By Braden Peter
One of the largest and most devastating fires the Petersburg (VA) Fire Rescue and Emergency Services (PFRES) experienced occurred on the morning of January 16, 2018. The structure fire at 424 High Street taxed our firefighters to their breaking point as they faced perhaps the largest fire in the city’s history.
The fire started in the old Seward Trunk and Bag Company at 510 High Street and ultimately reached a fifth alarm. This mega manufacturing plant and warehouse, built in 1878, was then the largest building of its type. The facility featured Type IV, heavy timber construction. Buildings built in the late 1800s were designed to last; the wood members of floor and roof assemblies were full cut lumber. Each floor plate consisted of 4 × 10 floor joists set on 12-inch centers. The sub-flooring material consisted of 1- × 2-inch planks; the finished tongue-and-groove flooring boards of the same dimensions were oiled for wear protection. Each floor plate and the roof assembly were the equivalent of a small lumberyard, as the fire demonstrated.
(1) The scene on the author’s arrival on High Street, side A. (Photos courtesy of author.)
The manufacturing building was set in the middle of a campus of 13 buildings that were used for all aspects of one of the most lucrative businesses in the South. The original building had four floors with a full basement. Each floor occupied about 80,000 square feet, or a total of 400,000 square feet, plus the roof system component. This made for a catastrophic fire—one for the record books. The building was abandoned in the early 1950s; this gigantic and once majestic building sat vacant for 60 years and became derelict over time.
As part of Petersburg’s gentrification and renaissance, many old abandoned warehouses were converted into loft living spaces. The Seward building was destined to become a number of condominiums with amenities that included a restaurant with an outdoor bar that wrapped around the plant’s 110-foot water tower with its 140 years of antique patina. The land developer filed the proper drawings and plans to receive a permit to start the demolition process to prepare the building for the sweeping renovations. The demolition was methodical and effective; the focus was on reusing the beautiful legacy building construction components. As a result of modifications, the construction was closer to Type III, ordinary construction.
Since the redevelopment work was well underway, our previous chief ordered all companies and shifts to conduct a site walk-through preincident building survey. Based on the size of the facility and the associated hazards inside of the campus, the walk-through turned out to be quite beneficial. All of the first-alarm responders obtained a reasonable understanding of the building layout and associated problems that would confront firefighters. This important background information, coupled with the initial on-scene conditions, proved instrumental in the incident commander’s selecting the correct mode of operation.
When the plant was active, a skywalk to three support buildings across the street was installed at the third floor so that workers could reach the connected warehouses without going outdoors. This skywalk represented an unprotected and uninterrupted path for fire travel and proved to be disastrous for the connected and recently renovated condominiums and apartments.
The initial dispatch to 414 High Street did not provide any clues to the challenge that our department would face that winter morning. At 0505 hours, the occupant of one of the condominiums at 424 High Street smelled and then experienced thick smoke in her apartment. The emergency communications dispatcher directed her to retreat and leave the building while reassuring her that the fire department was on its way. Petersburg Engines 2, 3, and 5; Truck 1; Fire Medic 3; and Battalion Chief 1 were dispatched and en route in less than one minute. The occupied condos across the street from the burning warehouse were filling with smoke that was drifting across the street. This was a threatening sign of things to come.
(3) An overhead view of the incident site. High Street Lofts, containing lofts, condos, and apartments, is at the bottom.
(4) The author and two mutual-aid battalion chiefs survey the A side at the intersection of High and Lafayette Streets.
Battalion 1 was dispatched from the historic Market Street fire station (less than a mile away from the fire scene) and was the first to arrive on location at 0507 hours. The battalion chief’s brief initial report was as follows: “On location at 424 High Street with a large commercial building, Type III construction well-involved in fire with Battalion 1 establishing High Street Command.”
