BANKERS TRUST FIRE, NEW YORK CITY
On Super Bowl Sunday, January 31, 1993, in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, fire broke out in the Bankers Trust building, located at 280 Park Avenue It would escalate into a major highrise incident, one of the largest in the history of FDNY. Approximately 80 fire department units and 200 personnel — the equivalent of an eighth alarm—were required for extinguishment and search of the building.
280 Park Avenue, occupying half of a city block between t8th and 49th streets and Park and Madison avenues, has three sections: the east building—200 feet long, 103 feet wide, and 30 stories high; the west building—200 feet long. 103 feet wide, and a 3 stories high; and a crossover building—80 by 30 feet and 17 stories high—that connected the two larger structures. The east building was built in 1961 and the west and crossover buildings in 1968. The east and west buildings have center-core layouts.
The buildings are of steel and concrete construction (Type 1. fire-resistive). Steel girders are 24 inches deep, flange to flange, and steel I-beams are 12 inches deep. These members and the steel columns were treated with a protective coating of asbestos insulation. The floors are constructed of Q-decking (concrete over light-gage steel floor panels). The building’s skin is a glass curtain wall with metal panels located at the floor-slab level.
The east and west buildings have center-core layouts. The cores are protected with two-hour fire-rated gypsum assemblies.
The above-grade areas of the buildings were not sprinklered at the time of the fire (after the fire, only some above-grade levels were retrofitted with automatic sprinklers). Each floor contains smoke and heat detectors in a zoned system. There were 39 detectors on the fire floor in the west building (the fire building) on only two zones. The fire area contained 23 detectors on a single zone. Each elevator lobby is equipped with smoke detectors on a separate circuit. The ventilation system is equipped with three smoke detectors in the return-air plenum per floor, on a separate system. Upon activation, these detectors are set to shut down the HVAC system on the fire floor and the floor above.
The fire building (west building) has 17 elevators: eight low-rise to the 23rd floor and eight high-rise above the 23rd floor, all 16 of whose point of origin is the second-floor elevator lobby; and a service elevator that serves all floors.
There are three stairways in the west building. Stairway C terminates at the 17th floor (uppermost crossover level); stairways D and E span the height of the building. Stairways C and E are enclosed stairways, and Stairway D is an interior fire tower. Door locks are present on the stairway side of all stairwell doors, In the event of a fire, access is possible from the Stairwell on every fourth floor (these doors unlock).
A Class III standpipe system with sixinch standpipe risers is present in the building, it is supplied by a manually started fire pump.
The west building’s fire command station is located at the second-floor elevator lobby. New York City law requires a certified fire safety director to be on dutyin a high-rise building when the building is occupied by 100 or more persons above the first floor or if more than 500 persons are in the building. At all other times, a certified building evacuation supervisor must be on duty. At the time of the fire, the 280 Park Avenue fire safety director was on duty in the east building and the evacuation supervisor was on duty in the west building.
City law also requires that communications and fire alarm control be provided at the fire command station along with the building’s fire safety plan, floor plans, and important information on the occupancies. Bankers Trust meets these requirements
(Photos courtesy of FDNY Photo Unit.)
RESPONSE AND INITIAL ATTACK
Box H2~ was transmitted for a Class “E” alarm (see sidebar) at 22-tS hours, indicating a fire on the sixth floor of Bankers Trust. The truck company investigating the alarm proceeded to the sixth floor of the east building and encountered a building employee who told them the fire was in the west building—an employee already had “investigated.” The company officer located and confirmed a working fire and transmitted a 10-76 (notification of a fire in a high-rise building). Four engine companies, four ladder companies, four battalion chiefs, one deputy chief, one rescue company, the high-rise unit, the fire communications unit, the mask service unit, and a command post company responded.
