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Detroit Warehouse Fire Claims Three Firefighters

March 12, 1987

A massive fire destroyed two large warehouse complexes and resulted in thedeaths of three members of the Detroit Fire Department on March 12, 1987. Thecircumstances were particularly unusual in the fact that the fatalitiesresulted from two separate incidents, in different buildings, almost 3 hoursapart. The manner in which the fire conditions changed very rapidly,resulting in one fatality and several injuries, is also unusual and couldeasily have resulted in several additional fire fighter deaths.The Detroit Fire Department has determined that this fire resulted from an actof arson and a suspect has been charged with 3 counts of homicide. Thisreport does not address the cause and origin aspects of the investigation. Itis intended to describe the situation that was faced by the forces involved infire supression operations and the circumstances that resulted in thefatalities.This report is for informational purposes only.

The fire scene was approximately two miles northwest of the downtown businessarea in a warehouse district, one block from the Detroit Fire DepartmentTraining Academy. It involved two adjacent warehouse complexes, eachconstructed in several phases between approximately 1900 and 1920. Thebuildings in the north complex were abandoned, while the south complex wasoccupied by an operating paper products distributing company. The twocomplexes were separated by an entrance alley, approximately 20 ft. wide, thatprovided entry to a large yard area. This was the only access to the yardwith the other sides blocked by buildings, railroad tracks and retaining walls.NORTH COMPLEXThe north complex consisted of an L-shaped 3-story warehouse, with fullbasement, facing the frontage road of I-96, attached to a 4-story warehouse onthe northeast corner of the complex. A fenced-in vacant lot on the northwestcorner of the property was covered with old tires.The 3-story buildings were heavy timber construction with numerous verticalopenings for freight elevators, conveyors and stairs. The front section was190 ft. x 90 ft., divided down the middle by a fire wall. The sectionextending east was 300 ft. x 50 ft. With an intermediate fire wall at themid-point. Many of the fire doors were missing or damaged, negating anyeffective horizontal or vertical separations in this part of the complex. The4-story section was 230 ft. x 100 ft. constructed of reinforced poured-inplace concrete. The buildings were separated by a covered shipping area,approximately 20 ft. wide and spanned by 3 crossover bridges. A railroad siding, on top of a concrete viaduct, ran along the south side of the 3-storysection at the second floor level.The buildings had been protected by automatic sprinklers, but the system wasinoperative and had been partially dismantled, including removal of thesprinkler heads and the elevated storage tank.The 3-story section was formerly occupied by a wiping Cloth distributor andwas left heavily stocked when the company went out of business. The contentsincluded rags in bales and crates, in addition to piles of discarded clothingand materials. The bales were described as 5 ft. in diameter and up to 8 ft.tall, bound in burlap. Some of these rags may nave been oil soaked, adding tothe intensity of the fire and rapid fire spread.The 4-story building was previously used by a division of the same companythat dealt in used rags and other bulk items. It was also abandoned, fullystocked with combustible contents. Efforts to keep the abandoned propertysecured had been unsuccessful and transients were known to frequently occupythe buildings.Fire companies in the area were aware of the risk and had conducted severalfamiliarization tours of the buildings. During these tours, the hazards ofopen passages between floors had been noted and firefighters had movedcontents to cover several floor openings they considered hazardous. At leastone fire had occurred previously in the buildings and fire fightersanticipated another, sooner or later. Many of the personnel responding on thefirst alarm had toured the building in the previous month.