The initial incident action plan (IAP) was simple—all units were advised that the fire operations would be defensive, exterior attack only. Based on the volume of the fire, Battalion 1 then ordered all companies to stay out of the building’s collapse zone. The strategy would be to cut off and contain the fire to the building of origin and protect the exposures. The last element of the brief initial radio report was to strike the second alarm and make all necessary city and state notifications. In the initial assignments, Engine 3 and Truck 1 were positioned on the fire building’s A-D corner and connected to a color-coded red hydrant with minimal flow, less than 500 gallons per minute (gpm). Truck 1 can flow 2,000 gpm with an adequate water supply.
Engine 2 was set up on the A side (High Street) between the vacant fire building and the exposure building (High Street Lofts). Its first assignment was to flow a deck gun down Lafayette Street, protect the exposure, and keep the fire from traveling through the crosswalk that connected the two buildings. The doors connecting the condos were only decorative and not fire rated. Engine 2, a 1,500-gpm pumper, was also connected to a color-coded red hydrant that produced minimal flow.
Engine 4, which was set up in the rear (C side) between the two buildings, was to set the 75-foot aerial ladder and protect the exposure. Engine 4 had a green hydrant (which can flow 1,000 to 1,500 gpm) and flowed 1,200 to 1,400 gpm. A mutual-aid truck from Prince George’s County set up on the A side of the exposure building to assist in protecting the exposure. E-5 was supplying the Prince George’s truck. Engine 5 was also on a color-coded red hydrant and was able to supply only 350 gpm.
After obtaining the detailed reports from the companies on the various sides of the building, the size-up for making a stop before fire extension into the occupied multifamily dwellings looked exceptionally bleak. The third alarm was struck, and a staging area was established and its location transmitted to incoming units, although they were used as soon as they arrived on location. The bad news continued to pour into the command post as the city’s large water main on High Street (dating from the early 1900s) broke because of the structural collapse of the vacant building, and most of the firefighting water was lost. A lengthy firefight was now imminent. It took long supply hoseline layouts to resolve the water supply issues.
The news only got worse when High Street Command was notified that the fire had extended into the recently renovated and occupied condominiums at 0630 hours. Ten units along with the buildings in the manufacturing and warehouse area were destroyed. The overhead crosswalk was the avenue for the nearly explosive fire travel and extension. When the condos were under construction, a one-hour-rated fire separation at the end of the crosswalk before it entered the condos was required. The doors used were decorative and not fire rated. However, the chimney effect caused the rapid breaching of the crosswalk doors and did little to slow the fire spread. The fire extension happened before fire personnel arrived, and fire was observed moving across the crosswalk at an exceptional rate of speed.
Another factor working against firefighting efforts was the use of the National Fire Protection Association 13R, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies (NFPA 13R, which does not require sprinklers in void spaces, including attics), sprinkler system in the exposed multifamily building. When the fire took hold of the condo building, it entered into the attic space, which was not protected by the sprinkler system. Would having the attic sprinklered have made a difference? In this case, probably not. As the fire spread into the building, the NFPA 13R sprinkler system was rendered useless because the cross main in the overhead space failed. The separated sprinkler pipe worsened the already dire water supply situation and had no suppression impact on the raging attic fire.
(5) The High Street side (side A) of the vacant warehouse collapsed, causing the water main to break and creating water supply issues.
(6) After the collapse on High Street; the Lafayette Street intersection and High Street Lofts are at left.
Truck 1 and Engine 5 were directed to conduct a primary search of the 10 condominium units that were rapidly becoming engulfed by fire. Truck 1 activated the local building fire alarm system to assist in the evacuation process. At this time of the morning, most of the condo occupants were sleeping and unaware of the life-threatening situation headed their way. As the search team crawled through the condo hallways, they made several rescues of the occupants, who were asleep. One of the rescued was a juvenile female who was left unattended in the home. It was determined that the father left the child alone every day to report for work. She was rescued along with several other occupants of other condo units before the fire overcame their living spaces. Based on the age of this child, the police were required to intervene and address this issue. No civilian injuries were reported from initial operations through recovery.
