Vintage: The US Hackensack tragedy that changed how fires are fought
When fire fighters responded to the Ford dealership on River Street in Hackensack, New Jersey, in the US, 31 years ago, they did not know how deceptive the blaze would prove to be, nor how ill-equipped they were to fight it. They did not know that five of them would not survive. That fateful day, 1 July 1988, the firemen rushed inside to knock down a fire they thought to be like any other they'd faced. After 35 minutes, the dealership's 60-ton bow-truss roof collapsed, killing three fire fighters. Two others were trapped inside, radioing for help but they could not be rescued before their air ran out.
It was one of the deadliest fires in Bergen County, New Jersey, history and it marked a turning point not only for Hackensack but for fire service across the US. The Ford fire spurred reforms in safety, training and equipment and highlighted the dangers of truss roofs in a fire. The lessons of Hackensack are now studied in fire fighter classrooms from coast to coast and have been written into textbooks. Those lessons, experts say, certainly have saved lives.
For Hackensack fire fighters, who will marked the anniversary this week, that's the one saving grace from an awful time in the department's history. "Sometimes it takes a tragedy to learn important lessons. I can't say it was in vain. We didn't only lose five brothers that day, we learned from them," said Hackensack fire captain, Marc Cunico.
Today, fire fighters say they never would have gone into that building knowing what they know now: that a bow-truss roof, held aloft by horizontal bow-shaped supports, is prone to collapse in a fire. "We'd ensure it was a defensive operation," said Fire Chief Thomas Freeman, who helped fight the blaze that day. "We wouldn't put anybody in harm's way."
The first fire fighters arrived at the Ford dealership at 15h01 and found smoke in the roof area but the large dealership was clear of smoke and fire. The building had been evacuated of customers and staff. The fire fighters climbed the roof and cut a hole to find fire in the attic space between trusses but had a hard time reaching the flames.
The fire grew intense in the attic, where heavy auto parts and cleaning supplies were stored. Fire fighters were ordered out at 15h34. The 60-ton roof collapsed about two minutes later, killing Captain Richard Williams and fire fighters William Krejsa and Leonard Radumski, who were inside the building.
Lieutenant Richard Reinhagen and fire fighter Stephen Ennis had escaped to a tool closet and were trapped. They radioed for help for more than 10 minutes before running out of air. The single radio frequency fire fighters used to communicate was overwhelmed and messages kept getting cut off.
A video from the scene shows very little smoke in the building interior, as fire fighters point a hose on the building without any apparent sense of alarm. Because of communication problems, some fire fighters didn't know the roof had collapsed or that other fire fighters were still inside.
At the time, only fire supervisors carried radios.
Freeman was directing a hose line at the back of the building with other fire fighters when an off-duty New York City fire fighter ran over and told them there were men trapped. "We gotta get them out," Freeman recalled him saying. They used battering rams and sledgehammers to break through the cinderblock but couldn't reach the two trapped men in time. "When we finally broke through it was like a furnace," Freeman said.
Cunico, who was off duty that day, arrived at the scene around 18h00. "I walked into a surreal scene of chaos," he said. "Firemen hanging their heads. They were obviously distraught and crying."
Three investigations identified a litany of mistakes at the Ford fire, which officials said appeared to have been caused by an electrical failure in an attic fan or air conditioner. Fire officers should have recognised the bow-truss roof and its dangers and should have evacuated the building sooner. Ineffective command and poor communication also were to blame, investigators said. The most critical report concluded that the five men died "needlessly."
The deaths thrust the department into despair, as the men went to funerals for co-workers who were like family.
Despite the criticism of the reports, the men who were there say they don't blame anyone for the failures that day, including the chief and battalion chief who were sharply criticised for their handling of the fire. "The normal procedure in 1988 for any fire was aggressive interior attack ... drag the hose lines into the building and put out the fire. We were doing what we normally did on any given day," Freeman said.
He described a different environment at that time. "Back in the day, it wasn't as common, the training wasn't there, the information sharing wasn't there. Nowadays you pull up to that kind of building and it stands out like a sore thumb," he said.
Fire fighter Bryan Brancaccio was on a tower ladder looking down on the dealership, trying to douse the flames and saw the tangle of trusses and fire below where the roof had collapsed. He said the loss left him in shock. "That's five percent of the department and you know everybody personally." He harboured no hard feelings, he said. "They thought they were doing the right thing," Brancaccio said.
Lessons learned, taught
As the fire fighters endured, key changes were made. The state passed a law requiring placards to be placed near building entrances to note whether the structure had a bow-truss roof, a measure that several other states later adopted.
Fire fighters also began to study building construction as part of training and in Hackensack, they go out on building inspections. They're taught that buildings with any kind of truss construction can collapse from fire exposure in a short amount of time.
There were other fatal bow-truss fires, at a Waldbaum's supermarket in New York City in 1978 that killed six and another in a Cliffside Park bowling alley that killed five firemen in 1967. Roofs collapsed in both of those fires. Hackensack's was the one that resonated and became a turning point, in part because of heightened awareness in fire fighter safety around that time. It's the one taught in fire safety classes across the US.
"It's in every major fire fighting textbook in the country," said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and former assistant chief of the Waldwick Fire Department. "Hackensack is in the top 25 fires that have really had an impact on the fire service and in making fire fighters safe." Just the mention of the name "Hackensack," Corbett said, conjures for fire fighters the unseen dangers of that day.
As a result of Hackensack Ford and several other fires, it became commonplace for fire fighters to carry PASS, or Personal Alert Safety Systems devices, which are clipped onto clothing or equipment and sound an alarm when they're immobile, Corbett said.
Hackensack also helped to change attitudes, he said. For years, the fire service was reluctant to talk about or criticise fire response. But after Hackensack, fire officers were more willing to analyse and discuss response after an incident.
In Hackensack, fire fighters carry radios with buttons that can be pressed when they're in danger, which is common but still not universal in fire departments. The fire service also began using two separate radio frequencies, one for dispatch and another for ground response. A dispatcher would also know and advise on the kind of building construction and whether hazardous materials are stored in a building.
Even with the changes, there is room for improvement, Corbett said. The fire service needs a more precise method to track the vertical and horizontal locations of fire fighters in a building.
But the fire service, experts agree, is far improved.
In Hackensack, fire officials call it a "180-degree turnaround" where equipment is modern and effective and fire fighters train every day.
In 2013, the city's Fire Department earned a Class 1 fire protection grade, ranking the 99-member department among the best in the nation from the Insurance Services Office, a company that assesses fire risk. Just 61 departments in the United States have a Class 1 rank out of more than 48 000 surveyed fire districts.
Hackensack fire officials credit hard work, training and dedication. The fire fighters go out of their way to train on their own and show the new guys the ropes, Freeman said. "They go above and beyond and I think in the back of their minds it's because they know what happened here in 1988," he said.
On a recent Monday, Deputy Chief Stephen Kalman showed a video of the Ford fire to a new fireman, describing what happened and what went wrong that day. It's a video they show to new recruits.
"Their sacrifices are not forgotten and we try to pass that along to all the new members coming on the department," Kalman said. "We would not be this good of a department today, probably, if that fire didn't happen and those guys didn't pay for it with their lives."
Source: North Jersey