The property had been abandoned in 1982 and came under state control for backtaxes. The City of Detroit had awarded a contract for its demolition and thecontractor was scheduled to begin work within a few days after the fire.SOUTH COMPLEXThe south complex was occupied by a paper products distribution company. Thissection included 3-story warehouse sections and additiona? sections of 1 and 2stories, forming a triangle with frontages of 320 ft. along the I-96 accessroad, 300 ft. facing the yard area and 400 ft. along the railroad embankmentto the south. The railroad tracks coincided with the 2nd floor level on thesouth side.The front of the paper company's buildings had been covered with a metalfacade, obscuring the age and complexity of the structures, but these factorswere plainly visible from the sides and rear. The construction included steelframe and heavy timber sections, divided by several fire walls and protectedby automatic sprinklers. The contents included paper and plastic products,including packing materials and consumer goods.Examination of the scene, after the fire, reveals that the brick constructionin both complexes was of inferior quality, presenting a high risk for earlycollapse. The brick work included many irregularities and no visiblereinforcing, with evident gaps between the double and triple courses of brick.The construction had taken place over several years, resulting in complicatedarrangements of buildings and many construction features that could not beseen from the exterior.

The fire was reported in the abandoned section of the complex at 1506 hours onMarch 12, 1987. A first alarm assignment consisting of 3 engine companies,one ladder company, a squad and Battalion Chief was dispatched and the firstdue ladder company arrived within 2 minutes. Ladder 9, responding from itsquarters at the Training Academy, one block away, had a view of the north andeast faces of the buildings as they approached. They arrived, reporting asmall amount of light smoke showing from the southeast corner 3rd floorwindows.The first arriving companies had to force entry through the front doors andthen made their way via an unenclosed interior stairway to the top floor. Atthis level they found at least two small fires in trash and rags toward thesouth end of the floor area. They went to a window and dropped a rope,intending to pull a 1 l/2 inch nose line up to the 3rd floor. The fire didnot appear to be threatening at this point and the crews anticipated a quickand easy job of extinguishment.Very suddenly, the conditions on the 3rd floor changed dramatically. A heavyfront of smoke and flame rolled over on the interior crews, forcing them toabandon their positions and retreat toward the stairs. One fire fighter,looking through a doorway to the adjoining sections, reported a mass of flamesapproaching rapidly. There are indications that an additional fire, possiblyset on a lower floor toward the middle of the east-west wing, had reached theflashover stage and was rapidly engulfing the entire 3rd floor. A total of 8fire fighters were on the 3rd floor when the flasnover occurred, forcing themto crawl back toward the stairway. Two managed to dive down the stairs andescaped with hand and facial burns and other injuries. One went out a windowto an aerial ladder, but 5 could not reach the stairs and were trapped by theflashover.

The firefighters found their way to windows in the northwest quadrant of thebuilding and called for help. One lieutenant lost his grip while hanging outa window and fell, striking a ledge at the 2nd floor level and landing headfirst on the street below. Other firefighters initiated CPR and transportedhim in a fire investigator's sedan to a hospital where he was pronounced deadon arrival.While a ground ladder was being raised, a second fire fighter fell, striking alarge telephone line and landing on the street With a fractured elbow andshoulder. Two were rescued with an extension ladder from a front window whilea master stream was used to protect another, hanging onto the sill of a windowaround the corner. To reach him, a snort ladder had to be used to scale achain link fence into the vacant yard and a 45 ft. extension ladder was passedover and raised.All of the fire fighters were wearing full protective clothing, includingcoats and helmets that complied with NFPA standards, leather gloves and 3/4length rubber boots. Most wore SCBA's on their backs and four were able todon their face pieces as they crawled toward the stairs, including the two whofell. Several of the firefighters received 1st and 2nd degree burns to theirhands, wrists, thighs and necks.

Exposure PriorityWhen conditions began to deteriorate, the Battalion Chief immediately calledfor a 2nd Alarm at 1519 hours. This was followed by a 3rd Alarm at 1522, a4th Alarm at 1530 and a 5th Alarm at 1538 hours. Requests for additionalcompanies escalated the response to the equivalent of 7 alarms as flamesrapidly engulfed the entire 3-story building. The Deputy Fire Chief,responding on the 3rd Alarm, assumed command and attempted to deploy companiesto confine the fire. A ladder company, assigned to set up a master stream atthe east end (Lawton Street) of the building could not operate in an effectiveposition because of the imminent danger of wall collapse, while companiescould not use the alley entrance to the yard because of the collapsing wall atthat end of the fire building. A railroad viaduct at the 2nd floor levelseverely restricted access on the east side of the fire building and handlineshad to be stretched by hand into the yard area, over a retaining wall andfence, to apply water on the south side.As the flames raged on the heavy fuel load of the rag warehouse, the exposedpaper warehouse was quickly ignited. Moments after the rescue of the trappedfirefighters was completed, flames were visible under the eaves and in theexposed windows, at the alley opening. Companies were sent to the roof andinterior to attempt to stop extension with handlines, while elevated masterstreams were set-up to cover the exposure from the front, including a towerladder set-up on the freeway off ramp in front of the complex.

