Closed Sprinkler Valves Blamed In 5-Alarm Cotton Warehouse Fire
Closed sprinkler valves were cited as a major factor in the rapid spread of a fire in a cotton warehouse in New Orleans. Sprinkler system valves were closed in two sections of the Warehouse Corporation of America, 5630 Douglass Street. However, the sprinkler system was in operation in an adjoining section of the two-story hollow clay block building and prevented the fire from spreading through the 900-foot-long structure.
An automatic 1-11 general alarm sounded at 4:09 p.m. on March 31, 1974, brought out Engines 39, 43, 24, 42 and 8, Ladder 3 and the 3rd District chief. First companies responding reported a working fire involving two sections of the warehouse which was heavily loaded with baled cotton.
A 2-11 alarm at 4:17 p.m. dispatched Engines 9, 28 and 7, Ladder 11, the Rescue Squad, Flying Squad, Salvage Unit, Emergency Unit, the 1st District chief and the deputy chief.
Master streams used
It was immediately apparent that the fire had gained considerable headway and master stream appliances were immediately put into use. These included deluge sets on both sides of the building as well as articulating water towers.
A 3-11 alarm at 4:24 p.m. brought out Engines 29 and 6 and Assistant Chief Fred A. Reiser. The warehouse had large doorways on both sides in each section and these offered some access to the interior. One side of the warehouse presented little exposure problem because it faced an open area. The other side, however, was of major concern, for it was only 50 feet from another portion of the complex. The exposed area was also heavily loaded with baled cotton.
A 4-11 alarm at 4:29 p.m. dispatched Engines 3 and 16, the 7th District chief, Administrative Deputy Chief Nolan J. Delatte and Chief of Department William J. McCrossen. A 5-11 alarm was called for at 4:36 p.m. for Engines 5 and 47.
Because of the tremendous fire load and the number of heavy-caliber streams used, water supply became a problem. The warehouse complex was near the Mississippi River, and Fireboats 801 and 802 were requested at 4:54 p.m. to supplement the water supply.
Extra companies were called for at 4:57 p.m. and 5:03 p.m., bringing in Engines 2, 27 and 14, and the 2nd District chief. Three of the engine companies on the scene were equipped with articulating water towers and these, along with the ladder pipes of Ladders 3 and 11, were placed in operation adjacent to the building. Access to the Lamanche Street side of the building was limited because that street was closed at Douglass Street, with the remainder of Lamanche Street being considered a part of the warehouse complex. Access was available only through large sliding doors.
New Orleans Fire Department photos
Of major concern during fire fighting operations was the presence of a 100,000-gallon water tank adjacent to the sections of the warehouse which were involved in fire. As the fire broke through the roof of the building, the supports of the water tank, elevated 100 feet above the ground, were directly exposed to the intense heat of the blaze. The fire fighters in this area were ordered to leave their master stream appliances in operating position and to withdraw to safer positions. When it was determined that the major danger was past, the men were again assigned to their original positions.
Lines taken inside
Entry was gained through the exterior of sections 3 and 6 of the building, and hose lines were advanced to the interior of these two sections to make sure that the fire was not spreading. These lines were also used to attack the main body of fire through secondfloor fire doors which separated the individual sections of the warehouse.
New Orleans Fire Department photo.
The fire was declared under control by Chief McCrossen at 5:41 p.m. As overhaul operations began, the main sprinkler valves for the two sections involved were examined and found to be shut off. In addition, a malfunction of the fire door between sections 3 and 4 prevented this door from closing. However, since the sprinkler system in section 3 was operating, the fire was checked at this point when several heads opened.
Breach in fire wall
Heads also were found open in section 6 where a small breach in the fire wall allowed some fire spread. This spread was also checked by the sprinkler system and by the men who were operating an interior hand line in this location.
Overhaul operations lasted several days, with companies being relieved on the scene. The combination of the sprinkler system and the tenacious fire fighters on the scene was credited with saving the major portion of the structure and its contents. On the scene were 17 engine companies, two ladder trucks, four special units and eight chief officers. Approximately 100 members of the department fought this fire.
Ironically, another major fire was averted in the same complex on May 9 through the use of the sprinkler system. Gasoline was being loaded into a forklift truck when an explosion occurred, spraying flaming gasoline over cotton bales. This time nine heads were activated, and by the time Engine 39 arrived, the fire had been controlled.