CONSTRUCTION FEATURES CONTRIBUTE TO FIRE SPREAD IN OLD TENEMENTS
The use of accelerants apparently gave the fire its swift start. Then balloon construction and non-fire-stopped walls helped it spread.
Ten engine companies and three ladder companies fought for seven hours to extinguish a blaze in three turn-of-the-century tenement buildings in Cincinnati last May 25.
Two fire fighters were injured. One suffered smoke inhalation when forced to remove his SCBA facepiece due to an empty air cylinder while he was fighting fire on a roof. The other suffered back strain and was taken to a local hospital by Rescue 14.
Fire fighters were ordered out of the building of fire origin between the third and fourth alarms when fire was found to be in all four walls and fire officials feared it would collapse. Several hand lines had to be abandoned during the fire attack.
Fire originated near the western wall in the rear basement of a two to three-story frame structure, 45 feet long by 15 feet wide at 1546 Harrison Ave. according to fire officials. This building had a metal roof.
Fire rapidly spread in both directions — first from a common wall in the rear shared by 1546 and 1544. This building, a one to three-story brick structure 83 feet long by 25 feet wide with a metal roof, was linked to the fire building by the common wall which contained no fire stops and had unprotected vertical and horizontal openings behind the walls, as well as open stairs. Neither building had fire protection systems installed.
Fire also spread west to a 3 X 4-foot wooden inset on the second-floor east wall of 1548 Harrison. This building was a two-story brick (except for the inset) structure, 58 X 27 feet with a built-up roof. This building, which housed a restaurant on the first floor and residential apartments on the second, was separated from the fire building by a 5-foot-wide areaway. The areaway contained concrete stairs and a walkway for residents of 1548, 1546 and 1544 to get to the rear entrances of these buildings, which were 12 feet below street level. Also, the two-story wood staircase and porch built onto the west wall of the fire building — the main means of entrance and exit for the inhabitants of these buildings— were contained in the area.
According to investigators, fire spread across the areaway from the building of origin to 1548 by convection and radiation. Flame came out the four basement windows of the fire origin building and, aided by tar-backed decorative brick on that building, burned up the west wall and burned through the two-story exterior wood stairs. Fire then spread from the wood stairs and porch on the fire origin building and flashed over into the 3X4foot one-story wood inset containing a bathroom and an adjoining bedroom next door. Fire lines were then ordered up into the building and also up onto the roof, which was ventilated at this time, permitting advancing of hand lines into the fire area.
Fire damage to 1548 was confined to the inset and to wood window frames on the building’s east side. Damage to the building’s first-floor interior would have been much worse, say fire officials, had the windows on the inside of the restaurant and bar not been covered with drywall during an earlier renovation process.
Fortunately, the heavy damage was confined to the fire origin building and the building with which it shared the common wall. Fire fighters were able to prevent the fire from spreading to a 20 X 30-foot two-story-plus-attic brick structure with a metal roof at 1540 Harrison. This building also shared a common wall with 1544, but it sustained only light smoke and water damage.
The first alarm
Cincinnati Fire Communications dispatched first-alarm companies. Engines 21, 12, Ladder 13 and the second district chief, at 3:28 a.m. to a building fire reported to them by out-of-town passersby to be near the busy intersection of Westwood and Harrison Aves. (directly across from the fire building).
Engine 21, which had just minutes earlier returned from a dumpster fire on Queen City Ave., about 350 feet from the rear of the fire building, had not noticed anything showing there as it had headed back to quarters.
Although fire fighters say they detected an urgency in the fire dispatcher’s voice, they remembered a recent false alarm run in the area. “We weren’t sure what we d find when we got there, lust two weeks earlier we had a box pulled at the same location. When we arrived there (to a building directly across from the fire buildings on Harrison) a man waved us down for a fire on the roof. So we started laying hose. Women were carrying their kids out and screaming and pointing to the fire on the roof. We found nothing,” explained one engine company member.
This time, as they pulled from their State Ave. firehouse 0.2 mile away and passed the fire origin building from the rear, first-in Engine 21 and Ladder 13 saw a large volume of fire and smoke on the outside of the building. En route to the fire the engine company’s acting lieutenant, William C. Schneider, called in a code three. This got him an additional engine company as well as one rescue unit.