This holding action was successful in the front part of the building, butflames soon overwhelmed the sprinkler system and broke through the roof of thenext section to the east. The portions of the warehouse that were beyond thereach of elevated streams received a heavy exposure from radiant heat, flyingbrands and internal extension, resulting in full involvement of the northeastsection of the paper products warehouse. Handlines and portable master streamdevices were moved onto the railroad right-of-way to attack the growing fireand the Deputy Chief ordered all personnel out of the warehouse, because ofthe danger of structural collapse.With 3-story warehouses now fully involved around three sides of the yard, theoperation went into a long duration defensive mode. The unusually high fuelload in both complexes created intense thermal columns and showered the areato the east with flying brands. Several small fires were handled by enginecompanies and citizens with garden hoses, up to 3 blocks down wind.STRUCTURAL COLLAPSEApproximately 2 hours into the defensive battle, companies working along theeast side of the paper warehouse began to approach the burning 3-story sectionover the roof tops of the uninvolved Z-story sections. Near the middle of thebuilding they found an area where the roof had burned off and the 3rd floorcontents were partially burned. It is believed that the fire in this area hadbeen controlled by an elevated stream, operated from the front of thebuilding. This section was separated by a fire wall from the fully involvedsection to the east.

Members of two companies made their way from the adjoining rooftop into the3rd floor area where they picked up and extended handlines that had beenabandoned earlier. Three members of one company were working near a firewall, overhauling debris, when a section of parapet collapsed without warningat 1758 hours. This wall was free standing at the time, since roof structureson both sides had burned away and an intense fire was burning on the otherside.Two members were caught by the falling wall, which collapsed the 3rd and 2ndfloors down into the 1st floor. and were trapped in a pile of debrisapproximately 1.2 ft deep in the unburned ground floor area. The remainingmember of the company called for help and made his way downstairs to begindigging for the victims. He was joined by numerous other firefighters as theword of men trapped was announced over the fireground radio channel.The Deputy Fire Chief organized a rescue effort with crews digging out bricksand debris by hand. This effort actually took place inside the ground floorwarehouse area and efforts to limit the number of personnel exposed to thedanger of further collapse were hampered by the urgency to rescue trappedcomrades. While this operation was in progress, the application of water wasseverely curtailed, to avoid causing further collapse of the structure. Anadditional assignment of fresh companies was called to assist in the rescueoperation.The rescue effort took more than one hour, resulting in the recovery of thebodies of a 58 year old lieutenant and 20 year old probationary

firefighter. At the time of the body recovery, the Deputy Fire Chief wascontemplating removing all crews, because of deteriorating fire conditions,and as soon as the operation was completed the building was abandoned.By this time the fire had extended into most of the Z-story sections of thepaper warehouse and total destruction was unavoidable. All crews withdrew tosafe positions and master stream operations were continued for almost 24hours. Late on the following afternoon, the contractor who held thedemolition contract was called in to level the unsafe walls of both complexes.LESSONS LEARNED1. The buildings involved in this fire were heavily loaded with highlycombustible contents. The arrangement of the buildings createdconditions that were ripe for very rapid fire growth and spread,particularly in the building of fire origin where the automaticsprinkler system had been rendered imoperative and fire doors and wallswere compromised. These factors must be noted during pre-fire planningvisits and responding companies must be prepared to deal with extremelyrapid fire growth conditions.2. Vacant buildings often present an attractive nuisance to members ofsociety who engage in the crime of arson, either for profit or for moreunpredictable motives. Where these problems exist, companies shouldmake a priority of pre-fire planning and familiarizing themselves withaccess, Contents, special hazards and hidden traps that may be critical

