Manhattan Residence Hotel Fire


The fire building, a 10-story, 100' x 100’, H-shaped dwelling, gave no evidence of fire conditions on the first floor to arriving firefighters. Photo by Tony Bruno.

Manhattan Residence Hotel Fire

First-floor fire causes fatalities nine floors above, reinforcing firefighting and fire prevention basics.

January 11 was a typically cold day and threatened to get colder as night fell on the midtown Manhattan skyscrapers. The tours had changed, and the evening crews of the New York City Fire Department had begun meals in the station kitchens.

Fire damage to offices and halls of the first floor was severe.

Official FDNY photo.

At 8:19 p.m., an alarm was received for fire at a high-rise residential building at 135 E. 50th Street, a 10-story, 100-foot by 100foot, H-shaped building. Commercial spaces occupied most of the first floor, and tenant apartments located on the second through tenth floors were served by two elevators and two enclosed stair shafts.

Before the night zoas over, the Nezv York City Fire Department dispatched more than 20 pieces of equipment carrying more than 200 firefighters to the scene. The fivealarm fire required more than five hours to bring to a conclusion. Wlmt originated as a first-floor fire claimed the lives of four civilians, three of whom zvere on the uppermost floors above the fire. Hundreds of civilians trapped within the structure zvere removed by portable ladders and down fire escapes. For most of the fire fight effort, the two stairzvays and the elevator shafts were untenable for human occupancy. Fourteen firefighters were placed on medical leave for operationalrelated injuries.

In New York City, as is the case in other areas of the country, there are numerous high-rise residential buildings. We have many fires and emergencies within them every day. Most are controlled with one handline or with an extinguisherrelative routine and non-newsworthy events. Unfortunately, one percent of these fires are severe, requiring tenacious, coordinated attacks that tax the capabilities of any large department and its personnel.

One of the frustrating realities of the fire service’s interface with the nation’s construction industry is that the designers of high-rise residential and office buildings (with the aid of Mother Nature and the laws of physics) have created perfect flues. These chimneys can make for blowtorch conditions in the vertical arteries that are needed for the firefighting effort and for civilian evacuation.

The spread of heat and smoke at this particular fire was greatly increased by the local practice of chocking the doors to stairways open at the lobby floor. Three civilian deaths occurred at the 9th and 10th floors, well above the firstfloor fire location.

The first arriving units did not have any obvious signs of fire at the street location. The 10-footsquare entrance area was also free of smoke and heat conditions.

Exposure 1

There were no indications that, behind the inner set of doors, tremendous heat and toxic byproducts, generated by a fire that was consuming all contents of the lobby and its surrounding rooms and offices, awaited them.

As the inner doors were opened, a wall of heat and smoke rushed toward the street. The 2Vi-inch handline looked small in comparison to the fireball that now roared overhead and into the street. A second handline was ordered, stretched and positioned to move into the lobby in unison. A second alarm was transmitted. The ladder company members inched through the doors to begin a primary search.

Firefighters entering the second floor from the exterior made their way to the public hall and stair shafts. They reported that the stairs to the upper floors were untenable, and that roof venting would be the only relief. It was later found that the heat was so intense that it had set fire to the linen standpipe hose on a few of the floors above the fire area.

The 10-story building was beyond the reach of the aerial ladders at the scene. Roof access was mandatory and innovation was needed.

Ladder company personnel ascended the 25-story high-rise residential building adjacent to the fire building on the exposure 2 side. Arriving at a floor parallel to the roof of the fire building, they opened the necessary windows and stepped across to the roof of the fire building. After opening the bulkhead doors to the stair and elevator shafts, conditions below became more bearable.

Additional ladder company and rescue company personnel arrived and were ordered to search the floors above the fire. The life hazard throughout the structure was the primary consideration. To deal with this, the all-out effort of extinguishing the first-floor fire was considered to be the most important life-saving action of the operation.

Reports from the second floor indicated that there was no apparent extension.

A third alarm was transmitted, and units were advised that they would be needed for the search and evacuation effort on the nine floors above this fire. Violent eruptions of fire were occurring on the fire floor, and several of the firstarriving engine company personnel were burned. Incoming units were quick to relieve the positions of the three advancing handlines. The attack continued.

Additional lines were stretched into the fire building to protect the second floor and into the high-rise exposure to protect it from extension should fire have broken out at the roof level of the fire building.

An unusual condition was found at this 10-story, fire protected structure: There were three fire escapes (uncommon in such tall residences) located on the structure. This turned out to be an extremely fortunate factor.

Many civilians exited the building using the 10-story fire escapes.

Photo by Tony Bruno.

The distorted steel I-beams in the one-story extension give evidence of the tremendous heat conditions.View from the roof of the one-story extension at exposure 3 side. The skylight posed a severe autoexposure problem to the upper floors. Photos by Tony Bruno.

