account that as more resources are requested, response times will increase because of the lengthened response distances. Always try to keep at least one alarm worth of equipment in staging, and ensure that processes are in place to provide for coverage of the rest of the community.

Hoseline and hose stream management. Ensure that you have enough staff to adequately handle and move large hoselines. Initial crews found that although large-diameter handlines were needed, limited resources made the deployment of those streams difficult, if not impossible, to manage. Avoid opposing streams. At large-scale incidents such as this, a good NIMS structure, clear communications, and disciplined firefighters will prevent negative actions from occurring. When using multiple ladder pipe operations, good communication among divisions and units will ensure the most effective placement and use of the streams.

Unified Command.As soon as possible, when an event is going to involve multiple agencies or departments, establish a Unified Command, and follow NIMS procedures. This event was a breakthrough event for the use of Unified Command in Colorado Springs. The CSPD had used NIMS only on a limited basis prior to this event, and the department was in the process of completing departmentwide training. The CSFD took the lead in establishing Unified Command initially and made a smooth transition to the CSPD when the focus of the incident turned more to the law enforcement priorities. Eventually, Operations, Plans, Logistics, and Finance Section chiefs were put in service and used for the duration of the event. Since the Castle West incident, agencies around the region have come to appreciate the effectiveness of and necessity for a strong and cooperative NIMS structure.

Specialized equipment. Consider making calls for specialized equipment early. Parking lot congestion was one hindrance to initial firefighting and rescue operations. Virtually all parking spaces immediately adjacent to the structure were completely full of cars. Eventually, many of the cars were towed off the property, but this did not happen until well into the event. If heavy equipment could have been properly positioned early in the incident, it may have been able to separate one wing of the building from the main section, limiting the fire spread to that area.

Consider the use of assembly space. The church facility described in this article provided invaluable space close to the incident. If this kind of facility is not available, consider the use of buses to rehab firefighters and shield residents from bad weather.

Maintenance issues.On-scene mechanics provide much-needed support for long-term operations such as this one. The department mechanics were able to identify equipment needs and help preempt catastrophic equipment failures. The presence of mechanics on-scene allows for quick reaction and repair time should a malfunction occur. Additionally, preplan resources for vehicle refueling, and have those resources in staging during the event.

Accountability.Accountability must be assigned to more than one individual at incidents that cover a large geographic area. The CSFD procedurally relies on members of its hazmat team to accomplish this task at structure fires. In this situation, the team split up and managed different areas of the scene. By distributing their resources, crews were better able to track crew movements and perform PARs efficiently. Ensure that interior units receive the notification when an emergency evacuation is called. All crews did not hear the apparatus air horns because of other noise factors. An audible radio tone, specific for evacuation purposes, would have been more effective. Also, ensure that a PAR is performed after each strategy change; any significant event, such as a collapse; and on a scheduled, ongoing basis. The CSFD defaults to 20-minute notifications by dispatchers, to initiate PARs. The incident commander can increase or decrease this interval as fire conditions dictate.

Rehab and relief. When an incident is escalating quickly and resources are being rapidly depleted, any response system can become overwhelmed. Assign staff to begin callback or enact mutual-aid agreement procedures early. Also ensure that consideration is given to relieving the on-scene crews so that they can be medically evaluated and properly rehabilitated. This is especially true during extreme weather conditions.

Equipment issues. Ensure that all companies have properly marked all their equipment with identifiers so that at the conclusion of the event, the correct equipment is placed back in service on the proper apparatus. Following this incident, the CSFD issued to all personnel strap-on devices that attach to the bottom of firefighting boots to help reduce fall hazards associated with icy conditions.

Identify and preplan shelter areas.Each fire company and the Office of Emergency Management should identify places throughout the community that will be immediately available for use as emergency shelters. In this case, the church and its facilities happened to fill the need, but consideration was given to using a nearby school and a large shopping mall. Developing procedures for these situations will help streamline shelter activation during stressful incidents. Fortunately, communications, training, and preplanning had been done previously with agencies within and around Colorado Springs.

RANDY ROYAL has been a member of the Colorado Springs (CO) Fire Department for 22 years and serves as an operations battalion chief, assigned to District 3, C shift. He has worked in the emergency services for 32 years (28 as a paramedic) for volunteer fire and private EMS agencies.

 

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