Remembering the Hackensack Tragedy

(treesixtyeight, YouTube)

FirefighterNation Staff

On Friday, July 1, 1988, as firefighters from the Hackensack (N.J.) Fire Department prepared for the holiday weekend, calls began pouring in reporting flames and smoke coming from the roof of the Hackensack Ford Dealership.

The entire Hackensack Fire Department—all 100 firefighters—responded to the fire. After approximately 1 hour of operations, five of them had lost their lives: Capt. Richard L. Williams (Engine Co. No. 304); Lt. Richard R. Reinhagen (Engine Co. No. 302); Firefighter William Krejsa (Engine Co. No. 301); Firefighter Leonard Radumski (Engine Co. No. 302); and Firefighter Stephen Ennis (Engine Co. No. 308). These five men were the first line-of-duty deaths in the department’s 117-year history.

Months later, an IAFF investigation report cited ineffective leadership, poor communications and the failure of command personnel to recognize that the roof could collapse, concluding that the five firefighters died “needlessly.”

Following is an examination of the incident itself, a summary of the criticism aimed at department leadership and a collection of lessons learned from the tragedy.

Incident Details
The fire started just before 3 p.m. in the rear service section of the dealership. According to an NFPA Summary Investigation Report of the Hackensack incident—authored by Thomas J. Klem, director of the association’s Fire Investigation Division—two engines, a ladder company and a battalion chief responded to the first alarm assignment. The first-arriving firefighters observed a heavy smoke condition at the roof area of the building. Engine company crews investigated the source of the smoke inside the building while the truck company crew assessed conditions on the roof.

Per NFPA, “For the next 20 minutes, the focus of the suppression effort was concentrated on these initial tactics. During this time, however, little headway appeared to have been made by the initial suppression efforts, and the magnitude of the fire continued to grow. The overall fireground tactics were shifted to a more defensive posture (exterior operation), and the battalion chief gave the order to ‘back your lines out.’”

Read the NFPA report
Read the NJ Bureau of Fire Safety report

Williams, Reinhagen, Krejsa, Radumski, Ennis and four other firefighters were in a garage at the rear of the sprawling building. They were shooting water at flames in a space between the ceiling and the roof.

Suddenly, a 60-foot square section of the building’s wood bowstring truss roof collapsed, and an intense fire immediately engulfed the area. Williams, Kresja and Radumski were killed instantly, and four other firefighters escaped. Reinhagen and Ennis survived the initial collapse and found refuge in a tool room where they spent the next 13 minutes calling for help.

Per NFPA, the battalion chief ordered a general alarm and order that handlines be directed toward the area of the collapse. Further, a full platoon recall was ordered for the department’s remaining platoons, and all apparatus were requested at the scene.

Approximately 90 minutes after the collapse, firefighters located the bodies of their fallen comrades.

More than 200 firefighters from Hackensack and surrounding communities brought the fire under control by 6:30 p.m.

IAFF Report Blames Leadership
Following the tragedy, an investigation was commissioned by the IAFF, AFL-CIO, which had been asked to look into the fatal fire by Local 2081, the union that represents the Hackensack Fire Department’s rank-and-file firefighters. The investigation report was authored by David P. Demers, former head of investigations for the NFPA.

According to The New York Times article, “Report Faults Leadership in Jersey Blaze,” by Robert Hanley, the report criticized commanders at the scene for “significant deviations” from the standards of “professional levels of competence and firefighters” occupational safety and health. Demers wrote, “If proper procedures and training in accordance with nationally accepted minimum standards had been provided, five firefighters would not have been needlessly killed trying to save property that was insured and will be replaced. The risk was too great.”
The report, which was released by the Bergen County Prosecutor Larry J. McClure, attributed the deaths to ineffective leadership, poor communications and the failure of command personnel to recognize that the roof could collapse.

Per The New York Times article, the IAFF report put forth two major areas of concern: 1) the inability of fire commanders to realize the dangers inherent in the design of a wooden bowstring truss roof, and 2) a massive communications breakdown that ultimately led to Reinhagen and Ennis not receiving the help they needed.

Read The New York Times article

Issue No. 1: Roof Type
According to The New York Times article, McClure said of wooden bowstring truss roofs, “They are death traps for firemen. The lack of recognition of this type of structure cannot happen again.”

According to Demers, the wooden bowstring truss roof is arched like a dome. The wooden support beams, or trusses, beneath it are erected in diagonal fashion. In a fire, if one truss fails, all fail and the roof collapses. Those roofs are commonly used in supermarkets, bowling alleys and car dealerships. Manuals distributed to fire departments nationwide by the IAFF warn of the potential for collapse in fires.

Demers said in his report that 20 Hackensack firefighters he interviewed said they had no training in types of building construction, including the bowstring truss design. He added that Chief Anthony Aiellos said no such training had been provided for the department.

Additionally, Demers said Battalion Chief Sandy Williams, the department’s initial commander at scene that day, surveyed the roof and thought it was a steel truss roof.

Issue No. 2: Communications Breakdown
Following is an excerpt from The New York Times article:

Demers contended that Chief Williams, primarily because of the volume of fire on the rooftop, should have ordered nine firefighters out of the garage within 7 minutes of his arrival. The order to pull out was given at 3:34 p.m., about 30 minutes after his arrival, the report said.

“This radio message was not acknowledged by any companies,” the report said.

The roof collapsed at 3:36 p.m. Three firefighters were hit by burning debris and killed, four escaped, and two, Lieut. Richard R. Reinhagen and Stephen Ennis, took refuge in the tool room.

