Fire doesn`t have to show to be deadly
In behalf of the firefighters who have survived the New York Telephone Company Fire, we fully endorse the opinions of Bill Manning`s “The Devil You Can`t See” (Editor`s Opinion, November 1998).
Twenty-three years have passed since the “Phone Fire,” yet firefighters active and retired continue to suffer the health consequences from one of the most deadly and difficult fires in the history of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY).
As the first-due ladder company, it was our responsibility to locate the seat of the fire. The display board of one of the alarm panels indicated the fire was in the subcellar located three stories underground. In the subcellar, there are no windows, doors, or other means of outside ventilation. Once in the cellar, the smoke was incredibly thick, yet no fire was visible. We had thought our powerful searchlights had gone dead. We were unable to see the beams until the flashlight was placed directly on the facepiece. Due to the melting polyethylene and bubbling tar, our boots were adhering to the floor`s surface.
We searched for fire but could find none. Our efforts were futile, since the fire was burning the wires` polyvinylchloride insulation located inside the vertical piping inside the 11-story building.
The narrow staircase to the subcellar became the scene of bedlam. Firefighters sent to relieve us were becoming entangled with other firefighters whose air supply was becoming depleted. At one point, so many bells were ringing from the SCBAs that one was not sure whether his device [or someone else`s] was going off.
The officers experienced extreme difficulties in communicating. Their words were muffled from the facepieces as well as the roar of the still-functioning diesel turbines. We could distinguish the truck officer informing the incident commander that there was no visible fire and our position was untenable and perilous.
Eventually–17 hours later–through the efforts of 699 firefighters, the fire was brought “under control.” At this fire, the amount of toxic smoke was estimated at 10 million cubic feet, yet there was no visible fire. The fuel load was nearly 200,000 pounds of combustible material, including polyethylene, polyvinylchloride, benzene, chlorinated dioxins, chlorinated furans, and a mix of hydrocarbons. These are known to cause respiratory distress. Also, the acid damages tissue, and the organic chemicals initiate and promote cancer.
Under the leadership of FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, a medical study has recently been initiated. The study will provide the department with an enlightened awareness of deadly toxic smoke and its long-term effects on firefighters. The data generated from this study may establish a link between toxic smoke exposure and cancer and may answer many medically related questions. With the necessary information generated from the Medical Division study, active and retired firefighters will be able to take proper preventive measures by in-structing their physicians to examine for symptoms. Numerous firefighters` lives will be saved.
Manning is right on target when he states, “The devil you can`t see can be much more deadly and frightening than the visible one.”
Fire Technology Instructor
San Diego, California