The Quick Collapse of a “Slow Burner”

On arrival, firefighters were greeted by a well-advanced fire on three floors of a mill-constructed factory.

(Photo by Ronald Jeffers)

As the incident stretched into daylight hours, the fire spread to exposure 2 via radiant heat and pedestrian bridges.

(Photo by Ronald Jeffers)

Fire spread rapidly through the original fire building, silhouetting exposure 2.

(Photo by Joe Candeloro)

Continuing its path through the complex, the fire spread to exposure 2B.

(Photo by Bill Tompkins)

Flames easily jumped a narrow alley to exposure 2A.

(Photo by Ronald Jeffers)

Firefighters were ready for the collapse of exposure 2A, having moved out of the danger zone and forced the rear to collapse first.

(Photo by Bill Tompkins)

After a full day of firefighting, little was left of the five-building complex. Washdown continued well into the night.

(Photo by Ronald Jeffers)

The Quick Collapse of a “Slow Burner”


When Paterson, N.J., firefighters confronted fire in a complex of sealed factories, their best bet was to plan for collapse.

It was a hot summer in Paterson, N.J., last year, and not only because of the weather. A series of weekend arson fires plagued the municipality. And on August 1, one of them turned several factory buildings, where windows had been sealed with cement and cinder blocks, into a collection of 20,000-cubic-foot ovens.

The old Manhattan Shirt Co. complex comprised five five-story and one six-story heavy-timber, mill-constructed buildings. They all fronted on River Street and extended to the Passaic River at the rear, where the fire department would have no access.

The fire there was discovered at 3:35 a.m. by a passing fire department ambulance crew; which reported that flames were issuing from the front windows. The firstarriving battalion chief found heavy fire showing at all the windows of the third and fourth floors. Dense, black smoke pushing under great pressure from other openings made it clear that these floors were fully involved, and the fire had extended to the top floor.

The battalion chief ordered a second alarm transmitted. Three minutes later, as fire showed through the roof, a third alarm was ordered. Soon six additional pumpers, an articulating platform, and a 110-foot aerial were special-called.

The fire in the original building rapidly spread to enormous proportions, a sign to the officer in charge that collapse was likely. The initial strategy was defensive: to set up a collapse zone around the original fire building and protect the adjacent exposures and those across the street facing side 1 of the fire building. All were subjected to severe radiant heat. At the same time, two aerial ladder streams and two 55-foot telescoping water towers attempted to contain the fire to the original fire building.

Master streams were set up to cool the facades of the exposures. So interior handlines could protect exposure 2, truck companies forced entry into the five-story building, which was connected to the fire building by enclosed pedestrian bridges on three floors. But it turned out that the stairways from the first floor to the floors above had been removed. This, coupled with the fact that the sealed structure virtually defied horizontal ventilation, made it impossible to stretch enough handlines to the upper floors in time to save it. (The same would prove true of exposures 2, 2A, 2B, and 3, but the same tactics succeeded in controlling the fire in exposure 4.)

Heavy smoke conditions had already penetrated the upper floors. We wouldn’t be able to operate safely within the structure, so we didn’t operate there at all. If the crews got in trouble, the strategy shifts and removal of personnel and equipment would take a long time—too much time to make it a risk worth taking.

In the original fire building, the fire spread speedily, defying the myth that mill construction is slow-burning. Fires in 75to 100year-old buildings of this nature are virtually impossible to put out once there’s fire on more than one floor—especially when the sprinkler system has been shut down or partially dismantled, as it had been here.

The collapse potential became so obvious that two water towers and an aerial ladder had to be repositioned. This was accomplished by a maneuver that I call an “aggressive retreat.”

In preparation, two heavy streams were set up in a driveway across the street to cover the three companies while they were being repositioned. Unable to fight this fire from the rear, where the factories edged the river, we decided to control the front portions with master streams while allowing the fire to burn to the collapse point in the rear. The collapse occurred within 30 minutes of the time fire fighters arrived.

Once most of the building fell in the rear, the front, we hoped, would collapse inward, reducing the possible collapse zone and resultant damage from bouncing structural debris. There were no serious injuries or damage to apparatus. The only loss was of several abandoned hose lines lost in the collapse zone under tons of falling debris.

This tactic proved effective again as exposures 2, 2A, 2B, and 3 burned to the point of collapse.

A 22-year-old fire buff has been charged with this and four other major fires near downtown Paterson, which together caused losses estimated at $10 million. The suspect fits the classic profile of an arsonist. Living within seven blocks of all the fires, he was seen at each of them and often tried to help firefighters at the scene. He was arraigned in municipal court and bail was set at $200,000 dollars for five charges of aggravated arson.

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