Confusion remains about how fire was fought. Anthony Aiellos sat in the kitchen of his home on Fairmount Avenue and remembered a day he would rather forget. It is unfortunately rather easy to do. All he has to do is turn on the light over his kitchen table. by Mark J. Bonamo
“This light here was fixed by Captain Richard L. Williams,” he said, referring to one of the five firefighters who died in the Hackensack Ford fire on July 1, 1988. Williams moonlighted as an electrician when he wasnt on duty. “It didnt sit over the center of this table until he worked on it. You dont know how many times I see his and all their faces.”
Looking down from the light, Aiellos, 84, considered the nature of a career that ended with him on top as fire chief, but at the helm on the day of the greatest single loss of life in the history of the city fire department.
“When I got on the job in 1951, the old-timers said, Were going in when everybody else is going out. There must be something wrong with us. Theres nothing wrong. Thats the way you fight fires. The object is to get to the seat of the fire and extinguish it.”
The faces of the five lost firefighters have begun to surface again in the collective consciousness of Hackensack with the arrival of the 20th anniversary of the Ford fire. There are still questions about why five men died that day. But finding answers is an increasingly futile task. The reasons behind the decisions made that fateful day are obscured by the wispy smoke of memory.
Reports criticized fire department commanders, equipment and training
Soon after the smoke cleared and the fallen firefighters were laid to rest, the battle over how the fire was fought began, with particular scrutiny paid to the question of whether the loss of life could have been prevented. A series of reports was issued by several local, state and national agencies pointing out various deficiencies in command decisions, equipment, training and planning by the Hackensack Fire Department.
One report was especially scathing. In September 1988, the International Association of Fire Fighters union issued a report that drew largely on the conclusions of David Demers, a nationally known independent fire investigator. A summary of the report stated that the command decisions made on the day of the fire were “highly ineffective both before and after the collapse of the roof,” the sudden fall of which led to the deaths of the five firefighters. The report itself also took department leadership to task for failing to train firefighters and its officers about the dangers of bowstring truss roof building construction. This was the type of roof design in place at the River Street car dealership, one that is very susceptible to collapse in fire conditions.
Poor radio communications were also cited as a major factor in the loss of life, noting that Battalion Chief Sandy Williams order to retreat from the building was never properly heard. Communication difficulties also contributed to the deaths of two firefighters who were trapped after the collapse and who subsequently ran out of air.
About the overall performance of the fire department officers on the day of the fire, the report sternly concluded:
“If proper procedures and training had been provided, the five firefighters would not have been needlessly killed trying to save property that was insured and will be replaced.”
Twenty years later, Aiellos defended his actions as head of the department.
“When I got to the scene and saw the extent of the fire coming through the roof, I immediately called Battalion Chief Williams over to where I was. I said to him, Get them out of there, this place is going like hell. He told me that he had already told them to back out the lines.”
Regarding the question of whether the fire commanders knew that a dangerous bowstring truss model roof was in play, Aiellos noted the confusion present at the scene.
“From the ground and from the inside, you couldnt tell it was a truss roof,” he said. “Wilbur Lind, the late chief building inspector of Hackensack, told me that in the early 1970s the owners of the building asked to put a ceiling in the building. After approval was given to them, they put a plaster and cement ceiling in place that obscured the curved truss design. You just couldnt see it. It was economics. The builders wanted to save money, and the truss design can be cheap. But the truss design is the firemans nemesis.”
Aiellos also pointed to action to save property that day that may have inadvertently contributed to the loss of life.
“Our men willingly removed the cars from the service area,” he said. “When the ceiling collapsed, the cars could have helped hold the roof off of the firefighters. That could have been a lifesaver.”
According to Aiellos, another lifesaver could have come in the form of additional funding for better radio communication from the city government.
“I received memos at least a year before the fire from firefighters who were complaining about how bad our communication system was,” he said. “I wrote a letter to then City Manager Robert Casey informing him about the situation, telling him that we needed funds included in the next budget for an upgrade. I also asked for an increase in manpower for the department. After reviewing my requests, he said that the city had to hold off. We had the hand-me-down radios from the police department. Nothing was done before the fire. On the day of the fire, my walkie-talkie was dead. I had to borrow another one before I could do anything.”
