Supermarket Flashover Kills Anchorage Fireman

Supermarket Flashover Kills Anchorage Fireman

Anchorage Times photo

A violent flashover in the Muldoon Bi-Lo Supermarket in Anchorage, Alaska, killed one fire fighter and injured several others at a fire that went to a third alarm and heavily damaged the contents and building.

The fire was reported in the closed supermarket at 12:08 a.m. last February 6. The store is located at the extreme northeast corner of Anchorage, and is the primary part of a complex of stores completed in 1972 which adjoined an existing complex of three stores.

The first-arriving company reported a fire in the rear section of the large store and made an initial attack with two 1 1/2-inch lines, working parallel, and advancing to the rear of the store. The fire was being pushed back, but Captain Ernest Dean and Battalion Chief Art Forrester, noting that the ceiling area was reaching dangerous temperatures, ordered the lines to back out. When the lines were almost back to the store front, a violent flashover of almost back draft proportions occurred. The men on the attack lines were knocked down and scattered. All managed to retreat through the front of the building except Fire Fighter Charles W. Whitethorn, a member of the first-due company.

As a result of the flashover, the complete retail section of the store was involved in fire, making rescue or recovery attempts impossible. As large lines from second-alarm units were put into play, valiant rescue attempts were made to locate Whitethorn, especially by Captain Burns and Lieutenant Davis of Squad 1. Whitethorn’s body, however, was not located until the fire in the store was controlled approximately an hour later. Medical examination later showed that the young fire fighter, age 23, died instantly of a ruptured aorta, from apparently being struck in the chest by an unknown object.

Battalion Chief Forrester requested a second alarm just 11 minutes after the first unit arrived at the scene, and Chief Eugene Bennett requested third-alarm units 40 minutes later, in order to get additional personnel at the scene to relieve the early arriving companies. The fire was declared under control at 2:30 a.m., two hours and 22 minutes after being reported.

The Anchorage Fire Department committed six engines, one squad, one aerial, one elevating platform, one rescue, one ambulance and a total of 41 men and five chief officers to this fire. Mutual aid units from Fort Richardson Army Base and Elmendorf Air Force Base manned vacated Anchorage stations, while a general off-duty recall was sounded to provide personnel to man reserve apparatus.

Available units were further depleted when another fire several miles from the shopping center required three engines and destroyed a complex of three attached Quonset buildings.

A fire prevention team, headed by Inspector John Fullenwider, has determined that the fire was incendiary, but at this writing the person responsible has not been apprehended.

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