Just after 8.30 in the morning on August 2, 1978, a small fire broke out on the mezzanine level of a busy Waldbaum’s supermarket in the Sheepshead Bay neighbourhood of southern Brooklyn. “I saw flames coming from a large wooden beam right next to the men’s room wall,” said plumber Arthur Stanley, who was part of a construction crew adding an extension to the mezzanine. “I told somebody to tell the store manager and then I hooked up this garden hose I keep in my tool kit, and tried to put it out.” Store managers delayed calling the fire department and evacuating customers from the market, but when the flames spread to a storage room they relented, and employees had to convince reluctant customers to leave their carts and exit the store. At 8.39, the call came in to the fire department, and within three minutes the first fire engine was on the scene. The units at the scene quickly radioed for backup, and after an eight-minute delay, dispatchers complied, calling a “second alarm” just after nine o’clock, and a third and a fourth alarm soon after that.
Across the street from the fire, Louise O’Connor stood with her three children – five-year-old Billy Jr and his little sisters, Lisa Ann and Jean Marie. A few minutes earlier, Louise had arrived at Brooklyn Ladder Company 156 to pick up her husband, Billy O’Connor, after the 9am shift change but saw that the house’s garage was open and empty. One of her husband’s friends from the house saw her waiting outside and told her Billy was out at a fire. It was contained, he’d said, nothing to worry about, and gave her directions. When she reached the supermarket, the blaze was far from out. Waves of heat radiated from the building, and thick clots of dusky smoke oozed into the sky. A dozen or so engines and ladder trucks idled in the parking lot, and the arm of a big tower ladder was telescoped out over the roof of the building. Standing across the street from the fire, Louise was distracting the kids to keep them calm – pointing out things to look at, explaining what was going on – when she spotted a familiar frame striding out the front door of the Waldbaum’s.
“We’re standing in front of the building, and I’m watching and I’m watching,” says Louise, “and now we see Billy come out of the building, and the kids are calling him but he doesn’t hear. Then he went up the ladder and onto the roof and I guess he must have heard the kids or maybe he just – I don’t know, he turned around and they were yelling and waving and he waved and he stepped on the roof.”
Just as Billy walked out of sight, a sudden flash shone through the windows of the market and the roof haemorrhaged thick streams of jet-black smoke. A security guard standing next to Louise told her it was nothing the firemen couldn’t handle, but she had a bad feeling. A fresh wave of heat rippled from the building and Louise – muttering, “God, Christ the fire” to herself over and over – took the kids across the street to a pay phone to call Billy’s father, a captain in a nearby Brooklyn firehouse.
Standing on the roof or floor above a blaze is the most dangerous place a fireman can position himself. Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the deadliest day in the history of the Fire Department of New York came when the first floor of a brownstone apartment building collapsed into a burning basement below, killing 12 firemen. Most of the deadliest blazes for American firefighters – 21 killed in a Chicago stockyard in 1910; 14 in a Philadelphia factory that same year; 13 killed in a Massachusetts Theater in 1941 – were all collapses. But getting above the fire is precisely what the “truckies” of a ladder company like Billy O’Connor’s do for a living. Engine companies put water on a fire. Along with rescues, a ladder crew’s job is to vent the heat and smoke from the blaze. Without venting, fire crews run the risk of a backdraft, when an oxygen-starved fire gets a sudden burst of air – say from another fireman, axing his way through the door – and the fire explodes outward. More often, the heat and smoke from a blaze radiate back into the room to cause a rollover, when carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons smoulder in dancing blue flames that roll along the ceiling like northern lights in the winter sky. In the engine of a car, the exploding gasoline isn’t hot enough to burn off these gases, so a catalytic converter is used to change their chemical structure to burn at lower temperatures. In a rollover, there is no chemical catalyst, just heat blasting the molecules apart. Without venting, a rollover can quickly turn into flashover, when everything in the room is heated to the point of ignition and suddenly bursts into flames.
