Learning from the Past: Five Alarm Church Fire and Collapse leads to two Line of Duty Deaths (LODD) and Twenty-Nine Fire Fighter Injuries three hours into the incident

200417P1Six years ago on March 13, 2004, two career firefighters with the City of Pittsburg (PA) Fire Bureau were fatally injured during a structural collapse of a bell tower at the Ebenezer Baptist Church fire. Battalion Chief Charles G. Brace (55 years of age) was acting as the Incident Safety Officer and Master Firefighter Richard A. Stefanakis (51 years of age) was performing overhaul, extinguishing remaining hot spots inside the church vestibule when the bell tower collapsed on them and numerous other fire fighters. Twenty-three fire fighters injured during the collapse were transported to area hospitals. A backdraft occurred earlier in the incident that injured an additional six fire fighters. The collapse victims were extricated from the church vestibule several hours after the collapse. The victims were pronounced dead at the scene. A total of twenty-nine other fire fighters were injured during the incident. 

The Structure
The church was a National Historic Landmark that was built in 1875. The building was still in use as a house of worship and school at the time of this incident. The exterior construction was masonry with several courses of red brick covered with stone. The building foundation was approximately 120 x 70 feet and approximately 50 feet to the roof line. The pitched roof was covered with asphalt shingles and supported by heavy timber roof trusses. The stone façade exterior of the structure was added during a renovation in the 1930s. This renovation also included the addition of a 115 foot bell tower capped with four spires. The bell tower was not a stand-alone structure, but was supported by steel I-beams with a brick and stone façade that was connected into the southwest corner of the original church.

The church had four levels. The entry level or ‘Cay Cee Level’ had the main assembly area with a performance stage, a kitchen and two bathrooms. The top floor was the ‘Sanctuary Level’ which contained the pulpit, choir section, baptismal pool, and balcony. The basement or ‘King Level’ had several meeting rooms, three bathrooms, a computer room, a boiler room, and an electrical room. (Note: An unfinished sub-basement was also present with three rooms).

The church had an attached annex added to the eastern side of the original structure in 1994. The annex was approximately 60 x 45 feet in size and the three story addition contained an elevator that served the entire church. The annex was attached to the original structure via hallways on each floor with a central elevator shaft. On the first floor was a chapel, five offices and a bathroom. The second floor had nine meeting rooms. The third floor contained a fellowship hall, a kitchen and bathrooms.

The Fire

The fire occurred on a Saturday morning as parishioners were preparing to have breakfast. The church staff noticed smoke coming from an electrical outlet. When the pastor went to investigate in the electrical room located in the basement, he found heavy smoke. Building occupants called 911 and reported an electrical fire. Building occupants had evacuated the church prior to the arrival of fire fighters.

The origin of the fire was in the basement ceiling located in the front southwest corner of the church within an electrical/computer room. The actual ignition mechanism of the fire was unable to be determined. The fire spread horizontally through the concealed space between the basement ceiling and first floor. The fire then spread vertically via concealed wall spaces to the structural members, framing and interior furnishings.

There were approximately 70 fire fighters and 13 apparatus on scene during the 4th alarm response when the bell tower collapse occurred at 1213 hours.

At 0845 hours, an alarm was received for an electrical fire at a church. The 1st Alarm assignment included three engine companies, a truck company, another engine company to serve as the RIT team, an acting Battalion Chief as the IC, a Battalion Chief as the Incident Safety Officer (ISO), a Mobile Air Truck used to fill SCBA air tanks and a Safety Unit that maintains command status and fire fighter accountability boards.

