Vintage: The Waldbaum Fire Collapse FDNY 1978
The Waldbaum supermarket fire in Brooklyn, New York occurred on 2 August 1978. Six New York City Fire Department (FDNY) fire fighters died in the line of duty when the roof of a burning Brooklyn supermarket collapsed, plunging 12 fire fighters into the flames. The fire began in a hallway near the compressor room as crews were renovating the store and quickly escalated to a fourth-alarm. Less than an hour after the fire was first reported, nearly 20 fire fighters were on the roof when the central portion gave way. 34 fire fighters, one emergency medical technician and one emergency services police officer were injured in the fire and the tragedy is remembered as one of the worst disasters in the New York City Fire Department’s 143-year history.
The FDNY members killed in the Waldbaum’s fire were:
• Lt James E Cutillo, Battalion 33
• Fire fighter Charles S Bouton, Ladder Company 156
• Fire fighter Harold F Hastings, Battalion 42
• Fire fighter James P McManus, Ladder Company 153
• Fire fighter William O’Connor, Ladder Company 156
• Fire fighter George S Rice, Ladder Company 153
The fire started at 8h40 in Waldbaum’s supermarket located at 2892 Avenue Y and Ocean Avenue in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. Nearly 23 electricians, plumbers and contractors were renovating the building when the fire was discovered in mezzanine area. Box 3300 was transmitted at 8h39 hours and the All Hands transmitted at 8h49 and subsequently a 2nd alarm at 9h02. Shortly after 9h20, with 20 fire fighters operating on the bowstring truss roof, a crackling sound was heard and the centre portion of the roof fell into the smoke and flames. Some of the fire fighters were seen running toward the edge of the roof; some made it, others nearby fell into the gaping hole. The third alarm was transmitted at 9h18 3rd alarm and subsequently escalated to a Fifth alarm assignment during the rescue and recovery operations.
Labourers and fire fighters managed to pull out some who were near walls, some crawled out. Several holes were made into the wall to pull out injured survivors and victims.
The approximately 120ft x 120ft primary building was originally built in 1952 as a supermarket and at the time of the fire was undergoing extensive renovations and was open and operating. Constructed with exterior masonry bearing walls of brick with timber roof trusses with a 100-foot clear span, supported on pilaster columns embedded in the exterior walls, it was classical Type III construction. The truss system supported an ornamental tin ceiling and 18 inches below that concealed space a conventional suspended acoustic ceiling tile panel system was present. Reports indicated the tin ceiling was attached directly to the bottom cord of the truss system. A two story mezzanine and machine room was located at the north wall of the original building. Access through the truss loft area was accessible through man-doors at the plane of each truss.
The heavy timber bowstring arch roof consisted of seven truss units constructed of 4-5 bundled 3 inch x 12 inch attached assemblies. Two factors contributed to the collapse of the bowstring arch truss system; double roof (rain roof) alterations with concealed spaces and the extent and severity of the fire within the concealed spaces affecting the assembly’s structural stability. The presence of the double concealed ceiling systems; the truss system supported an ornamental tin ceiling and 18 inches below that concealed space a conventional suspended acoustic ceiling tile panel system was present. Reports indicated the tin ceiling was attached directly to the bottom cord of the truss system. The failure of operating companies and command personnel to recognize the signs of an unchecked concealed fire that was propagating at a rapid pace impinging upon critical structural assembly points was a significant contributing factor in the incident outcome.
This roof collapsed 32 minutes after the initial units arrived. The immediate collapse occurred approximately 85 feet inward from the Alpha side (Ocean Avenue) and approximately 50 feet from the Bravo side (Avenue Y). The immediate failure and loss of structural stability and collapse of truss unit #5 was followed with the subsequent collapse of truss units #6 and #4 that were interdependent on the roof rafter and purlin system to maintain their structural stability and vertical orientation. This type of interdependent structural system of structural trusses, rafters and roof deck (membrane) result in large area collapses since the primary truss will usually cause the adjacent two truss systems (on either side of the primary compromised truss) to fail by pulling downward.
The effects of direct flame impingement on the truss assemblies, their connection points of bearing at the outer masonry walls, coupled with the tactical trench cut that had been completed by the operating ladder companies resulted in 4 000sf section of roof to collapse in the truss #5, 6 and 4 bay areas. Rapid and progressing fire travel within the concealed spaces and the degradation of the roof assembly and structural support system, failure to recognise the inherent operational risks associated with roof and interior operations on heavy timber truss roof systems and the failure to correlate continued interior suppression operations with simultaneous roof ventilation operations with no significant change in operational progress or mitigation contributed to the tragic outcome of the incident.
A short ten years would pass and the lessons from the Waldbaum Fire would soon be forgotten when on 2 July 1988 operations in a Type III building consisting of an auto dealership would lead to the deaths of five fire fighters in Hackensack, New Jersey when operations were being conducted in the truss loft storage area when an 80 foot heavy timber truss collapsed trapping the firefighters. The Hackensack Ford Fire occurred less than four weeks short of the tenth anniversary of the Waldbaum Fire right across the Hudson River.
Source: Command Safety