“It flashed over while we were in there, and we had to abandon our lines to get out. Then we repositioned the ladder and took another line and started into the window…
According to engine company member Ed Hasminster, “The basement was totally involved, but above that most of the fire was going up the exterior of the building. When we turned the corner, we saw a lot of fire coming out windows and going up the back of the building. ‘
Immediately, Engine 21 laid a 5-inch line from the hydrant to the pumper in front of the fire building on Harrison. Although the fire was in the rear of the fire building on the Queen City Ave. side, a large column of fire was found between 1548 and 1546 Harrison, which necessitated initial attention to protect these exposures. Also, the rear and front of these buildings weren’t easily accessible from a single location, and it was believed by first-in companies that a search for occupants and rescue attempts would best be carried out by responding to the Harrison Ave. side.
The company’s first two lines, five sections of 1 ½ and five sections of 1 ¾ -inch, were positioned to attack the fire in the areaway between the fire origin building and 1548 to cover 1548 as well as to fight the fire in the origin building.
Schneider said that he and another man “were there for quite some time, maybe up to a half hour Another member of the company was trying to work a IVHnch line down the exterior stairs. He had more of a shot at the basement. I was more concerned with the fire exposure the first half hour.
“I considered 1546 gone when I arrived. That’s why I was concerned with exposures. At one time, two of us were covering exposures at street level. For the first 15 minutes we didn’t go anywhere but stood there and fought the fire right at the sidewalk. Then we finally advanced two fire fighters with 1 ½-inch hose down the stairs (through the exterior stairs leading to the rear). Another man and I advanced five sections of 1 ¾ -inch hose up the fire escape and into the second floor (Harrison Ave. street level).”
There they searched for fire and found no extension at that time.
The fire escape, which spanned 1544 and 1540, was the fire fighters’ only means of entrance on the Harrison side of these two buildings because the exterior wood staircase on the west wall of 1546 was about a quarter of the way burned through on arrival.
Said one engine company member, “We finally accomplished getting to the bottom of the steps and getting the basement fire knocked out. We worked our way to the back of the building and by then companies were coming in the rear and you could see where it burned through the joists and was now in the next building, 1544.
Responding from 2 miles away, Second District Chief Terry Folzenlogen arrived soon after the first-in engine and ladder companies. As he pulled up to the scene, he called for the second alarm at 3:32 a m. This accomplished, he set up a command post in front of the fire building.
Next, he noted there was a basement fire in the fire origin building and then determined from the first-in companies that there had been a total evacuation of the building.
“At 3:39,1 called for the third alarm and radioed for the second-in ladder company on the second alarm (Ladder 8) to set up a ladder pipe to cover the exposure building,” said Folzenlogen, at the same time notifing the third-in engine company (Engine 17 on the code three to supply Ladder 8 with water for their ladder pipe and to attack the basement fire.
Walls not fire-stopped
“I called for the third alarm,” he explained, “because of extreme heat on the inside of the first and second floors of the fire building, 1546, and the adjoining building, and because of fears that later proved true —the walls were not firestopped and contained fire. There was extreme heat in the first and second floors of the fire building and the adjoining building, 1544, because of all the fire in the walls.
“There was not any fire showing on the interior of either of these two buildings, except in the rear basement area,” said Folzenlogen.
But the amount of heat and its intensity immediately told Folzenlogen that the fire origin building was balloon construction.
At the same time Engine 21 was laying its first hose lines, Ladder Company Lieutenant Ralph Green (once certain no one was still inside the fire building) ordered his company to raise their 100-foot aerial ladder to 1548 and to take a 2 ½-inch line, along with Engine 12, to cover exposures from the top.
Because many windows had broken out from the intense heat inside the fire origin building. Green said his company did not have to ventilate. “It ventilated itself,” he said.
When the ladder company saw fire coming through the roof on the east side of 1548’s inset, as fire flashed over in that area, Ladder 13 opened it up at the northeast corner to hit the fire inside, he said.
1546 and 1544 were also ventilated.
