5-Alarm Fire Destroys Roundhouse in Cincinnati

5-Alarm Fire Destroys Roundhouse in Cincinnati

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Aerial streams reach into remains of 80-year-old roundhouse in Cincinnati

Photo by Ed Effron

Map by Captain E. Kolb, training officer

It took nearly 100 fire fighters from 21 Cincinnati fire companies about an hour and a half to bring under control a predawn five-alarm blaze which destroyed the 80-year-old Chessie System’s Baltimore and Ohio roundhouse last Nov. 18.

Confusion about the address and resulting dispatching delays, combined with freezing temperatures and a BOCA code grandfather clause permitting the building to be 400 feet from the nearest fire hydrant, added up to make this a particularly difficult battle for fire fighters. The open construction roundhouse covered an area of approximately 41,000 square feet. To make matters worse, the wood structural elements in the building had become saturated with petrochemicals because of locomotive maintenance operations carried out there.

The problems began on what had been a “quiet” morning for fire communications personnel when a nearby stockyard employee called to report the fire at 4:23 a.m. The employee, fire dispatchers say, guessed the address of the burning roundhouse to be in the 2500 block of Spring Grove Ave. and was unable to give a nearby intersecting street. He was, however, able to identify a nearby steel company as an area landmark. While the street number given and the landmark cited gave conflicting locations about where the fire actually was, the dispatcher called the box according to the street number, where the former Union Terminal roundhouse is located. This actually was a mile and a half south of the burning Chessie B & O roundhouse.

Correct address given

When first-due Engine 12 arrived at the 2500 block of Spring Grove and found no fire, the officer radioed communications for additional information. By now it was 4:29 a.m. and six minutes had passed since the companies were dispatched. Employee efforts to contain the fire with a 1 1/2-inch hose line were abandoned when the hose burst. Only then did a Chessie employee call and report the fire.

From information given on the second call, fire dispatchers were able to redispatch two companies, Engine 12 and Truck 8, from the 2500 block of Spring Grove to 3419 Spring Grove. Also dispatched were four more companies— Engines 20 and 35, Truck 5 and Squad 52, Cincinnati’s heavy-duty rescue unit.

Engines 21 and 29, from the first box, were about to be disregarded when the district marshal called in a code 3, indicating he needed more men and equipment than he would receive on the initial alarm. A minute later, a second alarm was given and by 4:44 a.m., the full five-alarm complement was on the scene.

All this gave the fire about a sixminute edge over the fire fighters. Whether the delay had occurred or not, it wasn’t as serious as the problems of building construction and use, the weather, and lack of sufficient hydrants at the fire location.

Burned through roof

According to District Marshal Donald Hoff, first at the scene, the cards were stacked against saving the building by the time he got there.

“The building was lost when I pulled up. There were too many factors against the fire department putting an effective stop on it . . . . The flames were shooting 25-30 feet above the roof. It had burned through the roof already.”

The roof, he explained, was constructed in layers of wood, tar paper, tar and gravel.

Hoff said the 12-mph winds from the north swept the fire from its northwest area origin, southward through the building.

Other contributing factors to the swiftness of fire spread were the open construction design of the roundhouse and the fact that its numerous wood structural members had become saturated with coal dust and oil because of the locomotive maintenance operations carried out there.

The roundhouse consisted of a rounded horseshoe-like structure which housed bays and a turntable with tracks where trains could pull up for servicing. Connected to it were offices and locker facilities.

How ignition occurred

The fire began in the northwest portion of the roundhouse, where fire authorities have determined that a steam pipe from the boiler ignited a 2X4 wood support beneath the pipe.

Cincinnati Fire Investigator Melvin Bertsch explained that the steam under pressure created a heat of about 280° F. The wood supporting the pipe, which after pyrolysis and after absorbing lubricating oil which had occasionally leaked from nearby tanks, had a significantly lowered ignition temperature of about 313° F. This 33-degree difference could have been easily attained, Bertsch explained, either because of a rise in the boiler pressure or by the insulating effect of a carelessly tossed rag over the steam pipe and wood support. The temperature dipped to below freezing that night, resulting in the boiler operating at a higher pressure and consequently producing more heat.

Laboratory tests on both the charred wood from under the steam pipe and the lubricating oil that was in the tanks, plus statements from employees working in the area at the time of the fire, substantiated Bertsch’s beliefs.

Insufficient water

Another major problem fire fighters had to contend with as they battled this fire was an insufficient number of fire hydrants, which necessitated up to 500-foot hose lays and caused delays in getting the first-in companies set up. Hoff said distance of the hydrants to the roundhouse was not in violation of Ohio’s BOCA code, however, because the roundhouse was built long before the code went into effect. The code isn’t retroactive.

Fire officials say the problem of insufficient water was not so much a lack of water supplies but rather a problem of getting it to the building. For the 15 engine companies responding, the supply was only five nearby hydrants.

At the height of the fire fighting operations, the maximum water flow was 7200 gpm for about 50 minutes. Because of water supply problems, however, it took the five-alarm complement nearly an hour to achieve this.

“We had one pumper (Engine 29) in front of the building and one 5-inch hose laid into it . . . . supplying this pumper with only 450 gpm, which was completely insufficient to control the magnitude of this fire. By the time we got the second and third-alarm companies and even the fourth and fifth set up, the building was completely engulfed. And for all practical purposes, it was lost. We needed 10 times as much water as we had. Right from the go,” Hoff said.

Steam rises from roundhouse as fire fighters operate hand line into window

Photo by Ed Effron

Hazardous storage not involved

In order to put Cincinnati’s four Squrt pumpers into operation, lines to some 1000-gpm nozzles had to be shut down. Hazardous materials at the scene of the fire included two free-standing 10,000-gallon tanks of 60-weight lubricant oil, fire authorities say. But these or smaller quantities of other materials did not contribute to the fire.

Two minor explosions occurred during the fire. An unused pipe exploded when condensation of water inside it heated, created pressure, and ruptured suddenly. Also, a drum containing an unknown substance exploded after the fire had burned about 75 percent of the building, fire authorities say.

The fire was officially declared out at 4:54 that afternoon.

Damage assessed

Damage as a result of the fire, including building materials and contents, was set at $2,284,500.

“We ended up with three switch engines totally destroyed,” said Fred Yocum of Chessie. “The turntable (of the roundhouse) was not severely damaged,” he said, adding that the railroad had been able to put it back in service within 48 hours.

While the roundhouse was totally destroyed, a 30 by 20-foot storeroom and office building plus a 100 by 20-foot locker room and office building were also saved.

Yocum commented, “Roundhouse structures like this, particularly ones t hat have as much wood as this one, are always objects of concern with respect to fire. They’re inspected regularly . . . Any new locomotive facilities that we build, we build as run-through sheds rather than as the old roundhouse.”

Yocum said fire protection in use at the roundhouse at the time of the fire consisted of a fire brigade equipped with fire extinguishers, hoses and sand … No sprinklers, automatic fire alarms, or smoke detectors were present.

According to Cincinnati fire officials, however, the building was not required under code to be sprinklered and have automatic detection devices. Fire inspection records show the building was inspected five months prior to the fire. At that time no violations were found.

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