NYC Fire Wire
March 22nd, 1987- a fire in a Harlem residential high rise shaped the way the FDNY operates at high rise buildings today. Lessons learned from this fire can apply to both firefighters & the public.
Schomburg Plaza, a 35 story residential high rise building located at 1295 5th Avenue in Harlem section of Manhattan was built in 1975. The plaza is located on the northeast corner of Central Park. The 2 35 story towers 100x100 & 11 story rectangular slab are all clad in reinforced concrete & are separated by a landscaped multi-level outdoor plaza.
On March 22nd, 1987 at around 7am, trash was ignited in the compactor chute of one of the towers. Investigation revealed, the 1st odor of smoke from the chut was at 7am, however, the 1st call to 9-1-1 came in a 7:57am, an hour later. Upon arrival of 1st due companies, they were informed by maintenance personel that there was a small fire was located in the basement compactor room & that it was already being extinguished. However, the fire was later found to have started in the chute between the 27th & 29th floors. It then spread upward through the chute, an adjacent pipe chase, construction openings & ultimately through the interior walls of apartments adjacent to the chute. While fire operations were focused on the basement room, this led to the delay in rescue & extinguishment efforts on the upper floors. According to the USFA report, it took 16 minutes after arrival at the scene to discover the fire on the upper floors. This was 9 minutes after Rescue was released to return to quarters because it was throught the fire in the compactor chute was out. The dispatchers mistakenly informed all residents that the fire was being handled. Callers were not adequately questioned as to their circumstances. They did not relay the quantity of calls being received from occupants from the 15th - 33rd floors in the 10 minutes before the Chief decided (8:07am) that the fire was out & started returning companies.
At 8:06am, 2 firefighters arrived at the roof to perform vertical ventilation. At 8:10am, 2 more firefighters arrived at the roof level. At 8:11am, 1 firefighter dropped down to upper floors to inspect, when he was met with heavy fire from apt 34H. Operations were hampered due to water pressure issues. At 8:35am, a 2nd Alarm was transmitted. The fire wasn't placed Under Control until 9:45am.
Fire Code: Each code specifies a fire-resistance rating of 2 hours for shaft enclosures in all non-combustible construction. The "as built" plans for Schomburg Plaza specify 3 inch enclosure walls for the compactor shaft. Such a design, if properly constructed, would comply with both State & City codes. However, examination of the shaft disclosures that it was not built according to plan. The wall assembly was 2 5/8 inch thick, not the 3 inches called for in the "as built" plans. Also discovered on the 29th floor was a missing chute hopper door & missing door on the compactor closet leading to the hallway.
January 7th 1997 was a rather mild winter day, temperatures in the 40’s with wind gusts exceeding 30mph. These conditions would challenge firefighting operations in an afternoon fire.
Just after 2pm, Engine 40 responded to an EMS run at the Empire Hotel at West 64th Street & Broadway, Box 969. Up the block, a fire broke out in a high rise residential building.
2:31pm, the teleprinter in the Cavemen firehouse of Engine 40/Ladder 35 alerted members of Ladder 35 to a reported High Rise Fire, Box 9999 was used because Box 969 was out already for the EMS run. 20 West 64th Street Broadway – Central Park West. E=Multiple Dwelling: Fire 28th Floor Apt 28K AKA 1 Lincoln Plaza.
Ladder 35 hit 10-84 (arrival) at 2:34pm; members could see smoke from the 28th floor of the 44 story high rise multiple dwelling V shaped. Upon entry to the lobby, members were met by a female claiming to be the house keeper of Lionel Hampton. She said the bedroom of the apartment 28K was on fire, the apartment door was closed and handed them the keys. Lt Gormley L-35, and his men proceeded to the elevator bank that serviced the upper floors. A keyed switch was found in the lobby and that recalled the elevators. FF James O’Donnell, L-35 OVM attempted to locate the elevator with the control key but none had it. The members entered the elevator and FF O’Donnell pressed 26th floor, 2 floors below the fire floor as per procedure. When they arrived, the doors opened to a smoke filled hallway. Members of Ladder 35 located the ‘You Are Here’ sign in the hallway then located Apt 26K to have an idea of where the apartment on the fire floor would be and where the stairs were located in relation to the ‘K’ line apartments. Lt Gormley decided the ‘V’ stair was closest to 28K and would be used as the ‘Attack’ stairway. The members proceeded up the stairs to the fire floor. FF O’Donnell stayed with the elevator and attempted to return to the lobby to pick up Engine 23. The elevator wasn’t in Fireman Service, it went up instead of down. FF O’Donnell was placed in a high heat and smoke environment and had to don his SCBA. The elevator brought him to the 43rd floor.
At 2:36pm, the 9th Battalion arrived to assume command. FF O’Donnell attempted to transmit from the 43rd floor to Chief Grosso in the lobby but the only person to hear his communications was FF Ed Santore, E-40 ECC, who arrived 3rd due coming from the EMS run. FF Santore relayed to Deputy Chief Dunn of the 3rd Division, the report by FF O’Donnell that conditions on the upper floors were deteriorating.