“MINOR” CHANGES CAUSE TERRIBLE DISASTER

By FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN SFPE (FELLOW)

One hundred fifty-five skiers died in a funicular fire at the ski resort of Kaprun in Austria, the worst tragedy in Alpine history. A funicular is a railroad that has two cars at each end of a cable that passes over a pulley at the top station. One car ascends and the other descends, thus requiring a minimum of energy.

The fire was so sudden and intense that by the time rescuers reached the scene of the accident, about a mile inside the two-mile tunnel, most of the passengers had already died. There was no worry about fire when the cars were built. They were metal, there was no electricity or propulsion device in the cars, and there was no electricity in the tunnel. A series of “minor” changes made over the years worked together to bring about this dreadful catastrophe.

The following is from an interview conducted by Professor Vincent M. Brannigan, JD, (our second son), of the Fire Protection Engineering Department of the University of Maryland, with the Salzburg State Prosecutor; a criminal investigation is underway.

The funicular at Kaprun had two cars on each end of the cable. The passenger load was about 160. There were no lights in the tunnel up the mountain or any means of communicating with the car. At one time, there was an attendant at the front and rear of the two-car unit. For economy, the rear attendant had been eliminated, and the door was locked.

The cars were originally aluminum, but in a renovation they were resided with fiberglass. Many people are not aware that fiberglass—glass fiber reinforced polyester resin plastic—is combustible.1 There was no electricity in the cars. When the car was at the base station, the attendant sat in the rear cubicle, which provided an electric heater for comfort. During repairs, a piece of plastic pipe was substituted for metal in the hydraulic brake system. The hydraulic oil leaked and was absorbed by insulation around the heater. The heater was turned on until it disconnected automatically as the car left the station.

As the car started upward, people in the station noticed the fire, but there was no way to notify the operator or stop the train. About 2,000 feet into the tunnel, the car stopped. Presumably, the fire had burned through the plastic pipe, and the loss of pressure automatically applied the brakes. The oil also intensified the fire. Some people broke windows and escaped from the rear, downward through the tunnel. There were only nine survivors. All who tried to escape upward died in the tunnel from the toxic gases pouring upward through the tunnel. One passenger and two employees at the top of the tunnel died.

Situations and procedures should be periodically analyzed to determine the hazard potential. Surely, if someone had postulated this disaster in advance by coupling the various happenings cited above, the authorities would have taken away his beer stein. This case should be saved to use as an example when a hazard analysis you present is dismissed as ridiculous. [A photo of another “potential” skiing disaster is on page 263 of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (BCFS3).]

HAZARD INCREASED WITH TIME

A personal experience is pertinent here. As an Atomic Energy Commission fire protection engineer, I was at a plant where ether extraction of uranium was performed. The plant was very well organized for fire safety. The fire chief received a call that an “ether line” was to be opened for maintenance. The chief checked his combustible gas indicator against a bottle of ether kept for test purposes. We went to the scene. The pipe was opened, and he checked for any dangerous vapor; the results were negative. Nearby, another pipe was opened. I smelled alcohol. I was told that it was the “brine line,” a mixture of water and some alcohol. Tests performed at my request showed that it was almost pure alcohol. Over the years, the alcohol percentage had been increased in a series of steps to improve production. The name “brine line” conveyed no sense of hazard. The name was changed to “the alcohol line,” and precautions were taken when it was opened.

When a disaster occurs, a scapegoat is sought. Very often, the last individual to do or not do something is settled on. Do not let it be you.

A COLLIER SITUATION: UPDATE

Those of you who monitor Fire Department of New York communications may have heard and be puzzled over a report incorporating the word “Collier.” Many years ago, city authorities became aware of the Langley Collier home, a private house in East Harlem that was stacked high with bundles of newspapers. In some cases, there were tunnels through the bundles. The authorities removed literally tons of debris.

Recently, Fairfax County, Virginia, had a similar situation—a woman living alone in her home had it filled with tons of trash. There was so much trash that she was living in the backyard. The county removed the trash from the house. Psychiatrists call this obsessive-compulsive behavior.

If you were called to a fire in such an occupancy, you would be faced with a most dangerous situation when searching for the occupant, especially in the Fairfax case, where the occupant was sleeping outside.

The fire department should actively pursue an abatement of such a hazard, for the safety of the occupant and firefighters. I think the offender, officials charged with the care of the mentally disturbed, and the occupant’s relatives, if any, should be formally notified that the fire department might be forced to stop rescue operations in the light of the unreasonable “loss of life” risk to firefighters.

Those who object should be told of the possible criminal and civil suits that would face the incident commander and the community if line-of-duty deaths were to occur. It would be much better to get this problem out in the open before a fire instead of at the fire scene, where the atmosphere would be emotionally charged if it became necessary to render such a decision at that time, especially if no previous notice had been given. It would squelch the relatives’ argument that “If we had been told of the hazard beforehand, we would have taken action.”

At Navy Norfolk, after we had extinguished a fire in the hold of a merchant ship that had been escorted in by the Coast Guard and anchored out in Hampton Roads, we were sued for damages. Thereafter, the public information officer (PIO) of the Fifth Naval District, in full uniform, would accompany us and hand the ship’s captain a release and a pen. “What the @#%^^&* is this?” the captain asked. The PIO responded, “The last guy we helped sued us, so please sign, or the firefighters will leave.” I do not know if the release would have stood up in maritime law, but we were never sued again.

Some years ago, a midwestern fire chief was driven out of town when he properly held up an ambulance according to a standing arrangement, but the patient died.2

A TRAGEDY IN MEMPHIS

Two firefighters died in Memphis, Tennessee, when a store roof collapsed. I have heard some information that makes me think it was possibly a combustible metal deck roof, a steel deck roof on bar joists with a “built-up roof” covering (see BCFS3, 302-5). If you know the construction of this roof, please e-mail me at Fbrannigan.comcast.net.

Endnotes

1. In “Builders of Conference Center Find Perfection Comes at a Price,” Dana Hedgepath noted in a Washington Post report on March 31, 2003, page E11: “Fiberglass replaced areas of the outer walls because it was cheaper than the metal panels originally chosen.” I have no idea of whether this presents a fire problem.

2. News programs seem to be delighted to give airtime to anybody who seems worked up about something the fire department did or did not do. A report of a fire included a spectator’s charges that firefighters “stood around doing nothing.” The highly respected anchor commented, as I remember, “I was a street reporter for many years, and I NEVER saw the District of Columbia Fire Department stand around and do nothing.” We may have created the concept that firefighters can go anywhere and do anything (Backdraft shows up on cable TV every now and then). It might even be appropriate to point out that firefighter deaths and injuries are costly to the taxpayer both on the local and federal levels.

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow), the recipient of Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more than half of his 61-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He is well known as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (National Fire Protection Association, 1992) and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

Author

  • Francis L. Brannigan , SFPE (Fellow) , was a expert on building construction who devoted more than half of his 63-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He was well known as the author of  Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition  (National Fire Protection Association, 1992), and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan was an editorial advisory board member of  Fire Engineering . He was well known as the author of  Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition  (National Fire Protection Association, 1992), and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan was an editorial advisory board member of  Fire Engineering and taught at the Fire Department Instructors Conference . He passed away in 2006 .

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