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Thread: Reports Detail Elements That Turned Fires Into Catastrophes

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    Reports Detail Elements That Turned Fires Into Catastrophes

    NY Times
    By KAREEM FAHIM
    Published: September 15, 2005

    As flames enveloped the Bronx apartment, whipping around the room where Lt. Curtis Meyran stood with his men on a cold, windy Sunday morning in January, the lieutenant seemed not to realize the level of danger. A voice on his radio asked if the flames had reached him; he answered that there had been a "slight extension" - meaning the fire had grown and gotten closer, but not by much.

    But that was wrong: the fire was all around and beneath him.

    The question was asked again. "Slight extension, slight extension," Lieutenant Meyran replied.

    Around the time of the lieutenant's radio transmission, the flames - kicked up perhaps by gusting winds - were breaking through from the floor below, jumping into a hallway and then to a bedroom on the fourth floor, where the men were.

    Lieutenant Meyran probably was not aware of this because an illegal partition blocked his view of the fire, as well as access to the fire escape. Flames gulped up the kitchen and raged on, eventually blowing out the front door of the apartment.

    Less than two minutes after that last radio transmission, with the fire visible and intense, Lieutenant Meyran used his handset again, this time, to yell for help. "Mayday, mayday, mayday, Ladder 27, mayday."

    Minutes later, he and five other men were forced to jump from the fourth floor to escape the flames. The lieutenant and Firefighter John G. Bellow died from their injuries.

    These harrowing details and more emerged yesterday as the Fire Department released highly detailed reports - as well as audiotapes - from investigations into two catastrophic fires on Jan. 23 that resulted in the deaths of three firefighters. In the second fire, in Brooklyn, Firefighter Richard T. Sclafani died after becoming trapped in a basement.

    The investigation into the fire in Morris Heights, where Lieutenant Meyran was killed was undertaken by a panel of five fire chiefs, and it catalogued a litany of failings - on the part of the Fire Department, firefighters and officers on the scene, and even the city's Housing and Preservation Department for failing to remedy the apartment's condition.

    The investigation found that the illegal wall had prevented firefighters on the fourth floor from seeing the fire; that the trapped men would have been better off with personal safety ropes; and that breakdowns in communications made already severe problems much worse.

    Calling the reports, "comprehensive, candid and constructive," Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said he would enforce its recommendations. He acknowledged that had conditions been different - with better weather, a steady stream of water on the fire and the use of personal safety ropes - the firefighters might have escaped unharmed. The department, which in 2000 stopped supplying all firefighters with personal safety ropes, will start giving all firefighters a new rope system in October, Mr. Scoppetta said.

    Relatives of the firefighters who died and those who were injured bristled at any hint that the men who were killed or injured shoulder any of the blame.

    Firefighter Jeffrey Cool, who survived, said: "They took our ropes away. It all came down to dollars and cents. They are going to be putting them back out there. It's a shame it took a tragedy for it to happen."

    Another survivor, Firefighter Eugene Stolowski, left a rehabilitation center in West Orange, N.J., hours before the report's release. He said that he had not seen the report. "We were up there doing our job," he said. "It went bad; there is nothing we can do about that."

    From the report, and the audiotapes, a picture emerges of just how badly that morning went:

    Just after 8 a.m., the first firefighters responded to the fire, in a third-floor apartment on East 178th Street. The weather that day was severe; an overnight storm had left 12 inches of snow on the ground.

    "The wind and driving snow created near whiteout conditions at the time of the initial response," the report said. "The temperature was 17 degrees Fahrenheit, and there were northwest winds gusting in excess of 45 m.p.h." Ladder Company 27, Lieutenant Meyran's, was delayed when a delivery truck blocked its route. Within minutes, firefighters discovered that hydrants close to the building were frozen. That problem was fixed with a relay system, but the relay created other obstacles. Fifteen minutes after the fire started, a hose began to lose pressure, either because of a kink, misunderstandings by crew members operating the relay equipment or the failure to clear air from a pump, the report found.