When the first-due battalion chief arrived. there was some confusion as to the location of the fire command station and the location of the fire. The chief conducted an outside survey, confirmed the location of fire, and notified incoming companies to respond to the -4 8th Street side (exposure 1 side) of the building, between Park and Madison avenues. He also transmitted a second alarm, because fire was venting out of several sixth-floor windows, and requested a 95-foot tower ladder to the scene. He then located the fire command station on the second floor, where he obtained floor plans from building personnel.
First-in engine crews immediately supplied the fire department Siamese connection. providing adequate pressure to the fire floor and above. There was no need to start the building fire pump. The firstarriving tower ladder positioned in front of the fire on the exposure 1 side and raised its bucket in anticipation of the potential need for its services. Firefighting crews climbed the stairways to initiate a handline attack and conduct a primary search of the fire floor and the floor above it.
The incident command system was implemented. A staging area was designated on the fourth floor, two floors below the fire. The low-rise elevators were used to transport equipment to and from the staging area. Personnel assigned to the Are floor and the floor above took the stairways to their assignments. Personnel operating above the fire were to use the high-rise elevators, which were blind shafts up to the 23rd floor, and the service elevator, which was situated far enough away from the fire area so as to provide safe transit for personnel operating above the fire.
Firefighters were directed to the attached high-rise structure on the exposure 2 side to check for possible lateral extension into that building. Fortunately, its construction and the location of its windows relative to the fire prevented that occurrence.
Companies stretched two 2’/2-inch handlines from standpipes in Stairs 1) and E to attack the fire, and a 2‘/2-inch handline from Stair E was operated on the floor above to prevent vertical extension. (Stairway I), the interior tire tower, would later be used exclusively for evacuation.) The fire was large and well-advanced and units could not gain headway—the heat was so intense that firefighters could not maintain positions close enough to reach the seat of the fire. Most of the fire area had a lot of open space with fourto fivefoot partitions. In addition, companies operating on the door above reported that fire was threatening to extend via autoexposure, through cracks in the Q-decking created by the fire below, and up ducts and pipe chases.
A MAYDAY TRANSMISSION
With the request for a third-alarm approximately 20 minutes into the operation, I responded and assumed command. At about the same time, Manhattan Fire Communications received a report of an occupant trapped on the 21st floor of the west building. Firefighters, with additional air cylinders, took a low-rise elevator to that floor.
They located the occupant. The smoke condition was not heavy, but the occupant was having difficulty breathing nonetheless He had broken two windows on the 21st floor tt> gain fresh air prior to the firefighters’ arrival (the windows were plate glass with mylar film approximately ⅜ i.-inch thick; thus, much of the broken glass did not fall, and what did fall did not cause injury to members on the street ).
While firefighters treated this victim, two firefighters manning the elevator in “Phase II operation” lost control of tilecar; apparently, water runoff from the fire streams had shorted out a portion of the car’s electronics. The car doors closed, and the elevator descended in the direction of the fire floor. It stopped momentarily at each floor, but its doors would not open. The firefighters transmitted a mayday message.
The elevator car reached the seventh floor and stopped. A rescue company operating on that floor heard shouts coming from the elevator. Suddenly, the car doors opened and members assisted the trapped firefighters to safety. All low-rise elevators were taken out of service.
Meanwhile, we obtained the records from building personnel on occupant use that day. Twenty-eight building occupants and workers had not signed out of the building. Therefore, we had to assume that at least 28 persons still were in the building and had to be accounted tor. This primary search and possible evacuation of all floors would require a large commitment of personnel, and I transmitted a fourth alarm. Available companies were ordered to upper floors to conduct the searches.
SWITCHING THE ATTACK
It became obvious that this fire would not be controlled with a handline attack. Smoke that was filling the upper floors would only intensifyand reduce the survivability of any occupants trapped above. Fire was venting out of 14 windows on both the side that faced 48th Street and the side leading to the throat of the crossover building. We decided to mount an attack from the outside using tower ladders.
