It wasn’t yet 10 a.m., but the heat of a summer Tuesday when temperatures in Brooklyn, N.Y., would climb to the mid-90s was already apparent.
There were other signs of summer—signs of the role luck would play in a tragic day. Over a bakery on 18th Avenue, an apartment was quiet, its tenants away on vacation. The bakery itself, where a dozen people would normally be at work, was closed. Two doors away, a family had just left an apartment. And on the normally busy commercial street in front of the bakery, the apartments, and the 18th Avenue Plumbing Supply Co. in between, just one person was walking by.
In a few moments, 4 people would die and 13 would be injured—but it could have been many more.
Luck played a part last July 21, and so did planning, cooperation, and coordination.
Order to Disorder
After a collapse in Brooklyn, planning, coordination, cooperation — and some luck amid a tragedy — brought
(Photos courtesy of the Fire Department of New York City)
The plumbing supply company was receiving a shipment of propane and acetylene cylinders that day. As workers carried them down the outside cellar stairs to be stored, they dropped one of the 20-pound propane cylinders onto the concrete steps.
Employees and customers fled. If they had paused to phone for help, fire companies might have been pulling up in front just as the building exploded. It took only minutes for an ignition source— still unidentified—to touch off a blast.
Arriving in the battalion chief’s vehicle, we found total chaos at the scene. Three occupied, twostory’, 20-bv-60-foot buildings of brick and joist, each with a onestory extension, had totally collapsed. They had done so mostly in pancake fashion, although there were some lean-to and V-shaped void spaces, as well. [See “Collapse on Adelphi Street,” Fire Engineering, May 1987.] The brick and steel of the front walls covered the sidewalk, parked cars, and double-parked cars.
There was heavy fire throughout the collapsed structures, fed by broken gas lines, the propane and acetylene tanks, and the combustible contents and structural members of the buildings. The fire was impinging on exposures 2A and 4A, which were similar, attached buildings now in a state of nearcollapse. Across the street, the windows had been blown out of a yeshiva, one of the educational institutions of the largely Hasidic Jewish neighborhood.
Injured and dazed civilians were stumbling about the area. The blast had tossed passersby up against brick walls and slashed would-be bus riders with shards of glass. The head of one victim showed through the rubble on the sidewalk, and there were reports of others buried in the debris and trapped in the buildings. Sanitation workers, merchants, police officers, rabbis from the yeshiva, and members of the Hatzolah Volunteer Ambulance Corps were assisting the injured and clawing through the rubble.
(Photos courtesy of the Fire Department of New York City)
Later and in other ways, the community’s outpouring of assistance would be welcome. But the attempts to reach trapped victims added to the problem by putting the inexperienced helpers at risk of injury and entrapment.
After a rapid, initial size-up, the order went in to the dispatcher: Send a full second-alarm assignment, two additional ladder companies, three of the city’s five rescue companies, at least three ambulances, a mobile emergency room van, and heavy equipment from local utility companies, the Sanitation Department, and the U.S. Army. As the incident progressed, higherand higher-ranking officers would also arrive, and the operations quickly were put under the command of the acting chief of department.
The first step was to gain control of the chaos and confusion and substitute for it the standard orders and procedures that the Fire Department of New York City has developed through many years of experience with similar situations. The initial attack was twopronged. First: For protection, water had to be applied between the spreading structure fire and the rescue workers and trapped civilians. Second: Simultaneously, search for and removal of the victims would be carried out using a step-by-step process—removing surface victims first, probing voids, removing selected debris, trenching and tunneling, and finally, methodically removing general debris.
The commanding police officer at the scene was contacted and requested to have his officers set up and maintain a danger zone, to be entered only by properly equipped and authorized emergency personnel. This was quickly done.
The first-arriving engine company placed a handline into operation to protect both the trapped victims and exposure 4A, which was being threatened by the heavy fire from the collapsed rubble. From the bucket of the first-arriving truck company’s 95-foot tower ladder, a large-caliber stream was placed in operation. It would protect firefighters operating in the rubble in front of the building and probing the voids. Firefighters in the bucket could see conditions in the rear that weren’t visible from the front, and they relayed that information to the incident commander.
A second truck company arrived and raised its aerial ladder to the roof of exposure 4A, a corner building. There the company members found an injured plumbing company employee who’d been blown to the roof from the store’s bathroom. Firefighters removed him via the aerial to the street. Then they made the primary search of exposures 2A and 4A, both nearly collapsed.
They didn’t find anyone, and so moved on to help with the search of the rubble on the sidewalk. This task was being carried out by rescue company personnel using air bags and electric hammers to clear away chunks of concrete.
They had the crucial help of Brooklyn Union Gas Co., which responded within minutes with a backhoe, street crews, and supervisors. Gas company employees used the backhoe to remove steel beams off two trapped victims. They worked side by side with firefighters in clearing the sidewalk and street to dig down to the gas mains and shut off leaking gas from a ruptured main.
Workers from Consolidated Edison shut off electric service to the affected buildings and supplied a crane and operator to clear heavy structural members from the front. The crane was too short to reach the rear and was later replaced by a longer crane contracted for by the city.
And the U.S. Army at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn sent a front-end loader within minutes of our request. The operator used impressive skill in maneuvering around the many rescuers and other obstacles in the area and gingerly moving debris as necessary.
