We all know just how dangerous basement and cellar fires can be and the hazards are even more pronounced in a commercial building, an old tip that saved many lives fifty years ago needs to be reminded as a modern tip in today’s fire environment. October 17, 1966 was one of the FDNY’s darkest days prior of course to September 11th, 2001, for on that day twelve firefighters perished when a floor collapse occurred in an Ordinary Constructed building on 23rd Street in Manhattan.
When encountered with a working fire in the cellar and the decision is ordered to advance down the stairs it’s a standard tactic to order another line at the top of the stairs to protect the crews, but what about when conditions first encountered aren’t bad, staffing issues are delaying that protection line or we have crews in the cellar checking for extension, mopping up, etc.
Firefighter Nicholas Cicero of FDNY Engine Company 5 was stationed at the top of the interior stairs located in the front half and leading down to the cellar of the Wonder Drug Store his job which was typical protocol dating back to the days prior to portable radio usage on the fire ground, was to keep an eye on first floor conditions, to be on his company’s “6” if you will as they had advanced a line down to the cellar to check for fire along with a truck company L-3 and while they (E-5/L-3) were not encountering poor conditions just a few feet past them concealed by a concrete wall was a blazing inferno which would soon cause the collapse of the rear first floor of the Wonder Drug killing twelve members.
Cicero noticed an unusual rush of air on the first floor and noticed a three foot square piece of cardboard move rapidly toward the rear of the store, he immediately yelled for his Captain to advise him of something unusual happening, as his Captain moved towards the base of the stairs to hear Cicero more clearly the heat from the first floor collapse occurring in the rear caused Cicero to get down low and protect his face with his coat. He repeated his warning again and then proceeded to the front door to escape, Engine 5 and Ladder 3 members began taking up in an orderly fashion from the cellar when hearing Cicero’s first warning but then expedited upon hearing his second. The crews were just able to make it out intact but several members received burns nonetheless but they survived, Cicero’s warning kept at least eleven more members from severe harm or death that night.
The wise ole legacy firefighting tip of keeping a member at the top of the stairs saved their lives, what about today? Do we think about assigning someone to this position? In today’s modern environment one doesn’t need just a collapse to occur to encounter a rapid change of conditions, however with today’s communication and smaller staffing levels we no doubt let this one slip by us and we send entire companies down, sometimes without protection of a firefighter or hoseline.
We all want in on the action but when heading to the cellar even when conditions appear “light” or “minor” remember Firefighter Cicero and leave a member at the top as your “6”.