Firefighters were ordered off the fire floor and the five floors above it. The safety of members was of paramount concern. We anticipated that operating tower ladder streams from the exterior would drive heat and smoke into uninvolved interior areas of the building, forcing them into voids and shafts, so I instructed all firefighters on the sixth and seventh floors to close as many doors as possible prior to their retreat to the stair shafts to prevent or delay horizontal extension.
The exterior attack began after sector officers communicated to the command post that all firefighters on floors six to 11 had retreated to protected positions in the stair shafts and that firefighters on upper floors were notified of the shift in strategy. A chief was required to assess changing smoke conditions on upper floors during the exterior master-stream attack. He positioned himself near the elevator lobby well above the fire to perform this safety task.
The first tower operated its master stream directly into the fire area, easilyreaching the 55-foot distance from the windows to the core area (it actually drove a large hole in an elevator shaft wall after the fire had destroyed the outermost partition wall of the office space). Meanwhile. the second tower (95-foot) was positioned at the southeast corner of the west building to cover the throat of the crossover building and prevent fire spread into that area. This would prove critical to the success of the operation.
Two additional tower ladders were placed in a defensive position on 49th Street to protect against the possibility of fire spreading past the core area into uninvolved portions of the sixth floor, west building.
The two-pronged approach proved effective. The master streams on 48th Street knocked down the heavy body of fire on the sixth floor, prevented extension into the crossover and east buildings, and limited autoexposure to the seventh floor. They darkened the fire in about 20 minutes and were shut down. Handline crews moved in from stairways E and C on the sixth floor and extinguished the remaining fire. Crews on the floor above operated quickly to knock down fire that had extended vertically. Vertical extension was limited primarily to 15 feet into the perimeter office space (communicating by autoexposure).
Smoke spread to the upper floors of the west, crossover, and east buildings. Smoke conditions in floors and areas closest to the fire floor were very heavy. An area of approximately 1.4 million square feet had to be searched thoroughly. All floors had an assortment of office equipment and cubicles, which created a maze condition in areas of low visibility. As suppression operations wound down, units and supervisors were reassigned to assist in the massive primary search effort; and additional companies were special-called for relief, overhaul, and a “quick” secondary search. The fire was declared under control at 0325 hours on Monday, February 1.
It was discovered later that the fire safety director had notified occupants of the fire via the public address system, and many had evacuated through the east building. The exact number of evacuees is not known, but information obtained after the fire from building personnel indicated that between 12 and 14 occupants selfevacuated. However, had the fire department known this at the time of the fire, it would not have changed the need to conduct a full-scale primary search of the building.
An inspection of the building during the overhaul phase revealed that the fire compromised structural stability in a few areas. Several steel I-beams were elongated and twisted from the extreme heat, and one I-beam broke from its connection. The fire department collapse unit was special-called to shore up these members, concentrating on three 25-square-foot areas of instability. Other units were withdrawal from the structurally compromised areas on the fire floor and above them until the shoring was completed.
The fire caused significant cracking and shifting of the Q-deck, which provided an avenue for vertical extension but did not compromise structural stability to a significant degree. The building’s steel columns and large girders held up well in the fire.
A SURPRISE HAZ MAT
ft also was discovered during final overhaul, while firefighters were extinguishing small pockets of fire in office equipment and cabinets, that the fireproofing material on the structural elements was asbestos. A full-scale decontamination response was requested. FDNY’s haz-mat and decontamination units responded and decontaminated all personnel operating on the fire floor—who at this point in the incident numbered 60.
Decontamination of the companies that had already returned to quarters was conducted at each fire station. The companies were placed out of service until the decon was concluded. This lasted well into the night of February 1.
Thirty-four firefighters sustained injuries at this fire. None were serious. No civilian occupants were injured, including the person on the 21st flcxir, who was treated at the scene and released.
The fire department maintained a presence at the Bankers Trust building until Friday. February 5. at which time the fire area was turned over to building personnel.