At 3:39 p.m., Lieutenant Reinhagen began to radio his location and appeal for help, the report said.

In one of the major communications flaws cited by Mr. Demers at the fire scene, all departmental communications were transmitted on a single channel, or frequency. Consequently, Lieutenant Reinhagen’s appeals for help were intermingled with orders for deploying men and hoses and instructions to arriving companies.

“You have to hurry, we’re running out of air,” Lieutenant Reinhagen said at 3:42 p.m.

Headquarters then radioed to Chief Williams: “Expedite on that, they’re running out of air.”

The transcript did not show any response from Chief Williams.

Over the next 6 minutes, through 3:48 p.m., Lieutenant Reinhagen made 10 more calls. None was answered. For three of the minutes, bells indicating depletion of his air tanks’ supply were ringing repeatedly. At one point, a civilian who overheard the ringing on a radio scanner called fire headquarters to tell officials of the noise.

At 3:49 p.m., the Lieutenant radioed: “Chief, this is Lieutenant Reinhagen. I’m still stuck back in the right rear of the building in the closet. We are out of air in a closet. We’re out of air.”

“What’s your location?” Chief Williams said.

The response was inaudible and the Chief began ordering water from a truck.

At 3:50 p.m., the Lieutenant got the Chief directly and repeated that they were “stuck in a closet” and “out of air.”

“Stuck in a closet?” Chief Williams asked.

Twelve seconds later, the Chief Williams asked: “Where you at?”

“Right there in the closet,” came the response.

Fourteen seconds later, Lieutenant Reinhagen radioed again: “Help. The right rear. Out of air. Anybody out there? Stuck in the closet, right rear. No air. Help.”

The Lieutenant was asked if he was on the first or second floor. “First floor, underneath the collapsed ceiling,” the Lieutenant said at 3:52 p.m. It was his last transmission.

Firemen eventually punched a hole through an exterior wall about 10 feet from the tool room, but saw only a mass of flame, Mr. Demers said. The burning timbers were leaning against the tool room, he said, but neither fireman was burned.

Lessons Learned
Over the years, there have been many memorable fires that have brought about tremendous change; unfortunately, most have been for all the wrong reasons. The Hackensack Ford Fire is a fire that will always serve as the great American wake-up call. It caused the fire service to begin taking building construction seriously. Before this fire, building construction was seldom the focus, and bowstring truss were of minimal concern.

Following are some critical points to consider:
1. The late, great Francis Brannigan said it best when he said, “Know your enemy.” The building is your enemy, and we must know what we’re fighting and how it will react under fire. All firefighters MUST become students of building construction. The hazards today are no less than they were yesterday; in fact, they continue to increase with every changing day. KNOW YOUR ENEMY!

2. Burning truss have no time limits before collapse—Maintain situational awareness, check overhead void spaces (i.e., cock lofts, truss spaces, attics) immediately upon entry (preferably from a protected position just inside a door). If fire impedes the truss space, change your position immediately. THE 20-MINUTE RULE IS NO LONGER RELIABLE. Truss space fires should always be fought with caution and from a defensive position.

3. Error on the side of safety—If you can’t identify it from the exterior, treat it as if it is a lightweight truss building. Many buildings today are built with aesthetic facades (i.e., parapet walls, mansards) that mask the classic bowstring hump. If you can’t confirm it, treat it with caution and error on the side of safety.

4. Isolate your incident commanders—There has been much debate over the years over the importance of an incident commander (IC) to be in tune with the operational troops. Few incidents provide more concrete evidence for a stationary commander isolated in their vehicle than the Hackensack Ford Fire. ICs should be afforded the opportunity to listen, communicate and strategize in an area isolated from distraction. Therefore, ISOLATE YOUR INCIDENT COMMANDER.

5. Span-of-control—The effectiveness of the incident command system is based on proper span-of-control amongst supervisory personnel. As a general rule, if the IC can’t see an area, they should assign a supervisor (division or group) to that area and request regular progress reports (i.e., CAN [Conditions, Actions and Needs] Reports). Remember, effective span-of-control is considered to be 3 to 7 with 5 being the most optimum. Situational awareness for the IC is dependent upon effective communications from division and group supervisors. All supervisors should try to create a verbal picture (detailing the specific area of operation) of the incident when reporting to the IC.

6. Tactical reserves are critical—Unfortunately, when we’re called to a fire, the fire usually has the upper hand and we’re forced to play catch-up. For this reason, we should always call for help early. The only way to get the upper hand on a rapidly developing fire is to deploy the right tactics, using the right amount of resources in the quickest time possible. The only way to ensure the safety of your personnel is to have the right amount of resources immediately in reserve (on scene) if the need arises. So, KEEP AN EXTRA ALARM IN STAGING, JUST IN CASE.

The Hackensack Ford Fire is an incident with many lessons for us all. I strongly encourage each of you to review this fire and to make sure that every firefighter who enters are profession become students of building construction and understand the potential dangers of working beneath of burning truss.

Final Thoughts
Williams, 54, and Krejsa, 52, died on the 24th anniversary of their service with the Hackensack Fire Department. Reinhagen, 48, would have been a member of the service for 24 years the following December. Radumski, 38, had been with the department for 14 years, and Ennis, 30, for 5 years.

In an article published the day after the tragedy, Fire Chief Anthony Aiellos said, “There are only 100 of us in this department, and this is just a small place. In a town like this, these are your friends. These were good men.”

Hackensack Tragedy: A Failure in Command