Gas Spreads Fire in New Orleans
—photos by Chris Mickal.
A major disaster in New Orleans was averted by a five-alarm assignment after a leaking gas main caused a rapidly spreading fire in a residential block. Chief William J. McCrossen called the fire “one of the most dangerous situations faced by the New Orleans Fire Department in many years.”
The incident was touched off when a crack developed in a low pressure 16inch gas main in an older residential section of the city. Leaking gas seeped underground until it saturated several buildings in the area. A source of ignition was apparently found in the garage of a two-story residence and an explosion followed. Fire erupted in the street simultaneously.
The New Orleans Fire Department’s communications center received the first call at 6:10 p.m. Newly instituted Task Force 1, consisting of Engines 19 and 25 and Ladder 7, and 6th District Chief John Alfortish were immediately dispatched. Numerous additional calls which reported an explosion and fire of major proportions triggered a full firstalarm response. This was dispatched at 6:13 p.m. and consisted of Engines 38,41 and 35 and the Flying Squad.
Engine 19, the first company on the scene, reported a two-story residence fully involved in fire and requested an immediate response of representatives of the local utility company. At 6:15 p.m., Engine 19 reported an apparent major gas leak and several explosions.
When Alfortish arrived, he requested a second alarm. The 2-11 at 6:17 p.m. brought to the scene Engines 34,11 and 15, Ladder 10, the Rescue Squad, Salvage Unit, Hose Tender, 4th District Chief William Sanderson and acting Deputy Chief William Dillenkoffer. Responding companies were notified of the leaking gas and explosions while en route.
Engine 19 connected to a hydrant at Panola and Burdette Streets and immediately set up a master stream appliance in front of the main fire building. Ladder 7 set up a ladder pipe at this location that was also supplied by Engine 19.
Engine 25 connected to a hydrant at Burdette and Sycamore Streets and operated a 2 1/2-inch hand line on the side of a second residence which had become fully involved.
Leaking gas was burning freely in numerous locations throughout the length of the block and minor explosions continued to occur. Search and rescue operations were begun immediately and were intensified as first-alarm companies continued to arrive on the scene.
Due to gas collecting under structures, the older wood frame construction and the close proximity of buildings, the fire spread to involve several sheds behind residences in the 7700 block of Panola Street. A double residence at 7737-39 Panola Street also became heavily involved.
Engine 38 connected to a hydrant at Adams and Panola Streets and stretched a 2 ½-inch line to an alley leading to the side of the main fire building along with another line supplying a master stream appliance on Panola Street.
Engine 41, with a deck-mounted master stream nozzle, was placed in operation in front of the main fire building, supplied by Engine 25. Two additional hand lines were also placed in operation from Engine 41 at this location.
Portable hydrant set up
Engine 35 stretched a 600-foot hand line from Engine 38 to the rear of the main fire buildings. The Flying Squad, with a complement of eight men, continued search and rescue operations until it was ascertained that no one was left inside any of the buildings involved or threatened. At that time, the crew was divided to assist in setting up additional master stream appliances.
As second-alarm companies began to arrive on the scene, the Hose Tender’s portable hydrant was positioned near Ladder 7 on Burdette Street, and a 700-foot supply line of 5-inch hose was laid to Engine 34 at Spruce and Burdette Streets.
A two-story building at Burdette and Sycamore Streets became involved in fire when leaking gas ignited and a gas meter on the side of the building exploded. According to witnesses, the effect was “like a giant blowtorch” which sent flames up the side of the building and into the attic. Engine 34’s crew and the Flying Squad stretched four lines to a two-story residence next door to form a water curtain. This operation was successful in stopping the fire spread at that point.
Engine 11 connected to a hydrant at Neron Place and Burdette Street and made a double forward lay of 2 ½-inch hose. A 150-foot hand line was stretched to the left of the main fire buildings and preparations were begun to supply master stream appliances, which were en route.
Engine 15 connected to a hydrant at Sycamore and Adams Streets and stretched a hand line to the left rear of the main fire building. The major objective was to protect two two-story residences which were severely threatened. Two additional lines were laid to supply the ladder pipe of Ladder 10, which was in the middle of the 7700 block of Sycamore Street.
The third alarm was struck at 6:20 p.m., bringing in Engines 26, 14, the Emergency Unit, Deputy Chief Harold E. Funck, Assistant Chief Nolan J. Delatte and Chief of Department McCrossen. McCrossen established a command post on Burdette Street near the main fire buildings.
Engine 26 connected to a hydrant at Burdette and Sycamore Streets and also used a supply line from a hydrant at Sycamore and Fern Streets. Engine 26 then supplied the deluge set of Ladder 10, which was placed at Burdette and Sycamore Streets.
More lines stretched
Engine 14 hooked up to a hydrant at Panola and Lowerline Streets. One 600-foot hand line was stretched up a side alley from Panola Street to the side of the first fire building. It was used initially to protect exposures and then to attack the main body of fire.
The fourth alarm at 6:22 p.m. brought in Engines 3 and 23. Engine 3 took a hydrant at Fern and Panola Streets and stretched a 700-foot hand line of 2½inch hose to the side of the fire buildings, using another side alley. An additional 2½ -inch line was stretched to the master device of Engine 14 on Panola Street.
Engine 23 connected to a hydrant at Spruce and Adams Street and supplied Engine 38 through a 500-foot line of 2 ½-inch hose.
Fifth alarm struck
The fifth alarm was sounded at 6:35 p.m., bringing in Engines 1 and 16. Engine 16 connected a 600-foot hand line to Engine 3 and stretched the line down Panola Street to the rear of the fire building.
Engine 1 connected to the hydrant at Sycamore and Lowerline Streets and stretched a 400-foot, 2 1/2-inch supply line to Engine 15.
At 6:37 p.m., Ladder. 5 was specialcalled to the scene for additional manpower.
After bringing the fire under control, companies remained on the scene overhauling for several hours. One company was kept at the scene through the following day on a two-hour rotation basis.
McCrossen described the fire scene as an “inferno” when he arrived and described the lack of any loss of life or serious injury as a miracle.
In a message sent to all fire stations, he commended the actions of men on the scene, “Words cannot express the depth of my pride in each and every one of you for your outstanding displays of courage and professionalism.”
McCrossen also commended the cooperation from the New Orleans Police Department, which was assigned to evacuation of the area and crowd control.
“We were indeed fortunate in controlling this fire,” the chief said.
Because February 7 was Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans, a high level of preparedness existed within the department. In addition, most residents were not home when the explosion occurred. The final Mardi Gras parade had just been canceled because of the severe weather conditions when the explosion occurred, so most residents were still waiting along the parade route.
“Had this not been Mardi Gras Day, with people away from their homes, there is little doubt in my mind that we would have had severe injuries and possibly several fatalities,” McCrossen commented.
Fireground operations consisted of attempts to protect exposures while not extinguishing the burning gas. This was impossible in one location, where the two-story residence at Sycamore and Burdette Streets became heavily involved when a large gas meter exploded.
First companies arriving immediately attempted to cover exposures, and as additional companies arrived on this scene, this concept was reinforced. The final result was four buildings heavily damaged; the two originally involved in fire and the two buildings on the corners of Burdette and Sycamore and Burdette and Panola Streets. There was no further extension of the fire in the block, and although gas was burning freely in the street for quite some time, the fire did not involve any structures across Burdette Street from the original fire buildings.
The total response included 14 engine companies, three ladder companies and five special units. More than 120 members of the department were involved in the operation and three of them received minor injuries.