The three rescue companies that worked on the sidewalk also conducted searches. One company went into the cellar of the fire building after clearing rubble from the entrance; no victims were found there. The second company’s members conducted the primary search of the bakery. They also used chain and circular saws to cut through the collapsed roof of the apartment over the bakery, and made a primary search there. Neither search turned up any more victims.
The third rescue company lowered a portable ladder into an interior shaft between exposures 4 and 4A and entered the cellar. The search of the cellars of these two buildings and the fire building likewise had negative results. The company then searched the voids in exposure 2.
The fire service can’t operate alone in situations like this one. Cooperation of other city agencies must be sought and planned for. Responsibilities, lines of authority, chain of command, and so on must be established before the incident if the operation is to run smoothly and efficiently—or at all.
A list of services and equipment available from public and private agencies for unusual operations should be maintained at a communications center.
Standard operating procedures bring order to chaotic situations—as long as firefighters are well trained to carry them out.
Knowledge of collapse conditions helps set priorities. Victims are best able to survive in V-shaped and lean-to voids, and by searching there first, firefighters got to the survivors in time.
Constant data gathering is a must. The positions of victims can be ascertained from their last known locations. Thereafter, an accurate and updated list of casualties is mandatory. Collapse search is a dangerous operation, but it can be aborted only when all known victims are located and removed.
Delegation of duties such as safety, communications, mitigation logistics, and victim data gathering allows the incident commander to concentrate on immediate problems.
There were three victims trapped there. The roof and the second floor had collapsed in lean-to fashion at an angle of 60 degrees, and an elderly couple living in a second-floor apartment had fallen through to the first floor. Luckily, this put them into one of the few void spaces created in the collapse.
A first-floor neighbor had run up the stairs to help the couple when he heard the explosion; in the smoky interior, he slid down the lean-to portion of the collapse so that he, too, was trapped.
To monitor changing fire and structural conditions, a firefighter from the second-arriving engine company stayed at the base of the stairway and another was stationed on the second floor. From what remained of the second floor, the company’s members could hear screams coming from below.
Four firefighters formed a human chain. The one farthest into the hole was held by the ankles, and the ones in the middle were grasped about the waist. This was necessary to keep them from sliding into the fire at the base of the floor. They went in without selfcontained breathing apparatus and the protection of a handline because the void opening was too narrow.
The first-floor resident was pulled out, followed by the man from the second floor. But the woman remained. Now a taller firefighter went down at the end of the human chain and located the woman. Her weight and the fact that she was unconscious made removal difficult, and the firefighter severely bruised his ribs during the rescue.
Third and fourth alarms were transmitted, as well as special calls for additional engine and ladder companies. These units reinforced the positions of the firstand second-alarm units, helped remove rubble, and relieved units suffering from the severe heat and humidity.
A fourth rescue company was also special-called, as well as other specialized units. (See “Division of Labor.”) Among these were the Photo Unit, which took pictures and videotaped the scene and operations. Battalion chiefs were assigned as communications coordinator and fatality coordinator, the latter to keep track of all victims removed from the scene.
The Fire Investigation Division also responded. Its members interviewed witnesses and victims to piece together the events that led to the disaster, as well as to find out how many victims might have to be accounted for. As it turned out, all had been located and removed in the first hour.
This coordination among fire department units was magnified by the cooperation from other public agencies, private interests, and citizens of the Borough Park community. If all these parties hadn’t pitched in, the outcome could have been different.
The rescued embraced and thanked their rescuers.
The cooperation between fire, police, and emergency medical services is expected, and examples occur each and every day. These agencies plan for such incidents and are trained and equipped to handle them. But for the most favorable results, the expertise of additional resources must be tapped, and on this searing summer day, they made a great deal of difference. When an incident commander directs them to, dispatchers can summon assistance from these public and private agencies by phone; The Dispatcher’s Action Guide lists what’s available. The help from the utility companies and the Army are examples, but there are more:
- The Sanitation Department supplied front-end loaders and dump trucks to load and remove debris after firefighters had sifted through it.
- Two nearby hospitals, notified by the city’s Emergency Medical Services of a mass-casualty incident, geared up to handle the large number of injured.
- The Buildings Department supplied inspectors to evaluate the buildings that were damaged but still standing.
- The Medical Examiner’s Office expedited its procedures so that two of the deceased victims, members of the Orthodox Jewish community, could be buried the same day, according to their religious beliefs.
- The Hatzolah Volunteer Ambulance Corps aided and removed injured civilians, firefighters, and police officers. As one of many volunteer ambulance companies in New York City, Hatzolah operates 20 ambulances with emergency medical technician crews.
- The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army responded with canteens that provided food and cold liquids to the emergency workers and aid to the people made homeless.
- Finally, the people of the community must be thanked for their outpouring of support. They provided cold drinks and food for the hundreds of emergency workers at the scene. Twenty-seven firefighters were treated for minor injuries, including dehydration and heat exhaustion. The toll taken by the heat would have been greater if it were not for the generosity of the community.
Nine days later, the community—still reeling from the tragedy— hosted a catered breakfast to personally thank all the people and agencies that had come to their assistance. The rescued embraced and thanked their rescuers.
For the firefighters who worked above and beyond the call of duty—many, literally until they dropped—it’s moments like this that tell the story of what a firefighter’s job is really about.