Investigation by the fire marshal’s office determined that the origin of the fire was in the ceiling plenum at the southwest corner of the sixth floor of the west building. The cause of the fire is undetermined but believed to be electrical in nature.
The fire had burned unchecked in the plenum for a considerable period. There was considerable fuel, primarily electrical cable insulation, for it to sustain itself. The depth of the plenum was approximately four feet. As luck would have it, the building’s HVAC system was shut down for the weekend, so there was not enough air movement for the smoke to activate one of the three detectors in the plenum area in a timely fashion (one detector was activated after fire broke through the ceiling). By the time the fire broke down through the ceiling and set off the smoke and heat detectors, it was already welladvanced. The extensive preburn time; heavy fire loading on the floor (occupied by a banking firm); and the large volume of space (actually increasing by 50 percent when the ceiling gave way) created conditions whereby an aggressive interior handline attack was impossible.
The major destruction was limited to the sixth and seventh floors. The contents on the fire floor were a pile of charred debris, with nothing identifiable remaining except the file cabinets Structural damage to the steel I-beams is noteworthy. The west, east, and crossover buildings sustained heavy smoke damage A very small area of the seventh floor sustained heavy fire damage. The building did not reopen for business for a week following the incident. At this time, all floors in the west building are open except the sixth and seventh; they may reopen by the end of the summer. The first through seventh floors in the west building are fully refurbished and retrofitted with automatic sprinklers
LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED
- Defining and implementing effective fireground strategy is the product of ongoing fire analysis. Commanders must identify alternative strategies and request additional resources far in advance if a strategic shift is to be implemented in a timely manner. Fireground communication —laterally and vertically —is the most important factor in ensuring that the incident commander has the information to implement effective strategy.
- All firefighters at interior high-rise positions must be notified of a shift to an exterior attack strategy. All members in potential danger areas must withdraw into the protected stair shafts away front the fire floor. Make certain all stairway doors are closed. Again, gtxtd fireground communication is essential.
- An outside attack with master streams will drive fire deeper into the building. Defend against it. Close doors leading to uninvolved areas. Place aerial apparatus in defensive positions to cut off fire extension.
- Understand the capability of your available resources. The location of the Bankers Trust tire was within reach of tower ladder streams. A 100-foot tower ladder reaches the level of the 10th floor of most high-rise buildings. An effective stream could provide penetration of the 13th floor. An effective stream—an arcing stream that will penetrate deep into a floor area—is approximately 32 degrees from horizontal. At a 32-degree angle and 50 feet from a building, the stream from a 100-foot tower ladder will provide maximum penetration and enter the building .31.22 feet above the ladder pipe height — the 13th floor.
- Develop alternative strategies tor fires above the effective level of a fire stream from the highest ladder monitor in the high-rise area protected. Such alternatives may include
- an assortment of monitor nozzles placed on the fire floor(s) from the stairway area and left in position to saturate the floor;
- the use of a concrete core cutter (drill) to cut eight-inch-diameter holes in strategic locations in the floor slab through which distributors or large nozzles can be applied without committing personnel; and
—a unique device called a “Lorenzo ladder,” developed by a New York City firefighter specifically for high-rise applications, in which a ladder pipe affixed to an extension ladder is placed outside the building from, and secured to, the floor below. The stream, operated by halyard from the floor below, is directed into the window above.
- Elevator use at high-rise fires requires special training. Only trained firefighters should operate elevators at such incidents. Even experienced firefighters cannot manage all unexpected elevator emergencies, so the IC should be aware of and monitor elevator use through personal contact and communication at all stages of operations. Consider the use of a sector officer to specifically manage elevators in large-scale operations. Monitor smoke conditions in the elevator shafts and revise elevator operations based on changing fire conditions.