Members have been seriously injured and have lost their lives attempting to reach upper floors of highrise buildings in w’hich the interior stair integrity could not be or was not maintained.

The firefighters at the roof level reported that fire was venting vertically out of the roof of a one-story extension at the rear of the first floor.

There was a serious autoexposure problem. They further reported that there was a serious smoke and heat condition on the uppermost floors and that help was needed to force entry, vent, and search many apartments. This was transmitted as an “URGENT” message, and a rescue and ladder company were immediately assigned to that location.

The importance of this “URGENT” communication cannot be overemphasized. It provided the officer in command ^ith the sad but vital information :hat stairway integrity’ v/as still lacking, and that smoke and heat rising in these flues kept the stair shafts untenable for fire forces and certainly posed a continued deadly threat to the building’s civilians. The teams advancing three handlines on the first floor had to make eveneffort to reach the stair openings on each side of the building and establish control from these points.

To continue to aggressively attack. search and vent all the floors above the fire, and to relieve the exhausted first-arriving members, additional alarms were transmitted.

Firefighters searching the building found the first victim in the stairwell leading from the lobby to the second floor. Shortly thereafter, three more victims were found in the stair shaft and hallway locations at the 9thand 10thfloor levels. This emphasizes the absolute necessity for a rapid, continuous, and aggressive multiline attack by the engine companies and the need for ladder units to quickly gain access to and search the interior stairs and halls, especially on the uppermost floors above the fire. These areas, though often grueling and punishing for the firefighters, most often claim the lives of civilians exiting the relative safety of their apartments.

Initial problems:

  1. Large area of fire on arrival.
  2. Solution: Transmit multiple alarms, stretch and advance more than one hoseline in unison.

  3. Visibility.
  4. Solution: Special call units with the best lighting equipment available early in the operation.

  5. Communication.
  6. Solution: Establish a command channel early, assign a search communication coordinator; exercise radio discipline; use urgent messages when necessary.

  7. Reports of multiple life-exposures at many locations.

Solution: Deploy additional searching units; coordinate simultaneous entry to occupied areas— stair, ladder, and fire escape. Effective size-up based on communication will identify life priorities.

Contributing factors and other major problems:

  1. Chocked open, fireproof, selfclosing doors in the lobby leading to the enclosed stair shafts; doors to various floors were also found chocked open.
  2. Solution: Law enforcement and the education of the public is a major factor in many tires in these occupancies. Negative reinforcement in the form of heavy fines or court action is encouraged.

  3. Heavy smoke and heat rising through the interior arteries and mushrooming on the upper floors.
  4. Solution: Call for new laws requiring automatic or remote-control skylights at the top of all arteries designed to traffic human occupancy. This would be difficult to make retroactive, but it is strongly recommended for consideration in new construction on a national basis.

    Photo by Tony Bruno.

  5. Large and complex areas to force entry and search. Adoption by the public of heavy security door (MulT-Lock) assemblies.
  6. Solution: Call for additional personnel to provide for forcible entry, search, evacuation, laddering, and rescue operations. A new forcible entry tool —the”Rabbit Tool” —worked extremely well at this fire. Over 100 apartment entrance doors had to be forced, and relying on conventional methods with hand tools would have made this job much more time-consuming. The importance of obtaining a master key or keys cannot be overemphasized.

  7. Unexpected heavy fire loading on the first floor. Offices contained the highest fire loading possible.
  8. Solution: Limit light commercial use groups in residential buildings. Segregate occupancies of this type by fire walls and double-door enclosures. Mandate sprinkler systems, at least for those commercial occupancies within the structure.

  9. Heavy fire on arrival, with many turns in direction negating the momentary use of large-caliber streams.
  10. Solution: A disciplined, coordinated frontal attack is necessary, with the use of multiple handlines dependent on space available. This is a dangerous operation and if, after attempting, progress is impossible, isolate the fire area and enter from an alternate location.

  11. Autoexposure.
  12. Solution: Windows located directly over venting fire should be left intact.

  13. Extreme drafts caused by cold weather and high-rise construction.
  14. Solution: Support new architectural developments and procedures to effect the efficient and safe removal of smoke in high-rise occupancies. This is a complex problem and, according to Chief Elmer Chapman, recognized expert on smoke control and highrise building firefighting, “No such system presently exists…. [At this time,] sprinkler systems are the only answer.”

  15. Injuries —Firefighters suffer burn injuries early and effects from smoke and exhaustion later on in the firefight.
  16. Solution: Improve entry protective clothing; use lightweight, one-hour positive-pressure breathing devices. All ranks must master the art and timeliness of rest and relief of fire forces.

  17. Minimum personnel assigned.
Stairway A at the lobby level. A common practice of chocking these doors contributed to severe vertical spread of heat and smoke and to the deaths of four civilians.

