By Joe Pronesti
As we celebrate our country’s independence with family and fireworks this month, I would also like for all of you to remember and honor the sacrifice of three New Jersey firefighters who lost their lives 15 years ago in the early hours of July 4th, 2002.
At 0135 hours, the Gloucester City (NJ) Fire Department (GCFD) responded to a residential structure fire in a duplex located at 200-202 N. Broadway prior to the arrival of the first GCFD units, it was reported by the local police on scene that there were multiple residents, including three children, trapped on the second floor of unit 200. The front and side of unit 200 was well involved on floors and severely threatening 202 Broadway crews interior conditions quickly deteriorated in 200, forcing them to retreat from the structure. Crews began a defensive attack on 200, with interior operations continuing in 202. After-action reports state that at 0157 hours, interior crews in 202 noted the ceiling beginning to come down and felt the floor give way. At 0159 hours (24 minutes after the initial dispatch), while evacuating the structure, firefighters located a female victim on the first floor rear of unit 202 and pulled her out the rear door. This victim was later identified as the three deceased children’s’ mother.
The building collapsed at 0206 hours, 31 minutes after dispatch. Numerous firefighters were injured and pulled from the collapse. A special call was made for Philadelphia (PA) Fire’s rescue company to assist; multiple alarms were sounded; and, in the end, Chief James Sylvester and Deputy Chief John West of the Mount Ephraim (NJ) Fire Department along with Thomas G. Stewart III of the GCFD–who had just proposed to his fiancée hours prior to the fire from a ladder truck–were killed.
After action and NIOSH reports noted multiple findings when they released their investigations in 2003. One point, however, I would like to focus on during this anniversary and that is the impact of water streams on a building on fire. When we are in the middle of a firefight, we focus our concentration on knocking down fire, sometimes blitzing the fire to then go interior after. It can be all too easy to forget the extra weight all that water add to the structure, and firefighters may be surprised by a sudden collapse.
When we continuously battle the bread-and-butter room-and-contents fires day in and day out, we tend to forget about the impact of our streams when we have to apply a large amount of water. Sometimes when we soften the target, we allow the enemy can do an end around. An old firefighting signal of water running out of the building merit look at today and should be the focus of a commander or safety officer after a defensive knock on the fire has been completed and interior operations are being contemplated.
Happy Fourth to you and your families. Be safe and remember these brave brothers and share the lessons learned.
Discovery Channel Documentary on this fire
NIOSH Report: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200232.html
NJ State Fire Marshal Report: nj.gov/dca/divisions/dfs/reports/gloucester.pdf
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.
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