Fate Dooms Academy Hall Despite Pre-Fire Plans

Fate Dooms Academy Hall Despite Pre-Fire Plans

Hose crews attack fire in classroom-dormitory building at Valley Forge Military Academy. Progress being made in this photo was ended by collapse of second floor.

Like good firemen, you have done your homework. You have pre-fire planned the building and considered all the problems. But what happens when the security guard doesn’t discover the fire, the person who does discover it must run 3/4 of a mile to report it, and the primary source of water is not available?

For many years the Valley Forge Military Academy has been considered a problem fire hazard area. There have been several major fires on the campus since 1956. As a result, the academy has been the subject of frequent prefire planning operations. The buildings range from small frame classroom ones to a modern steel and concrete gymnasium. Rosso Hall itself was pre-fire planned as recently as midsummer 1970.

Rosso Hall was built in 1903 as a three-story stone house with wood floors and joists, a slate roof, large open stairwells, and complete with hidden passageways. It was approximately 125 X 50 feet with a full cellar under one third of the building and a 4-foot crawl space used for storage and utility lines under two thirds of the building. In addition to classrooms on the first two floors, there were living quarters on the top floor. The nearest hydrant was 100 feet from the building on an 8-inch main. However, the next two hydrants were 1500 feet away.

Sunday morning, February 21, at 2:17 a.m., the Radnor Fire Company was called to a fire at Washington Hall at Valley Forge Military Academy. The firemen found a small fire at a set of double doors leading to the basement. These were 10 feet inside a set of exterior doors. The fire had apparently been started with a flammable liquid. However, the fire was not serious and caused only minor damage.

Second fire reported

While the company was still at Washington Hall, an academy employee reported heavy smoke at Rosso Hall. He and three others, who had been sleeping on the third floor of Rosso Hall, had been awakened by the smoke. He ran 3/4 of a mile to report the fire.

The initial size-up of Rosso Hall by Chief George F. Stewart showed a heavy volume of smoke coming from the northeast corner of the building and a large volume of fire in the basement. Stewart immediately called for the Berwyn and Bryn Mawr Fire Companies.

The first attack was made at the front door, where it was found that the first floor was nearly burned through. Rolling fire could be seen in the basement. The attack was made with an 1 1/2-inch line, which ran out of water.

Radnor’s No. 3 pumper stretched a 3-inch line to a hydrant 100 feet away, hooked up and then found that there was no water in the hydrant. The pumper disconnected and continued to stretch a 3-inch line to the next hydrant, 1500 feet away. However, it ran out of line 50 feet short of the hydrant. Although the line was filled in by an assisting company, this combination of problems resulted in nearly a 15-minute delay in getting water on the fire. With the initial involvement of the fire, this proved fateful.

The northeast end of the building was vented on all three floors, followed immediately by flames issuing from all windows and doors. When water was obtained, fire fighting was done with 1 1/2 and 2 1/2-inch lines, and a significant amount of extinguishment accomplished. However, at this point the second floor collapsed and the walls appeared weakened. The delayed discovery and the delay in obtaining water had taken their toll.

At this time, most of the small lines were shut down, and ladder pipes and 2 1/2-inch hand lines were used. Newtown Square, King of Prussia, Paoli, and Malvern Fire Companies were called for additional water supply and fire fighting. The fire, aided by a fresh north wind, worked through the length of the building. Bit by bit, the roof and remaining floors all collapsed into the basement.

Two major problems

Entry into the basement was attempted, but the delay in obtaining adequate water and the danger of entering the crawl space prevented any substantial fire fighting effort here.

Two major problems contributed to the loss of this building: delayed discovery and delayed water. The academy has a security guard at night and in the pre-fire planning, it was presumed that there would be a reasonably rapid discovery of any fire. Because of the substantial involvement of the fire, the use of an accelerant was not ruled out. Secondly, the lack of water in the nearest hydrant and the hose shortage at the secondary hydrant resulted in a delay in obtaining water. It was later discovered that the dry hydrant, a private one maintained by the academy, had been shut off at the main.

The pre-fire plan was followed in that the mutual aid companies were called and the secondary sources of water were used as planned. However, in spite of the planning, there were problems beyond both the anticipation and control of the fire company which prevented a successful fire fighting effort.

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