Overview of July 1, 1988 Line-of-Duty Deaths in New Jersey
An early report of the tragic fire at a New Jersey auto dealership gives up some critical lessons about bowstring truss failure and rescue operations at large-scale collapse sites.
FIRST-ARRIVING fire companies responding to a report of a fire at the Hackensack, New Jersey Ford dealership found only a minor smoke condition near one of the overhead bay doors in the auto service area. In just over half an hour, five veteran firefighters were trapped and killed under a massive pile of stored auto parts and collapsed roof, ceiling, and truss assemblies.
The July 1, 1988 Hackensack fire was, in terms of firefighter deaths, the worst in northern New Jersey since the 1967 Cliffside Park bowling alley fire that also claimed the lives of five firefighters.
THE INITIAL REPORT
From building occupant reports, it appears that the first indication of fire at the Ford dealership was noticed approximately ten minutes before the call was made to Hackensack’s fire alarm office. Workers detected smoke in the attic space above the building’s auto service bays and at the same time noticed that the light fixtures at the garage ceiling had begun to flicker. Building occupants also noticed flame issuing from one of the automobile exhaust “hoses” at the ceiling level. The hose burned through and dropped to the floor.
The Hackensack fire alarm office received the report of fire from the Ford dealership at 3:01 p.m. Two engines, a tower ladder company, and a battalion chief were dispatched. A total of 13 firefighters responded to the building at 322 River Street.
The Ford dealership, built in 1948, was a 100-foot by 180-foot, irregular-shaped building. The office/sales and shipping/receiving areas at the front of the building were of wood-frame construction. A small secondstory office was located above. The mechanic’s service bay/storage area was of concrete block with wooden bowstring trusses that formed the attic/roof structure. An auto body shop area, at the rear of the building, was of concrete block and steel I-beam construction. (See map on following page.)
FIVE FALL IN HACKENSACK
First-arriving firefighters noted a slight smoke condition coming from an overhead door on the building’s south side. The smoke emanated from an auto parts storage area located above the service bays in the bowstring-truss attic area. This “truss loft,” comprised of five wooden bowstring trusses, was concealed by a heavy ceiling of cementitious material on wire lath.
Initial strategy was to offensively attack the fire in the truss loft. Engines 304 and 301, the firstand second-due engine companies, stretched a 1 Vi-inch line into the building. Attempts to gain access into the truss loft through a scuttle opening in the ceiling failed because debris on top of the scuttle door prevented it from being opened. Another scuttle door was located and, with the use of a 24-foot fire department extension ladder, the handline was advanced into the storage loft.
An additional l-inch handline and a 2‘/2-inch handline broken down to a 1 ½inch line were stretched into the building as backup lines. A 3-inch supply line from a hydrant at East Berry and River Streets laid to Engine 304 provided the water supply for the attack lines.
As firefighters advanced the attack lines into the building, members of Truck Company 307 climbed to the roof of the building to perform vertical ventilation. Moderate smoke was found emitting from a roof ventilator. A power saw and axes were used to open up the roof. A precautionary l’/2-inch handline was used to protect exposures on and around the roof of the building.
A second alarm was sounded at 3:07 p.m. An additional engine company (302) with three firefighters responded. This engine company provided manpower to assist in stretching handlines. A rescue company responded at 3:19 p.m.
Inside the truss loft area, firefighters advancing the l’/i-inch attack line were having great difficulty making penetration. Extreme heat kept them from moving the line to the seat of the fire.
Chief of Department Anthony Aiellos responded to the scene and assumed command. A request for an engine and truck recall was made at 3:27 p.m. Two minutes later, a third alarm was transmitted, bringing the last on-duty engine company (305) to the scene.
Sometime between 3:30 and 3:45 p.m., the cementitious-material-on-wire-lath ceiling in the service bay area collapsed, followed within seconds by collapse of the entire truss roof and the auto parts stored above. It appears that the firefighters who died in this collapse were in the process of leaving the building after orders were given to back out.
There appears to have been no warning of the impending collapse. A videotape recording taken moments before the collapse shows little if any smoke and no fire in the area of the service bay below the truss loft.
FIVE FALL IN HACKENSACK
Photo by Ronald Jeffers.
Foreground operations quickly changed to an all-out rescue effort and defensive containment strategy. All hands were used to locate the trapped brother firefighters and contain the fire.