Solution: Educate government and fire service personnel to realize and be able to address the complex problems that fires in these structures can cause. Reductions in personnel and equipment in these areas of high concentrations of humanity are only cost-effective if there are no fires. The difficulties and complex operations involved at fires within these structures demand the rapid mounting of an aggressive fire attack that must be supported by a continuous supply of personnel and logistics. The ramifications of not being able to accomplish this are too horrible to imagine. Reducing personnel and equipment in these areas exacerbates a serious fire and enormous life safety problem.

Smoke removal in high-rise buildings is a complex problem. Chief Elmer Chapman believes that “sprinklers are the only answer.”

This fire, though complex and extremely life-threatening, reinforced many lessons for the fire service. Many are basic to all engine and ladder company functions, but may bear repeating.

Engine company operations:

  1. When first entering an occupancy in which there are indications of high heat and heavy rolling smoke, a momentary pause before plunging through the venting doorway is a safe and effective tactic. Retreat a few feet and let the fire light up and “blow.” This few feet should be expanded to ten or more feet when entering larger, more complex, and more open areas. A problem may arise when we are not sure of the fire condition within. Momentary pausing is always in order.
  2. Advancing more than one handline simultaneously into a heavily charged, confined area requires training, coordination, direction, and discipline. Members tend to “bunch” at the nozzle, and the needed rapid advance is impeded. Company officers can solve this problem at drill sessions and by effective control of the operation.
  3. Due to the high heat concentration and the primary objective — advancing to and controlling the stair shafts —a third line was stretched. Its purpose was to direct a stream over the heads of the advancing handlines to lessen the positive heat balance. This line needs to be maneuverable. A 1¾inch size is recommended.
  4. As important as the nozzle person is, he will not be able to advance without the proper and intelligent spacing of the additional personnel throughout the stretch. This is a technique solved through training and position assignments, with responsibility assigned at the start of the tour.
  5. Officers and members advancing simultaneous lines should be extremely alert to the safety of their unit and members of other units within the fire area. Difficult decisions regarding shutting down streams to “let it blow” in high heat, blowtorch conditions requires much experience, training, and sometimes luck. Luck enters the picture when experience and training are inadequate.
  6. The practice of engine companies advancing hoselines to “make that next turn” is probably the most basic yet most underrated operation in the fire service. Intelligent, cautious but aggressive advance of hose streams is the mark of an effective company and the hallmark of efficient operations.
  7. The pump operator should always be prepared to supply an initial handline as soon as possible, when ordered. When time is of the essence, booster water can be and often is used. However, the fact that the handline is only being supplied by booster tank water must be communicated to the members operating it. There are only a few minutes of supply, and the pump operator should be able to supplement the supply from a fixed source before running out of tank water. This has not always been the case, and members have been caught in perilous situations in the past when the supply ran out. Incoming pumping units and the officer in command should be alert to these conditions and be prepared to perform relay operations as soon as possible.
  8. When multiple lines are rapidly stretched from the pumper closest to the scene, pump operators and officers in command should be alert when pumper(s) are nearing capacity. Additional units, properly supplied, should be ready to handle additional demands for hose streams.

Ladder company operations:

  1. Communications: Members operating above the fire are the eyes and ears of the incident commander.
  2. Firefighters assigned the roof position should give an immediate report as to the conditions at the rear and sides of the structure. This report should include the amount, intensity, and location of fire and smoke emanating from the facades described. The report should also indicate any life hazard or exposure problem not seen from the street, the conditions on the upper floors, and the necessity for additional help.

    Search progress must be monitored. Those assigned must be intelligent, experienced, aggressive, and methodical. Periodic reports must be transmitted to the officer in charge. This vital task must never be delayed or overlooked.

  3. Make intelligent use of aerial and portable ladders. While aerials at the 50th Street fire were ready in front of the structure, they were not raised. Conditions indicated that the many civilians at the windows were not threatened by the first-floor fire conditions. The raising of the aerial unnecessarily would only have increased the panic situation. Communications from the street with the occupants calmed them down.
  4. All areas of these types of structures must eventually be searched. Forcible entry is a major problem and should be planned for. Personnel, tools, and other equipment should be on hand to handle the problem as efficiently as possible. Alleys, setbacks, and yards should be as thoroughly checked as are the stairs and hallways. Only after all these areas are checked primarily should a thorough secondary search be started.

TH ire-protected buildings are not H necessarily fire-safe buildings. X Heavy fire loading with lightweight and toxic furnishings can create intense fire conditions. As we know, sprinkler systems (the major answer to life safety and fire control) are not found in most of these occupancies. Firefighting requires coordinated multiple-handline attack and organized search operations under the most difficult of conditions. High-rise multiple dwellings are here to stay. Hopefully, in the near future, sprinkler installation, smoke control, and nontoxic fire loading will make the structures more fire-safe.

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