The easiest way to vent a fire is to break out windows and doors, but the most effective method is to tear holes in the roof or ceiling above the blaze. Truckies have a few tricks for spotting and preventing collapses. Once they’re actually above a fire, they look for sudden puffs of smoke coming up through the vents, and check the roof they’re standing on for increased warmth or softness. But the most important work happens before ladder crews even set foot on a roof, when they scout the fire from below. Some of their methods are by-the-book: checking the severity of the fire, cutting small holes in the ceiling and walls to see how far it has spread, studying the building’s construction for weaknesses. Others are harder to quantify, the almost subconscious process of stacking up the countless, tiny details gleaned from the blaze at hand – the smell, shifts in air currents and pressure – and comparing them with the accumulated wisdom of a career spent fighting fires. It all happens so quickly that most firefighters describe it as little more than a gut feeling, but, like hitting a curveball or making a no-look pass, it’s a matter of skill and experience, not divine inspiration.
Before Billy climbed onto the roof and waved to Louise and the kids, he and Ladder 156 had been inside the market scouting the blaze, probably cutting holes in the ceiling and walls for signs of fire extension, checking how far the heat and smoke had “banked down” from the ceiling to gauge how long and how hot it had been burning. Radioing back to headquarters, chiefs inside the market said the fire was nothing out of the ordinary, but they didn’t know that an inferno was blazing above them, hidden in an illegally constructed section of the attic. The first hint came when a ladder crew on top of the building cut a hole in the centre of the roof, to find not flames but another roof. Unbeknownst to firemen, the Waldbaum’s was built with what’s known as a “truss roof”, which has a tendency to sag in the middle and collect heavy rainwater. To fix the problem, the contractors added a thin, sloped “rain roof” on top of the original roof to divert water to gutters on the side of the building. But management never told the buildings department or the fire department about the rain roof.
In New York in the late 1970s, keeping City Hall in the dark about building renovations was standard operating procedure. The city had gone all but bankrupt in 1975, and the cash-strapped buildings department and fire department didn’t have the time or manpower to perform many inspections or enforce codes. With no one to stop or fine them, building owners routinely cut corners to save money. In the case of Waldbaum’s, the fire department had never even done a serious inspection of the building – chiefs on the scene knew nothing about the truss roof, the rain roof, or the out-of-code attic that hid the main fire from both the firemen inside the store and those on the roof above.
After cutting through the rain roof, truckies had to use long hooks to punch smaller holes in the original roof below. Initially the openings didn’t show much fire, but just after Billy and Ladder 156 reached the roof, someone cut a hole above the hidden inferno in the attic. With the sudden rush of oxygen, smoke and flames shot into the air and caused the burst of sparks that sent Louise to the pay phone to call Billy’s father. With the previously hidden flames now vented, Billy and the crew on the roof faced two facts that had initially escaped them: that the roof they stood on was actually above the original roof, and that there was a very serious fire burning below a section of that lower roof. There was a third fact they were still unaware of, though: the truss-style construction of the original roof. One of the big advantages of a truss roof is that the trusses (usually steel or wooden beams) work together to evenly distribute the weight above them to the side walls of the building, removing the need for load-bearing columns below. For decades, column-style construction had been the FDNY’s primary collapse problem-an uneven distribution of weight or fire damage would cripple one or two columns and down they’d come. Collapses were particularly common with the cast-iron architecture of many factories and warehouses south of Houston Street in Manhattan. By the late 1970s, the cast-iron district was being rechristened as SoHo (for “South of Houston [Street] “) and TriBeCa (for “Triangle Below Canal [Street] “) by the area’s budding artist population and the enterprising real estate developers who followed them, but in the fire department, the neighbourhood was still known as Hell’s Hundred Acres. Trusses cut the risk of collapse by distributing excess weight from one truss to the entire roof. But if that distributed weight is too much for the trusses to bear, they can all crumble in an instant (which happened with the collapse of the World Trade centre towers).
From THE FIRES: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City – and Determined the Future of Cities by Joe Flood. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Joe Flood, 2010.
Top Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com
Joe Flood received the Bronx recognises Its Own (BRIO) award from the Bronx Council on the Arts for his work researching and writing about the epidemic of fires in the Bronx in the 1970s. The Fires is his first book.
THE FIRES: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City – and Determined the Future of Cities is available from Amazon.com