    The effects, whatever the reasons, were terrifying, and the transcripts of audiotapes reveal some of the confusion cited in the report. People listening to Lieutenant Meyran's calls for help did not know exactly who was making the calls, the report found. The report on Brooklyn fire that day found similar confusion regarding distress calls. The findings focused in part on the fact that Firefighter Sclafani had been found without his facepiece, helmet and protective hood, and may have become trapped on a staircase while trying to escape. But the report also faulted the department for inadequately training firefighters on how to provide a fallen member with an air supply.

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    Firefighting Mistakes Cited in a Report on Three Deaths

    NYTimes
    By KAREEM FAHIM
    Published: September 14, 2005

    A Fire Department analysis of a fire in a Bronx building last January in which six firefighters were forced to jump from the fourth floor - killing two of them - has found that mistakes, communication failure and unfamiliarity with new equipment may have contributed to the tragedy, say fire officials briefed on its contents.

    The report and another one, on a second fire that same day in Brooklyn in which a firefighter was killed - making it the department's deadliest day since 9/11 - will be released today, the Fire Department said.

    The department will also release audio recordings of radio transmissions between firefighters and fire officers from the Bronx fire. The report on the first fire, details of which appeared yesterday in The New York Post, concluded that the mistakes hampered the firefighting as several companies attempted to douse a blaze on the third floor of the Bronx apartment house on Jan. 23, the officials said.

    Lt. Curtis W. Meyran, 46, and Firefighter John G. Bellew, 37, died in the Bronx, while Firefighter Richard T. Sclafani, 37, died in the fire in Brooklyn after he was trapped in a basement looking for survivors.

    Recommendations touch on the failures that undercut the rescue effort, and the authors - a panel of five fire chiefs - suggest a number of steps, including improved evacuation training, the use of personal escape ropes, better discipline, better preparation to deal with water loss and putting weather forecasts on daily fire schedules.

    In the Bronx blaze, the firefighters who jumped from the building had gone above the fire, to the fourth floor, to look for people who might have been trapped, as firefighters from Engine Company 75 covered them.Downstairs, Engine Company 42 attacked the fire in the third-floor apartment.

    At some point, the hose to the third floor began to sputter, and the company mistakenly believed the line had burst, the investigators found.

    In fact, the line had more likely become kinked, the investigation concluded, but the consequences were the same. Its water cut off, Engine Company 42, on the third floor pulled back from the fire, and Engine Company 75 came downstairs to replace the firefighters.

    At that point, the investigators concluded, the six men from Ladder Company 27 and Rescue Company 3, operating on the fourth floor, should have been pulled back, too, since they were no longer covered.

    The flames burst through the ceiling into the fourth-floor apartment, keeping the firefighters from leaving by the door and forcing them out the window. Two died when they jumped, and the other four were critically injured. Engine Company 42, which had lost pressure, tried too late to return to the fourth floor.

    Officials said that one of the engine companies may have been unfamiliar with a new pumper truck that was used to relay water. In most cases, pumper trucks simply hook up to a hydrant outside a fire. But that day, the closest hydrant had become frozen, so firefighters set up a relay from a hydrant farther down the streets, using two fire trucks.

    The investigation concluded that firefighters might not have understood how the new equipment worked when used in relay.

    The fire focused attention on personal safety ropes, which the department began to phase out in 1996 but continued to issue to some. Two firefighters that day used a single rope to escape. The investigators found that all would have been better off if they had had ropes. The department has said that next month it would begin supplying all firefighters with a rope escape system designed to allow them to descend safely from windows during a fire. A Fire Department official said that the families had received copies of the fact-finding report yesterday. Reached at his home, Firefighter Joseph DiBernardo, who was injured in the Bronx fire, said of the report: "We did what we had to do. Hopefully, firefighters around the country can learn from it."

    He said that he had heard tapes of the events that day that will be released along with the reports, and added that he believed things he had said over the radio were not included in those tapes.

    Investigators found that communication difficulties that day had not been caused by equipment failure but by incorrectly relayed information. They also found that firefighters on the fourth floor, knowing that the company providing water cover was withdrawing, determined that conditions did not warrant their leaving their floor.

    While critical of the mistakes, the report, like other operational analyses, does not recommend discipline for anyone, the officials said.

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