Firefighters assigned to attack the fire must terminate their elevator ascent at least two floors below the fire floor. Firefighters operating on the floors above the fire should utilize elevators that do not open onto the tire floor or floor above (i.e., a blind shaft). If the fire is on the seventh floor or below, take the stairs. Carry forcible entry tools when using elevators during a fire operation. (See “Elevator Use” by Elmer F. Chapman, Fire Engineering, November 1988, for a complete article on elevator safety precautions.)
- Losing an interior fire tower to attack the fire is counterproductive and possibly dangerous. Fire towers will draw heat and smoke because of the stack effect, with resultant smoke/heat migration in the stairwell due to pressure and temperature differences inside and outside. This could make the stair shaft untenable for evacuating occupants. In addition, should the fire ventilate itself through exterior windows, the potential for a “blowtorch” aimed directly at firefighters operating front the fire tower is created. (See “Fire in the Empire State Building.” Fire Engineering, November 1990.) Attacking the fire from the proper stair requires knowledge of stair and fire location. Use the fire tower as evacuation stairs because of its enhanced smoke harrier capability.
- Fire threatened the seventh floor of the Bankers Trust building by autoexposure; through chaseways, ductwork, and poke-throughs: and through the Q-deck itself. It is of utmost importance in situations such as this fire to ensure that only experienced companies armed with sufficient fire power operate on the floor above the fire.
- Large volumes of fire require large handlines. SOPs should call for 2’/2-inch handlines at high-rise fires —including for ⅜those personnel operating on the floor above the fire.
- The fire area was approximately 5,800 square feet on the sixth floor. The plenum increases the volume of the space by 50 percent. This amount of hilly involved fire area is too large for manual fire suppression. Fully sprinklered buildings would suppress the fire in its infancy. The use of fire-resistive, full-height partitions to create smaller compartments would limit the spread to an area manageable by handlines. Compartment size of approximately .2,500 to 3,000 square feet would normally be managed by 2‘/2-inch handlines when fully involved.
- Consider sprinklers in the plenum space where extensive cable and wiring are present. Unfortunately, many sprinkler system designers omit placing sprinklers in these “noncombustible concealed spaces.” (Note: High-rise buildings in New York City that were constructed alter 1984 are required to be fully sprinklered. However, these spaces are not considered when local and national fire and building codes apply the term “fully sprinklered.”)
- The use of plenum spaces as a wiring “conduit” is a dangerous, yet common, practice. The use of fire-tested wiring with minimal burning characteristics is called for.
- The use of smoke detectors in airhandling systems (including plenums) is intended to provide shutdown of the “HVAC to prevent transporting smoke throughout the system. In the case of this fire, it is apparent that their use as “area detectors” is very limited—a large fire developed in the plenum and broke through the ceiling before a detector activated.
- Placing too many detection devices on a single alarm zone lengthens the time to locate a fire. Remember what alarm annunciation at the fire alarm control panel is all about—to convey information quickly to responding firefighters.
- Familiarize yourself with the configuration of buildings and complexes in your jurisdiction through preplanning. Locating a fire in a complex with an east and west building with the same address and crossovers was a confusing task for arriving personnel, as was the unexpected location of the west building’s fire command station on the second floor.
- After-hour building occupant sign-in/ out sheets are of critical importance— they give the incident commander a quick idea of how’ many people are in the building and their possible locations. Such lists as well as maintenance/ cleaning supervisors should be sought out by the IC soon after arrival.
- Building personnel should supply master keys to expedite primary search and reduce damage to occupancies. FDNY was able to obtain masters in this incident and use them to their advantage.
- Firefighters should be aware that in older buildings there is the possibility that asbestos may have been used for fireproofing steel structural members. This awareness is especially important during overhaul operations. Preplan notes should indicate whether asbestos is present and, if so, its locations.
- Portions of the building were structurally damaged by the fire. Building inspections department personnel should be called immediately to assess the situation. It is advantageous to have a structural engineer on call to assist the fire department in operations such as these—they can provide valuable assistance, even during the firefight.