As the fire situation changed, the IAP was adjusted. As master streams were deluging the main fire building, fire crews assisting Truck 1 were entering the occupied building to help evacuate the condo units. Engine 5’s crew had made a hoseline stand in the attic space to stop the fire’s progress and was driven back by the intense heat and flames and the collapse of the crosswalk. Activating the pull station was a great help in alerting the occupants to the fire’s advancing into their homes. At this point, High Street Command realized that the extending fire would not be easily stopped, but fire was kept out of the attached apartment building that had been evacuated. The apartments received water damage and were checked for fire extension as well. Because of the initial request for assistance moments after arrival, these tasks were immediately handled from staging to impact.
Considering the volume of fire on arrival, the likelihood of a delayed alarm, and the possibility that it could be arson and an accelerant may have been used, PFRES and its outstanding mutual-aid partners handled the fire exceptionally well. The rampant fire was held to the three buildings that were burning on our arrival. The companies assigned to perform secondary search and fire suppression operations in the two sections of the occupied exposures quickly gave the “All Clear” signal, and there were no occupant injuries at a fire that could have taken dozens of lives. The fire destroyed the large warehouse and the 10 condo units; three of the 30 apartments received heavy water damage. The fire-related loss was more than $5 million, but only one firefighter suffered a minor injury and no civilians were injured.
The PFRES conducted a complete after-action report (AAR) that was shared with the entire department; the lessons learned or reinforced at this fire were significant.
- Additional alarms. Requesting a second subsequent alarm soon after arrival was key in holding the fire to the three buildings that were destroyed or damaged. If the needed resources had not been requested early, the property damage would been much worse.
- Staging. Setting up Level 2 staging was critical. The inbound companies staged about four blocks away until command could determine the best tactical position. Freelancing would have potentially resulted in firefighter line-of-duty deaths and destroyed fire apparatus.
- Collapse zone. All first-alarm apparatus were ordered to set up their operations outside of the eventual collapse zone. Without a doubt, this was the number-one factor in providing for firefighter safety.
- Training. The department chief insisted on training sessions for this site, saying that it was essential for all units to clearly understand the critical factors, the hazards, and the challenges that they would likely face in a fire.
- Water supply. Anticipating the need for large volumes of water for extinguishment and knowing the declining condition of the water supply system, command was able to establish several points of water supply. The Petersburg Water Department quickly provided additional pressure and volume to the general location of the fire buildings. It was no surprise that the water main in front of the building burst when the primary building collapsed.
- Accountability. Starting off right in accounting for all firefighters was critical at this alarm. Tracking all personnel in the hazard zone was not easy because of the size of the vacant and occupied structures and the number of personnel available. Command assigned several senior members to this task, and not one firefighter was lost while operating on the fireground.
- Command post. The command post was originally in the battalion chief’s vehicle. Early on, it was determined that a larger and more long-term command post would be needed. A neighboring department responded with and set up a large command post vehicle, which was used on site for the next five days.
- Fire investigation. The fire investigation was the responsibility of Chief Fire Marshal James Reid. Reid called in the regional fire investigation task force along with the Virginia State Police and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to assist. No cause has been determined in this $5 million fire loss.
- Restoration. The restoration of the community would take a few months. For the first five days, the fire department played a crucial role in the process and eventually turned the “command vest” over to the Petersburg Code Compliance Office.
The High Street neighborhood is now back better than ever. The plans for continued development are being considered. The community took a few collective minutes out of its busy schedule to thank all emergency responders that night. This fire was incorporated into our standard AAR process and placed into a PowerPoint® format. A copy is available on request.
Braden Peter is an interim battalion chief with the Petersburg (VA) Fire Rescue and Emergency Services, which he joined in 2001. He is Virginia Department of Fire Programs-certified in leadership and as an officer 2, an instructor 2, and a health and safety officer. Peter is also certified in heavy technical rescue and as a rescue diver 2.