  • Engine 4 (E4) was the first company on scene at 0850 hours. The apparatus was positioned in front of the church and the crew reported seeing light to moderate smoke inside the church. The church pastor told the crew that the building had been evacuated and that the smoke was coming from the electrical room in the basement.
  • The crew advanced a 1 ¾-in hand line through the front southeast entrance and down the stairs to the basement. Once in the basement, the crew was met with intense heat and thick black smoke. The crew could not see any flame but heard crackling sounds that they localized to the ceiling above them.
  • The crew then attempted to open the ceiling, but heavy plaster and lathe construction hindered their efforts.
  • Truck 4 (T4) also arrived on scene at 0850 hours and positioned the apparatus in the parking lot. The crew was preparing to raise the aerial ladder to the roof and begin ventilation when the IC ordered them to open the floor on the first floor above the fire.
  • Once on the first floor, the crew started using a chainsaw and immediately began to experience problems with the saw stalling. (Note: It is believed that the interior smoke conditions and a lack of oxygen caused the gas-powered saw to stall out rendering it unusable.)
  • The crew switched to axes and started chopping the floor. The E4 crew could hear the axe strikes above them from the basement below.
  • Engine 5 (E5) arrived on scene at 0851 hours and established water supply to E4. The crew advanced another 1 ¾-in hand line to the basement to back up the E4 crew.
  • Engine 10 (E10) arrived on scene at 0852 hours and established a second water supply. The crew advanced a 1 ¾-in hand line to the first floor to back up the T4 crew and assisted in opening the floor.
  • Both crews experienced heavy smoke conditions upon entering the church.

A 2nd Alarm was requested for additional manpower by Victim #1 at 0900 hours and the assignment included two engine companies, a truck company and the Deputy Chief. Prior to the 2nd Alarm being dispatched, the Deputy Chief was already en-route and upon arrival at 0900 hours conducted a size-up and was briefed by Officers. The Deputy Chief assumed IC while the Acting Battalion Chief became the Operations Chief and Chief Brace became the ISO.

A 3rd Alarm was requested by the IC at 0911 hours and the assignment included three additional engine companies and the Assistant Chief. Since the exact seat of the fire was still not located, the IC made a special request for Engine 29 (E29) to bring a thermal imaging camera (TIC) to the scene. (Note: At the time of this incident, the department had only one TIC, a unit that was on loan from the manufacturer.)

At 0919 hours (approximately 30 minutes into the incident), the IC called for an evacuation and an accountability check based on the deteriorating interior conditions.

  • All firefighters on the interior attack crews reported outside to the Safety Unit for the accountability check. After all personnel were accounted for at 0925 hours, the IC continued the interior attack with crews located in the basement and on the first floor.
  • The E12 Officer reported to command that they had located the fire in the basement prior to the accountability check; they were ordered to continue fire suppression with E4 acting as back-up.
  • Both crews re-entered the basement and began to extinguish the fire.
  • The E12 Officer reported that soon after they began to spray water, the basement went “black, totally black, like the fire left.” He immediately yelled for everyone to back out. Some fire fighters reported hearing a “big, loud whistle” followed by a bang.

At 0928 hours, a major backdraft occurred that injured six fire fighters. The E4 Officer who was standing at the top of the stairwell was blown out of the building into the street by the force of the backdraft. The E4 Officer suffered bruises and facial burns. The E12 crew in the basement was beginning to back out when roaring fire rolled over top of them knocking them down.

  • They quickly climbed the steps and exited the church with their bunker gear smoldering. The E12 Officer received burns on his back, hands and face; an E12 fire fighter received hand and facial burns and another E12 fire fighter received facial burns.
  • The E11 Officer and E11 fire fighter were venting windows from a ground ladder against the wall on the western exterior when they saw that smoke was puffing in and out of the windows. They heard a load roar and started to run, but the force of the backdraft blew them across the street.
  • Fire fighters immediately began administering first aid to the injured and the IC ordered an evacuation and accountability check. The accountability check was quickly conducted by the Safety Unit and all fire fighters were accounted for by 0929 hours. Five of the injured fire fighters were transported by ambulance to a metropolitan trauma/burn center.
  • Fire fighters from Truck 14 did not reenter the church but were ordered to set up a positive pressure ventilation fan in a window in the front of the church. (Note: This task was not completed prior to the backdraft.)

A 4th Alarm was requested by the IC at 0931 hours and the assignment included two additional engine companies, the Chief, a Communications Officer, and another Battalion Chief as an additional ISO.