in a firefighting operation. Efforts must also be directed towardhaving abandoned buildings secured or demolished as quickly aspossible. The actions of an arsonist are truly unpredictable. Firefighters encountering obvious arson situations must be particularlyvigilant for multiple points of origin, accelerants, and other factorsthat could cause rapid changes in fire conditions.3. The contents of the rag warehouse were not only highly combustible, butalso obstructed access through the storage areas and prevented firefighters from finding the stairway when the unexpected flashoveroccurred. When encountering conditions of this nature, the use ofguide ropes or hoselines to lead the way back to an exit should beseriously considered.4. When fighting any type of fire, the officer in command mustconsistantly be aware of the risk to personnel, and question whetherthe potential results justify the risk. No building is worth the lifeof a fire fighter and abandoned or substantially destroyed buildings donot justify risking personnel under any circumstances. This must beweighed in context, however, as it is not realistic to allow any firein an abandoned building to burn unchecked. If manageable fires arecreate a much greater risk to fire fighters andnot controlled in the ir early stages, they will inevitab ly grow tomajor proportions andthe community.

5. On their arrival, fire fighters encountered a situation that did notappear to present any significant danger. When the flashover occurred,they were very suddenly subjected to intense heat and flames, as wellas zero-visibility smoke conditions. Those members who had their SelfContained Breathing Apparatus on their backs, had time to don theirface pieces as they crawled from the danger. Those who did not haveSCBA's, at least on their backs, were suddenly in extreme danger andwere lucky to survive.Whatever the situation, company officers must take basic precautions,including:Identifying secondary means of escape.Ensuring that all personnel are wearing full protective clothing andSCBA.Maintaining accountability for all crew members at all times.Constantly being aware of their surroundings and changing conditions.Being trained to react to unanticipated emergency conditions.6. Large scale operations, such as this one, require strong centralizedcommand to establish and communicate the basic strategy that will beemployed and to coordinate operations. This must be supported by afire ground organization that controls the tactical position andfunction of all operating units and monitors safety conditions, inaccordance with the stratetic plan. This requires sufficientcommand-level officers and effective communications to perform theessential tasks.

Offensive and defensive fire fighting operations must never be mixed orconfused. When a fire is being managed in a defensive mode, allpersonnel must be aware of the strategic plan and stay out of theuninvolved area until re-entry is authorized by the officer in Commandof the incident. "Free lance" operations must not be allowed.7. The inherent structural weaknesses of a building may or may not beplainly visible. Potential weak points should be noted during pre-fireplanning and inspection visits. Safety officers should be assigned tomonitor the operation and to evaluate conditions as they areencountered and all personnel should be able to recognize signs ofweakness or impending collapse.8. The urgency of a rescue operation may cause firefighters to acceptsevere risks and to endanger themselves in large numbers. The risk ofadditional losses must be weighed against the chances of a successfulrescue. The loss of control may escalate a tragic situation into amajor disaster.The "lessons learned" listed in this report should not be interpreted ascriticism of the Detroit Fire Department or of any of the individuals involvedin this incident. This fire presented an extremely unusual combination ofcircumstances that had a devastating effect on a very competent andexperienced fire department. The incident involved heroic actions and tragicresults that were felt throughout the Detroit Fire Department and throughoutthe fire service. These lessons should be taken as reminders that firefighters must never relax their attention to basic safety procedures and mustalways be prepared to deal With a situation that changes from routine tocritical without warning.

This report was prepared by J. Gordon Routley, Chairman of the Health andSafety Committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and by Tri-Data Corporation, for the United States Fire Administration. The cooperationof the Phoenix Fire Department in making Mr. Routley available for thisproject is acknowledged.In addition, the cooperation of Commissioner Melvin Jefferson and the membersof the Detro it Fire Department is greatly appreciated.

 
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