….the sudden blazes – already the leading cause of firefighter deaths nationwide – are becoming increasingly common because more buildings are constructed with flammable materials and windows that trap oxygen inside…."
By TONY SCLAFANI
NY DAILY NEWS
Saturday, May 14th, 2005
A deadly river of flames rolls across the ceiling just inches above my head as I kneel before a raging fountain of fire.
I can barely see as a curtain of thick, black smoke falls around me inside the cramped room. The fire looks alive – flames breaking left and right, eating the oxygen, flowing faster toward the 8-foot-high ceiling. It’s 1,100 degrees above me, and it’s getting hotter. I’m in the middle of the chaos just before a flashover – the terrifying moment when a burning room gets so hot that everything erupts into flames at once. The only thing saving my life is a heavy FDNY protective suit and mask. But the heat is scorching its way inside the 75-pound suit, warming my hunched shoulders and spine. The mask around my face fogs up. The overheated air stings my lungs. It’s getting harder to breathe from the air tank strapped to my back. I think about screaming, begging the eight or so firefighters nearby to help me escape.
Then there’s a voice. Are you okay, Tony?" shouts FDNY Capt. Jim McDermott, a 17-year veteran. McDermott, 45, is holding a hose and has it trained at the blaze. "Stay next to me, okay? I got you!" he says. I grab his jacket and remind myself this is just a drill. I’m inside the FDNY’s new flashover simulator – a fire chamber used to train 2,000 firefighters to survive one of the most dangerous threats they will ever encounter. It’s the most realistic on-the-job training the nation’s largest department has ever had. It’s 11 minutes in hell.
At the Fire Academy on Randalls Island, rookie and veteran firefighters crawl on their hands and knees inside the black room, studying the warning signs of flashover – and then everything bursts into flames. "Read the heat. Close your eyes and concentrate on what you’re feeling," FDNY Capt. Al Hagan says. ‘That feeling is what can save you." I hear his advice. But I don’t dare shut my eyes. Face to face with fire, I savor several seconds of panic – baffled how the Bravest could battle this merciless dragon breath each workday.
I remember working behind a desk on Jan. 23 when six firefighters were forced by flames to jump from a Bronx window. Two of them died. Flashing through my mind next is what happened that same day to a firefighter named Richard who shares my last name. He was killed trying to save kids from a blaze in Brooklyn. "Give it a shot, Jimmy!" FDNY Capt. Joe Mauro, 43, yells to McDermott, who blasts water at the flames pouring out of a barrel stuffed with wood and straw. Dark smoke blinds us until the flames flare up again. I can’t see my gloved hand and then a burning wood pallet collapses and nearly clips my head. The brush with danger throws me onto my backside.
"Whoa!" shout some of the firefighters from Engine 43 in the Bronx. "This is a good burn," one mumbles. We soon crawl out, and the firefighters grill me on what I thought of the simulator. "It was intense," I say. It’s hard to come up with more words. The adrenaline keeps me silent. A firefighter helps take off my mask, helmet, hood, gloves and jacket. The metal buckles are too hot for bare fingers. Another firefighter hands me a cup of ice water, and I bum a cigarette from a third firefighter to calm my nerves. But my right hand can’t stop shaking. The ice cubes jiggle. It worries me for more than a moment before it passes. Staring down this blast of fire makes me feel more alive than anything I have ever known – and more respectful of the city’s Bravest than ever before.
Deadliest face of fire
The city’s Bravest are more likely to die in a flashover fire than ever before, FDNY brass told the Daily News. The sudden blazes – already the leading cause of firefighter deaths nationwide – are becoming increasingly common because more buildings are constructed with flammable materials and windows that trap oxygen inside, officials said. Concerned by the deadly trend, the FDNY began training firefighters in flashover simulators in February. "Experiencing a flashover in a controlled environment like this is extremely valuable training," Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said. "I’m certain it will help save firefighters’ lives." The training sessions last eight to 11 minutes. Firefighters crowd inside a trailer-like room and kneel next to a 3-foot-high platform where a wood-stuffed barrel is set ablaze.
At first, two doors at each end are cracked open so the fire can feed on oxygen. The doors are then shut, and rising flames soon roll across the room. It takes only three minutes for a room to reach 1,000 to 1,500 degrees – the ideal conditions for a flashover. Fire Academy Chief Nicholas Santangelo said the training is designed to teach the Bravest when to evacuate. "You won’t be able to think," said Capt. Al Hagan, an adjunct instructor at the academy. "You’ll be out a window and you won’t care what floor it’s on."