Leaking Gas and Explosion Hamper Fire Fighting Efforts

Leaking Gas and Explosion Hamper Fire Fighting Efforts


A 100-year-old building housing a restaurant, offices and apartments in Olean, N.Y., burned when a natural gas leak ignited in a basement kitchen. The building did not have a sprinkler system, and many renovations over the years provided easy avenues for fire spread. Smoke detectors had been installed, however, alerting most tenants in time to evacuate. One was removed by fire fighters.

Constructed of ordinary unprotected materials, the building was of various heights up to three stories in sections.

Someone called the fire department at 2:26 a.m. last Nov. 18, and reported hearing a fire alarm ringing at the Downtown Deli on N. Union St.

Olean Engines 39 and 41, both 1250-gpm pumpers, and Ambulance 235 were dispatched from Central Fire Station. Captain John Washington commanded four fire fighters. Two other fire fighters and Lieutenant Richard White responded from Station 1 with Engine 42, a 1250-gpm pumper, and 75-foot Snorkel 164.

Occupant found

Arriving at the front of the building on Engine 39, Washington reported nothing showing, but after checking the first floor main entrance he found visible smoke. White observed white smoke coming from an exhaust vent on the lower roof at the rear of the building and ordered Engine 42 to lay two 3-inch supply lines from a hydrant on First St. to the rear of the building. While this was being done, Washington and a search crew searched the second and third floors of the building which contained apartments. One occupant was found in a third-floor apartment.

At 2:28 and 2:31 Washington requested a second and third alarm because of heavy smoke conditions and not being able to find the fire. Engine 39 laid two 3-inch supply lines from a hydrant on N. Union to the fire. Fire fighters masked up and advanced a 150-foot preconnected 1 1/2-inch line in the front and down stairs to the basement. The crew found heavy smoke but could not locate the fire.

Vent ilation was started by opening up the sidewalk delivery entrance, and smoke ejectors were placed in the firstfloor front entrance. The crew reentered the basement and found fire burning in the ceiling and knocked this down. Further advancement to the main fire was impossible from this location. White and his crew masked up and advanced a 2 1/2-inch preconnected line from Engine 42 into the basement from the rear. This crew knocked down heavy fire in the kitchen area.

Roof ventilation

At 2:53, EM-222 responded with a crew to the scene under the command of Captain Larry Young. Engine 40, a 1250-gpm pumper responded with a crew under the command of Lieutenant Albert Abdo. After conferring with Washington, Young and his crew, wearing SCBA, entered the basement via the inside stairs. Young observed heavy smoke but low heat conditions in the basement and concluded the fire had spread up the walls to the first floor. His crew exited the basement and advanced a preconnected 1 1/2-inch line from Engine 39 into the first floor. Young exited and conferred with Williams about roof ventilation. Snorkel 164 was repositioned from First St. to the front of the building, and roof ventilation operations were started.

At 3:00, the Allegany and Westons Mills Volunteer Fire Departments were requested to the city stations for standby. Allegany responded under the command of Chief Francis Pezzimenti with Engine 32, a 1500-gpm pumper and Ambulance 232 with crews. Westons Mills responded with Engine 59, a 1250-gpm pumper and Ambulance 208 with crews under the command of Chief Henry Kayes.

Olean UT-265 responded to the scene at 3:08 under the command of Captain John Gibbons (training officer) with four fire fighters. As the department photographer, I also responded at this time. Gibbons’ crew masked up and entered the first floor on the south side. A hole was cut in the floor and a 2 1/2-inch line with a cellar pipe attached was placed in operation.

Young returned to his crew on the first floor. They were successully controlling the fire extension on the first floor. At this time it seemed that control and extinguishment were imminent.


An explosion occurred at appoximately 3:30. Natural gas lines had ruptured. Young stepped into the hallway from the room where his crew was operating and encountered a large blue fireball moving rapidly toward him at ceiling level. He yelled a warning to his crew and exited the building through the front door. Not finding the rest of his crew at the front, Young ordered additional hose lines placed in the front door. Fearing that his crew was trapped, he tried to reenter, but the flames had spread so quickly that he could not gain access to the room. Outside, he found that his crew had safely exited through another door.

The larger portion of the first floor was now heavily involved in open flame which was being fed by ruptured natural gas lines.

At 3:40 it was decided to set up for a defensive attack because the fire was spreading rapidly through the building. Westons Mills Engine 59 was requested to go to the rear of the building. Engine 32 from Allegany was directed to the front of the building. Engine 59 hooked onto a hydrant on First St. with soft suction and pumped into the two 3-inch supply lines laid by Engine 42.

Additional 2 1/2-inch hand lines and portable deluge guns were set up at the rear to protect the Coles Interior Design building from the exposure fire. The two buildings were only separated by an alley 9 feet wide. Engine 32 laid dual 3-inch lines from the fire to a hydrant at N. Union and Laurens. This engine hooked onto the hydrant with 6-inch soft suction. These two lines along with lines from Engines 39 and 40 were used to supply deluge guns, 2 1/2-inch attack lines and the elevating platform.

The Portville Volunteer Fire Department under the command of Chief Robert Jones was requested to respond to the scene at 3:52. They had a pumper with large-diameter hose. Meanwhile, the Hinsdale Volunteer Fire Department under the command of Chief Jim Giberson, and the Town of Olean Volunteer Fire Department under the command of Chief Tom Zink, were requested to respond to the city stations with pumpers for standby.

Couldn’t shut off gas

The Columbia Gas Company arrived at the scene at 4:10, but personnel were unable to shut off the gas at the curb box and had to obtain additional equipment.

Portville laid a 4-inch supply line from the corner of Union and State Sts. to the fire scene, a distance of 800 feet. Portville Engine 58 supplied this line, and a water distributor was placed on the end. One 3-inch line was laid to Engine 40 and another to a portable deluge gun from this supply line. Another 4-inch supply line was laid from Engine 59 to Engine 42 at the rear of the building, a distance of 500 feet. Engine 59 supplied this with three 3-inch lines.

At 4:40, the north wall of the building collapsed against the Coles building next door, breaking out windows on its second loor. Additional 1 1/2-inch lines were laid to the First and second floors of the building to prevent fire extension. A 50-foot bangor ladder was raised on the front of the structure and a 2½ -inch line was stretched to the roof.

Part of building collapsed

The north front corner of the fire building collapsed at 4:47. Fire Fighter A1 Ensell, who was operating the elevating platform, jumped off the turntable to avoid being struck by the debris and injured his ankle. The debris buried hose lines, electric cord reels and a generator. The gas line shutoff was also buried.

Young requested Allegany’s aerial ladder truck to respond to the fire scene. Additional manpower from Hinsdale and the Town of Olean departments responded at 4:54. City of Olean platoon IB was called in two minutes later.

Through continuous pumping to the two aerial devices, numerous deluge guns and 2 1/2-inch hand lines, the Fire was brought under control at 6:00 a.m.

Half an hour later, Ambulance 238 transported Fire Fighter Guy Bennett to St. Francis Hospital where he was admitted for smoke inhalation. He had been in the elevating platform bucket.

By noon, all mutual-aid companies had been released, leaving only city crews for overhaul. Mop-up crews remained on the scene until 7 a.m. Thursday. Damage was estimated at $500,000.

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