  • For the next several hours, both ISOs were working their sectors and updating the IC with progress reports.
  • At 0948 hours (approximately 1 hour into the incident), heavy smoke was reported throughout the church and the IC changed tactics to a defensive attack and removed all personnel from the building. Numerous master steam appliances and hand lines were operated from all exposure sides in an attempt to extinguish the fire in the church and protect the annex.
  • At 0949 hours, fire was present throughout the western side of the church.
  • At 1007 hours, heavy black smoke was observed in the eastern side and at 1009 hours, fire was breaking through the roof.
  • At 1031 hours, there was heavy fire throughout the church
  • At 1048 hours (approximately 2 hours into the incident), the roof was completely burnt away and companies were continuing with “surround and drown” operations.
  • At 1148 hours, the IC ordered all exterior hose streams shut down. One ISO left the immediate scene as instructed by the Assistant Chief to impound the fire gear of the fire fighters injured in the back draft. The IC met with company officers and discussed overhaul operations to extinguish the remaining pockets of fire.

At 1213 hours (approximately 3½ hours into the incident), the church bell tower collapsed sending large chunks of stone, brick, heavy wooden timbers, and other debris crashing through the vestibule trapping both victims under debris.

  • Other fire fighters operating in the vestibule recall that heavy timbers and wood boards broke through the ceiling and then the entire ceiling came down. Several fire fighters reported narrowly escaping from the collapse. Fire fighters standing outside of the church were showered with falling debris that injured numerous fire fighters.
  • The collapse caused some of the heavy timber roof trusses to fail. Falling roof trusses struck several fire fighters and one fire fighter became trapped. The fire fighters made an urgent radio transmission for assistance and requested rescue equipment. Their call went unanswered due to command being incapacitated.
  • At 1214 hours, an arson Officer radioed to dispatch that a major collapse had occurred and requested a 5th alarm for additional manpower to assist with rescue efforts. The 5th alarm assignment included three additional engines and two additional truck companies. Fire fighters immediately began administering first aid and transporting injured fire fighters to ambulances. Upon hearing of the collapse over the radio, the other ISO returned to the immediate scene from impounding the fire gear from injured fire fighters.
  • The ISO, assisted by an officer of the Safety Unit, conducted an accountability check a short time after the collapse and verified that Victim #1 and Victim #2 were missing. Twenty three fire fighters were injured during the collapse and transported to area hospitals.

According to the NIOSH Report F2004-017 (HERE) investigators concluded that, to minimize the risk of similar occurrences, fire departments should perform the following;

  • Ensure that an assessment of the stability and safety of the structure is conducted before entering fire and water-damaged structures for overhaul operations
  • Establish and monitor a collapse zone to ensure that no activities take place within this area during overhaul operations
  • Ensure that the Incident Commander establishes the command post outside of the collapse zone
  • Train fire fighters to recognize conditions that forewarn of a backdraft
  • Ensure consistent use of personal alert safety system (PASS) devices during overhaul operations
  • Ensure that pre-incident planning is performed on structures containing unique features such as bell towers
  • Ensure that Incident Commanders conduct a risk-versus-gain analysis prior to committing fire fighters to an interior operation, and continue to assess risk-versus-gain throughout the operation including overhaul
  • Develop standard operating guidelines (SOGs) to assign additional safety officers during complex incidents
  • Provide interior attack crews with thermal imaging cameras
  • Municipalities should enforce current building codes to improve the safety of occupants and fire fighters

References and follow up;

NIOSH Report F2004-017           March 13, 2004

Career battalion chief and career master fire fighter die and twenty-nine career fire fighters are injured during a five alarm church fire – Pennsylvania

NIOSH REPORT 2009-100: Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program: Leading Recommendations for Preventing Fire Fighter Fatalities, 1998–2005

NIOSH ALERT 2009-146: NIOSH Alert: Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Fire Fighters due to Structural Collapse (1999)

Ebenezer tragedy scoured for whys of fire, fatalities. Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/04117/306737-85.stm#ixzz0iM1F6Zep

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