TEN MILES AND TEN YEARS
BY GLENN P. CORBETT
It has been nearly 10 years since the tragic Hackensack Ford fire claimed the lives of five firefighters on that July 4th weekend. The fire has been permanently etched in the collective fire service memory; the mere mention of the word “Hackensack” conjures up images of collapsing trusses, a frantic search for trapped comrades, and the final unacceptable recognition that five fellow firefighters had been lost. A recent memorial ceremony was held in honor of these heroes.
Since I wrote the Fire Engineering fire report back in 1988, I began to reflect on the effect that Hackensack has had on firefighting, specifically here in New Jersey. How does the Hackensack fire compare with the one that occurred in Wyckoff, only 10 miles from Hackensack? What have we learned?
After the Hackensack fire, many investigations were conducted. Lawsuits were filed. Improvements were made in the department. Training in New Jersey was enhanced, with special emphasis placed on the hazards of trusses. One tangible effect was a requirement in New Jersey for the placement of placards on buildings, identifying them as being of truss construction.
How was the Wyckoff fire affected by these changes? Perhaps the most important impact on the Wyckoff fire was truss recognition–that the Wine & Spirit World building had bowstring trusses similar to those in Hackensack and that this is an extremely dangerous construction feature capable of easily killing firefighters. Preplans identified this feature in Wyckoff, and Chief Woodbury knew that the trusses presented a significant hazard.
On arrival, the chief noted heavy smoke as it pushed from truss void vents along the eave line of the roof. It was the middle of the night–Woodbury knew that the fire would have had a good head start. He knew a large portion of the truss void was one big, open area–a virtual lumberyard! He expected heavy involvement of the truss void.
The fire, although concealed by a ceiling, was well beyond the capabilities of an interior attack. What was to be gained by committing interior forces in this fire? Nothing! The chief ordered all firefighters away from the building, including the aggressive firefighters who wanted to attack the fire by entering through the Wine & Spirit World entrance.
What happened? Within minutes, the roof went down. Everybody was safe; everybody was accounted for. No lives were lost.
There`s no doubt in my mind that the legacy of the lost Hackensack firefighters was in Wyckoff that night, a gift of lessons that other firefighters could learn from their tragedy, a guiding hand from those who had made the supreme sacrifice. n
n GLENN P. CORBETT is a professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York City, a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a lieutenant with the Waldwick (NJ) Fire Department. He previously held the position of administrator of engineering services with the San Antonio (TX) Fire Department. Corbett has a master of engineering degree in fire protection engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He authored two chapters on fire prevention/protection in The Fire Chief`s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). Corbett has been in the fire service since 1978.