Waldbaum’s Supermarket Fire: 35 Years Later

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the Waldbaum’s Supermarket Fire in Brooklyn, N.Y. Six FDNY firefighters died on Aug. 2, 1978, when the wooden bowstring truss roof of the supermarket collapsed while they were working on it. Although 12 firefighters fell into the flames when the roof collapsed, six were rescued.

We Remember
•    Lt. James Cutillo, 33rd Battalion
•    Firefighter Charles Bouton, Ladder Co. 156
•    Firefighter William O’Conner, Ladder Co. 156
•    Firefighter James P McManus, Ladder Co. 153
•    Firefighter George Rice, Ladder Co. 153
•    Firefighter Harold F. Hastings, Ladder Co.153

The Incident
The following is adapted from an FDNY report from 1998, when the street corner where the fire took place was officially renamed Firemen’s Corner.

The fire started at 0840 HRS in Waldbaum’s Supermarket, at the intersection of Avenue Y and Ocean Avenue in Sheepshead Bay. Nearly 23 electricians, plumbers, etc., were renovating the building when the fire started in the mezzanine area. An all-hands alarm was called at 0849 HRS, and a second alarm was called at 0902 HRS.

Shortly after 0920 HRS, with 20 firefighters on the roof, a crackling sound was heard, and the center portion of the roof fell into the smoke and flames. Some of the firefighters were seen running toward the edge of the roof; some made it, others nearby fell into the hole. At 0918 HRS, a third alarm was called. The incident eventually went to five alarms.

Laborers and firefighters 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.

Joe Jankowski, a member of Engine 246, was on the roof that day. He later reported that the roof beneath him had a spongy feel. When it collapsed, he went toward the ledge, hanging on until he was rescued a few seconds before the roof caved in.

Although a man confessed to intentionally setting the fire, and was convicted of murder and arson in 1980, his conviction was dismissed in 1988 when it was found that the prosecution had improperly withheld information that could have helped the defense. A new trial was ordered and the suspect was acquitted. The trials represented one of the longest legal battles in New York court history.

Lessons Learned
FireRescue Editor-in-Chief Tim Sendelbach offers these lessons learned:

We’ve all heard the famous quote from philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” No quote more accurately describes the lessons learned from the Waldbaum’s Supermarket Fire.

In 1978 the fire service lost six brave men in a bowstring truss collapse. Ten years later, we would lose five more firefighters in a bowstring truss collapse in Hackensack, N.J., and nearly 15 years later we would lose three more in Coos Bay, Ore. The lessons to be shared are many, and WE (the entire fire service) MUST TAKE THE TIME LEARN THE LESSONS OF OUR PAST. We owe it to those who have given so much.

Critical Lessons
1. All firefighters should be taught how to identify critical building characteristics from the street, for example:
•    humped roof = bowstring truss—high probability of early collapse
•    parapet = strong likelihood of hidden hazards—perform a 360 and assess the roof for HVAC units and other potential hazards

2. All fire departments should preplan buildings to determine whether they’re constructed with lightweight truss. Buildings that are should have a note in the preplan for firefighters to RESPOND WITH EXTREME CAUTION.

3. ALL buildings constructed using truss assemblies (roofs and floors) MUST be treated with extreme caution. Once a truss assembly is determined to be impinged upon or damaged by fire, assume a defensive position IMMEDIATELY.

4. Use extreme caution when vertically ventilating lightweight truss roofs. Always assess the roof for stability using a pike pole, axe, etc. Consider checking for fire extension in the truss space using inspection holes as you proceed across the roof to your chosen ventilation point. Visually examine the roof using a thermal imaging camera before leaving the safety of the ladder. Strongly consider the use of a roof ladder. AVOID VERTICAL VENTILATION FOR ADVANCED FIRES THAT HAVE IMPINGED UPON THE TRUSS ASSEMBLY.

5. Communication is CRITICAL. Interior crews MUST make it a high priority to inspect overhead spaces (cocklofts, attics, etc.) for fire extension. Upon inspection, report your findings immediately to command and operating roof personnel.

Lightweight truss and bowstring truss buildings have a very disturbing track record within the fire service. Today’s firefighters must not let the lessons of our historic past go unnoticed. Let’s learn from the past so we, too, don’t repeat it.

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