Driver Hits House, Loses Life Trying to Escape Fire
BY JAMES J. FEATHERSTONE
ERIC S. LAMAR
A driver who crashed into a house died in the resultant fire that heavily damaged the building and destroyed his auto. Two Fairfax County, Va., fire fighters were injured in a dramatic rescue attempt immediately after the accident.
Three engine companies, one truck company and a heavy rescue company were required to bring the fire under control.
The Fairfax County Fire/Police Communications Center received a telephone alarm from the occupant of a single-family dwelling at 4802 Twinbrook Road reporting that an auto had smashed into the lower level wall of his brick .rambler home. Although the caller reported no fire, two engine companies, one truck company and three fire department ambulances were dispatched to the scene.
Ambulance crew arrives
Less than one minute after the alarm was received at 6:25 p.m Nov. 13, 1978, the first fire department unit, an ambulance on a routine assignment in the area, arrived on the scene. The ambulance crew radioed: “We have a car fully involved in a house, with a man trapped.”
A heavy rescue squad company was immediately dispatched and Battalion Chief Haywood C. Johnson responded.
The two fire fighters on the ambulance immediately took steps to rescue the driver of the car, who was slumped, semiconscious, in the front seat of the automobile. Using a dry chemical extinguisher carried on the ambulance, as well as a garden hose stretched from a neighboring home, the two fire fighters fought to suppress the fire and gain access to the victim. Unfortunately, the fire spread at an almost explosive rate, quickly filling the passenger compartment of the vehicle with flames and driving back the two fire fighters.
The victim, who had by now somewhat regained consciousness, crawled out the passenger side window of his auto only to be further trapped by fire and debris. After the fire had been confined, the victim was found, fatally burned, under the rear of the vehicle. The two fire fighters involved in the rescue attempt were rushed to a nearby hospital for treatment of burns and shock.
Fire spreading to attic
First-in Engine 14 found a serious fire problem. Fire had engulfed most of the lower level of the home, as well as the auto, which had penetrated the building. Fire was spreading to the attic via the exterior of the dwelling. Power lines were down and arcing. The immediate response of both the gas and electric companies was requested.
Engine 14 stretched one 1 1/2-inch and one 1 3/4-inch attack line to the lower level of the house. Fire fighters moved in quickly to contain the intense fire in and around the auto. One attack line was then kept in position outside the building to play water on the fuel tank and rear of the vehicle. The second attack line worked to contain the fire involving two large rooms on the lower level of the home.
Three levels involved
Further inspection of the building revealed that fire had also spread to the first floor living room from an interior stairway. It now became apparent that fire involved at least three separate levels of the dwelling. Accordingly, Johnson requested the response of one additional engine company. This special alarm was transmitted at 6:42 p.m., approximately 10 minutes after the start of fireground operations.
Second-in Engine 23 stretched a 1 1/2-inch attack line through the front door and into the first floor living room. The fire in this room was quickly controlled. Engine 23 then advanced its line down an interior hallway and to the attic.
Simultaneously, Truck 8 laddered the building and, using a power saw, cut a ventilation hole in the roof. This rapid ventilation, combined with the application of water from Engine 23’s line, led to the prompt control of the fire in the attic area. A 1 3/4-inch hand line, taken to the roof by the truck company, was used to extinguish small pockets of fire in the roofing materials. Engine 27 arrived on the scene and provided relief manpower. Squad 26 illuminated the emergency scene.
Building collapse feared
Mopup operations on this incident took a bizarre twist. The combination of an auto smashing through two load-bearing walls of the structure and an intense fire had definitely weakened the building. Officials of the Fairfax County building inspector’s office were called to the scene. These experts determined that the structure was not stable and that attempting to remove the wrecked auto could cause collapse of the building.
Members of Engine 14, Truck 8, and Squad 26 worked along with members of the building inspector’s office to construct shoring for the weakened building. Ramps to guide the auto out of the structure were also cut and placed. After these delicate and time-consuming tasks were completed, a tow truck removed the charred vehicle from the building without incident. The last fire dpeartment units left the scene at 12:26 a.m., six hours after the alarm.
An investigation by the Fairfax County fire marshal’s office concluded that the driver of the auto suffered a seizure which caused him to lose control of his auto. The fuel tank of his auto was ruptured and caught fire in the crash.
Fire fighters conducted a formal critique of this incident. That review revealed the following operational strengths and weaknesses:
- First-in fire fighting units made a vigorous and well coordinated initial fire attack. This attack, combined with the rapid establishment of a water supply, led to prompt fire control.
- Summoning building officials to the scene was invaluable. Their knowledge of architecture and construction assured safe removal of the auto from the building.
- Fire fighters arriving on the scene initially, via ambulance, were hampered by a lack of forcible entry tools and protective clothing.
- Considering the questionable structural integrity of the fire building, too many nonessential fire fighters, as well as civilians, were allowed in and around the structure.
As a result of their efforts to save the trapped victim, Fire Fighter II Charles W. Newman and Fire Fighter I Rogers Taylor received silver medals for valor.