Warehouse Fire Jumps Street, Threatens LP Gas Tank Farm
Camden, N.J., blaze pulls mutual aid from seven towns plus a boat from Philadelphia. Heated tanks cooled with hose stream
Comdan County fire photos by Hob Bartosz.
A million-dollar fire, that destroyed three buildings and part of another, roared through a waterfront section of Camden, N.J., last March 16, and for a time threatened an adjacent utility company “farm” that contained 10 1million-gallon LP gas holders. The fire started in a combination two-andfour-story brick and joist warehouse, occupied by the State Drum Corporation. And before it was knocked down, it had leaped across a narrow street to attack a two and a threestory building similarly constructed (see diagram).
The first-alarm units that responded to a box alarm sent out for 2nd and Walnut Streets (at the waterfront) at 8:05 p.m. consisted of Engines 1, 3 and 8 and Ladder 2 under the command of Acting Battalion Chief A. Moffa. Moffa found heavy smoke and flame issuing from the twostory section of the drum manufacturing building and immediately sent out a second alarm, followed two minutes later by a third. These alarms brought Chief of Department Edward V. Michalak to the scene along with four more engine companies, a ladder company, two battalion chiefs and Deputy Chief Theodore Primas.
In his sizeup, Michalak found that fire had communicated to the fourstory section of the State Drum Corporation and that the fire was of such intensity that within minutes, portions of the south wall, facing Walnut Street, had collapsed. Meantime, the fire had jumped across 10-foot-wide Clay Street (against winds that were gusting to 40 mph) and was eating at a three-story brick warehouse. It later spread to parts of an attached twostory structure.
Gas tanks threatened
Further to the north, there was another severe exposure in the form of a gigantic holding tank for natural gas. To the east, the Boyle Trucking office also lay exposed. However, the most serious exposure was 10 1-million-gallon LP gas holders that lay in the path of the wind and flame 60 feet across Walnut Street from the main fire. Shortly after arriving, Chief Michalak was warned by officials of the Public Service Company that temperatures in the nearest holders were reaching the “critical stages”—from the intense radiant and convected heat.
Michalak ordered one engine company into the Public Service yard with instructions to wet down the tanks. And, in the face of intense heat, he had two engine companies stretch lines into Walnut Street to set up deluge guns. A fourth engine company connected to a private yard hydrant (supplied from the Delaware River) of the Flintkote Corporation southwest of the main fire on Front Street. Front Street itself complicated matters in that it was an unfinished street, laced with railroad tracks that supplied the sidings of the factories and warehouses in the area. The tracks, combined with a muddy surface caused by heavy rain, made it difficult to place apparatus for effective use.
Call for mutual aid
Following the third alarm, Michalak requested that the Camden County mutual aid plan be activated. This is a prearranged plan worked out in detail calling for specific actions. County Coordinator Jack Plasket (Car 5) responded to the Camden fire alarm room. Deputy Coordinator David Wise (Car 10) was assigned to the fireground as liaison officer, and Assistant Deputy Coordinator Joe Reichart moved into the newly established (October 1973) Camden County Fire and Ambulance Communication Center located in Lindenwold.
Communications were established from the fireground to both alarm centers via radio, and between the alarm centers by direct line telephone communication. “Cover up” companies from Audubon, Woodlyne, Oaklyn, Gloucester City, Brooklawn, Cherry Hill and Pennsauken moved into the City of Camden stations.
At 9:10 p.m., Michalak declared the fire a “general alarm” that brought the two remaining city engine companies to the scene as the fourth alarm. Companies already in city stations were dispatched as were units requested on a sixth alarm at 9:15 p.m. These units were replaced in the city by companies from Collingswood, Magnolia, Mt. Ephraim, Barrington, Woodcrest, Chews and Runnemede. During the course of the night, these mutual aid units responded to four other fires in the city.
Water supply in the area of the fire was good (16-inch main on Second Street), but with the heavy influx of county equipment to the fireground, water supply became more of a factor and the assistance of a Philadelphia fireboat (Engine 15) was requested at 9:21 p.m.
Engine 8 and Battalion 4 responded to the berth of the fireboat in accordance with a directive issued by Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Joseph R. Rizzo that “anytime a fireboat is sent on a mutual aid call, the personnel of a land engine company and a battalion chief are to respond aboard the boat.” Battalion Chief William Walker of the 4th Battalion was in command of this Philadelphia task force. Acting Battalion Chief Ayres of Camden and Deputy County Coordinator John Howarth (chief of the Haddonfield Fire Department) who were equipped with radios tuned to the Camden City and County frequencies, met the boat at the foot of Walnut Street.
As additional companies arrived, Michalak placed them in position to either contain or attack the fire. And at 11:42 p.m., he declared the fire under control. The Philadelphia fireboat took up at 12:34 a.m. March 17. It was replaced by an engine company from Cherry Hill and one from Pennsauken. These companies drafted from the river to the lines that had been supplied by the boat.
The last volunteer company left the fireground at 4:30 a.m. and the covering units left Camden at 6 a.m. Camden firemen remained on the scene for the next 24 hours.
Chief Michalak was loud in his praise of the fire fighters, particularly those who covered the LP tank field, stating “an explosion there could have devastated South Camden.”
The fire is under investigation by the Camden Fire Marshal Harold Pike and the Camden Detective Bureau. Damage to the buildings was estimated in excess of $1 million. Three camden firemen suffered minor burns and injuries in fighting the blaze.