According to Folzenlogen, who had command of the Harrison Ave. side of the fire, in the fire’s initial stages Engine 14 ventilated the roof of 1540 by breaking into a shaft near a set of stairs and removing a chute.
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—by Ed Effron.
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Later Ladder 8 ventilated the rear windows of 1544 on the west side by using ceiling hooks and axes to remove boards from them and to gain entry into the building at that location.
On the fourth alarm, Engine 19 raised a 35-foot ladder to the rear of 1544 and tried to ventilate it but failed because the metal roof was hot and spongy. Later, this same company raised a 24-foot ladder to the west side of the roof and vented it by making a 1 X 1-foot and a 1 X 2-foot hole up there, “just to pull back the metal to see what we had underneath. But by that time the front part of the roof had collapsed,” said Captain George lansen, acting District 3 chief and rear operations commander that morning.
Engine 17 and third-alarm companies responding to 1546, off Queen City Ave., found access a problem. A narrow 150foot drive, which ended in a 20 X 30-foot lot behind the buildings, provided the only means of access to the rear of the buildings for fire apparatus.
Engine 17, positioned 500 feet from the fire building on Queen City Ave., was the first company dispatched to 1546. On arrival, this company saw heavy smoke coming from the second-story windows.
Engine 17 s officer, Lieutenant Ron Troeger, entered the rear of 1544 Harrison by breaking out subbasement windows on the building’s west side, using ceiling hooks and axes, hoping to find the seat of the fire. Instead, he found himself and his company in the area behind the fire.
“We could see flames above us, and really dense smoke as well, Troeger said. Crawling over boxes of stored materials, this crew finally broke down a garage door from the inside to get enough visibility to find a stairway to make their way to the fire area on the next floor with 1 ¾ -inch hose.
“It flashed over while we were in there,” he explained, “and we had to abandon our line to get out. Then we repositioned the ladder and took another line (five sections of 1¾ -inch with an automatic nozzle) and started into the window of the second floor of 1544 Harrison.”
Troeger added that the old, doublehung windows ⅛1 the rear of these buildings were difficult for fire fighters to enter, “We kept repositioning these ladders, since we were having trouble getting in the windows with air tanks on our backs. We were using two ladders. We stepped off one onto the other so we could position ourselves. We had one ladder alongside the window and we put the other ladder immediately below the sill, flush. We stepped onto that ladder to get into the building.”
Observed Troeger: “Something that really hampered our operation in the rear was that our front-line pumper, which has a monitor nozzle on it, was in the municipal garage having pump packings repaired. If we had had a monitor nozzle in the rear, I think we could have made a much quicker attack and we could have laid 5-inch hose, which we carry on our front-line pumper, and got in a better position than we were in. We could have done a much better job.”
When Chief Norman L. Wells arrived between the third and fourth alarms, he took over the front command post and ordered Folzenlogen to direct fire fighting activities inside 1546. “Shortly after I went inside,” Folzenlogen said, “I had the guys make a hole in each wall and I determined that there was fire in each wall. I radioed this information to the chief and he ordered the building evacuated.”
Fire fighters then abandoned 1546 and concentrated on an exterior attack on that building and an interior attack on the fire in 1540. Master streams were set up directly in front of the fire buildings and behind them. The Engine 21 monitor and the Engine 14 water tower were operated in front while the Ladder 8 ladder pipe and the Engine 5 water tower were positioned in the rear.
While arson is strongly suspected as a cause of this fire, the Cincinnati fire investivative unit says that the fire is still under investigation. According to the investigative unit’s commander, Captain James Camm, the fire originated in the northwest area of the rear basement in 1546 Harrison, where what appeared to be accelerant burns were found. Similar accelerant burns also were found in a center room in the basement and also on a small set of stairs leading into a front basement room housing utility meters.
The ignition source is still undetermined and so is what was ignited.
Fire investigators, with the help of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials are also checking out the possibility of an explosion just inches west of the point of fire origin, where a 3-foot area of the left basement wall is bowed out about 6 inches. A small quantity of silver dust was found in this area. “Most fire is in line with the explosion,” says Gamm.