Due to an immense amount of debris and to what had soon become a very heavy fire condition, access to the five trapped firefighters could not be gained immediately. Numerous handlines were stretched in an attempt to knock down the fire.
A desperate radio message was transmitted by one of the trapped firefighters. Lieutenant Richard Reinhagen, speaking for himself and Firefighter Stephen Ennis, trapped nearby. A return radio message to Lt. Reinhagen went unanswered.
Firefighters attempted to breach a concrete block wall on the exposure 3 side of the.building near the service bay with a battering ram. However, they were unable to locate the trapped firefighters immediately due to the heavy fire conditions and debris.
Rescue efforts continued throughout the operation. The first body was located and recovered at about 4:00 p.m. The last fatality was recovered more than three hours later at 7:10 p.m. The bodies of Lt. Reinhagen and Firefighter Stephen Ennis were found in a closet in a storage area on the exposure 3 side of the building. The bodies of Captain Richard Williams, Firefighter William Krejsa, and Firefighter Leonard Radumski were found in the center of the service bay area.
Due to the growing fire and manpower needs, a recall for the third platoon was placed at 3:38 p.m., and a recall for the fourth platoon was placed at 3:40 p.m. Mutual-aid companies from Teaneck, Bogota. and Ridgefield Park were summoned to Hackensack to assist at the fire scene and cover emptv Hackensack firehouses.
The shift to a defensive containment strategy and rescue effort necessitated a fire attack from the outside of the building. In tactical terms, this exterior attack called into play a tower ladder’s turret pipe, several deck guns, and many largediameter handlines.
Fire eventually destroyed the entire service bay/storage area and the shipping/ receiving area. Heavy damage occurred at the body shop and the sales/office area.
By 7:00 p.m., the fire had been declared under control. Most of the Hackensack fire companies began returning to their firehouses at about 8:30 p.m. The last engine company returned to quarters at about midnight after knocking down the remaining hotspots. A demolition company was brought to the scene to remove the debris, demolish unstable building members, and aid the investigators.
Fire investigators began their fire scene search soon after the fire was extinguished. The arson squad of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office conducted the primary investigation into the fire’s cause. The cause of the fire at the time of this publication has not yet been determined. It appears, however, that it is not of an incendiary nature.
Autopsy reports on the fallen firefighters issued by the Bergen County Medical Examiner’s Office indicate that firefighter deaths were attributable to multiple burn injuries and the toxic effects of carbon monoxide. Evidently, the collapse of the structure onto the firefighters was not the cause of death, but probably a contributing factor.
Reportedly, investigations arc also being conducted by the United States Fire Administration, the New’ Jersey Bureau of Fire Safety, the National Fire Protection Association, and the International Association of Fire Fighters.
BOWSTRING TRUSS CONSTRUCTION
An analysis of fire scene debris has shed some light on bow-string truss construction. The attic truss loft over the service bay was composed of five wooden trusses. It appears that the trusses spanned about 80 feet and did not “run” the entire width of the building. On the exposure 2 side of the building, the trusses were framed into columns; on the other end, the trusses rested on a steel I-beam that ran from east to west. The trusses were spaced approximately 16′ 2″ on center.
The top chord of each truss was comprised of eleven two-by-fours. The bottom chord was made up of ten three-by-sixes. Air spaces were present between the laminated wooden members making up the chords —the two-by-fours and threeby-sixes weren’t “tight.” The top and bottom chords were joined with steel plates and bolts that passed through the wooden members.
Webbing appeared to have been made up of two-by-sixes, but after the collapse it was difficult to determine the webbing network layout.
Videotapes and still photographs taken soon after the collapse indicate that at least three of the five trusses failed approximately five feet from one end of the trusses where the bottom and top chords met. The “breaks” appear to have been caused by loading onto the structure —not by “burn-through.” That is, the collapse evidently was not solely a function of the fire burning the truss. It was, rather, a result of the combination of fire, heavy structural load (stored auto parts), and, possibly, water that may have collected in the truss loft.
Stored auto parts in the truss loft included fenders, radiators, mufflers, wheel rims, bumpers, and other materials. There was no evidence at this time that flammable or combustible liquids were stored in the truss loft.
Originally ran October 1, 1988, in Volume 141, Issue 10.