“A lot was said in the media at the time that the Hackensack Fire Department was an inept department,” Aiellos added. “There is no bigger lie in the world than that. There isnt one man that went into that fire knowing that the roof was going to collapse. Those men had no idea.”
Fire expert looks back to look forward
One man who does have an idea about how to best fight fires is Larry Cohen, a retired New York City Fire Department lieutenant. A New Jersey native, Cohen, 45, now runs Fire Ground Technologies, a consulting company that specializes in fire training and drills. He also works as a field staff instructor with the Illinois Fire Service Institute at the University of Illinois. In a way, he looks at the tragedy of the Hackensack Ford fire as the precursor of an even deadlier event.
“Back in 1988, the Ford fire was kind of like a mini-9/11 for the fire service,” he said. “When you lose a group of guys like that, its a catastrophic event.”
Cohen pointed to truss roofs as a phenomenon that continues to invite catastrophe for firefighters.
“The particular truss at Hackensack was constructed of heavy timber,” he said. “Today, bowstring truss roofs are constructed out of more lightweight materials. Generally speaking, the more mass that the structural components have, the longer the building is going to stay up before it collapses. There is no real safety factor built into the structure components of a truss roof. If you lose one component of a truss roof, chances are you are going to lose it all. Its almost a domino effect.”
Although the Hackensack fire did result in the passage of a New Jersey state law in 1991 that mandates the clear demarcation of truss roofs and other structural hazards, such laws are not nationwide. Cohen points the finger squarely at himself when assessing why truss roof demarcation laws are not nationwide.
“This is the fire services fault,” he said. “Weve had enough incidents where we should know what we have to do at this point to protect our members. If the building industry doesnt do it or state governments dont do it, then it should be a federal law. Its nothing more than a sign on a building. In the meantime, we have to operate on the safe side. No matter how old the building is, we assume that there is some sort of
hazardous construction in there. Thats the way that we have to operate.”
Another critical piece of firefighting is effective radio communication.
“Good radio communication is way up there in importance,” Cohen asserted. “We had the same issues in New York on 9/11. If the incident commander cant communicate to his members inside a building while he is outside sizing it up, or if a firefighter cant radio to his chief to give him information, there is a big problem. If any part of that two-way communication fails, youre in trouble.”
According to Cohen, another way to avoid trouble during a fire happens ahead of time.
“Training is probably more important now than it ever was,” he said. “The performance of firefighters used to be based upon the experience that they got on the job. Now that fires are down around the country, they dont always have the experience that firefighters had years ago. The only thing that we can offset that with is training.”
Cohen also strongly believes that fire departments have to change a commonly held mentality that can prove deadly.
“The problem is that the fire service for the most part is reactive, not proactive,” he said. “We always assume that its never going to happen to us. To think that a firefighter is never going to get killed in the line of duty for one reason or another is foolish. Human error is going to happen. When the roof collapsed in Hackensack, you had a building fire and a rescue operation at the same time. That is way too much for any one human being in command to handle.”
“One clichd response in the fire service is to say that if we had to do it all over again, we wouldnt have changed anything,” Cohen added. “I think thats a knee-jerk reaction to a bad incident. Its a tough thing to look in the mirror and say that we made mistakes, but we need to correct it and move ahead. A building can always be rebuilt. Firemen are not expendable. If we in the fire service forget incidents like the Hackensack Ford fire, then we get very complacent. Complacency kills.”
Many weaknesses revealed by the events of July 1, 1988 in Hackensack were addressed shortly thereafter. Besides the passage of the state law requiring warning signs on building with truss roofs, another 1991 state law required the state Bureau of Fire Safety to investigate all fires in which a firefighter dies or is seriously injured.
Other deficiencies were soon dealt with on the local level in Hackensack. Better training about building construction for all firefighters was provided. Policy now ensures that at least two chiefs are present at all multiple-alarm fires. A new radio system was established with a separate frequency for fire scenes.
There were also changes at the top of Hackensack city government. Casey was fired from his position as city manager in the fall of 1989 when a new City Council took office. And after months of heated debate, Aiellos retired on Oct. 1, 1989.
For Aiellos, in some ways time stands still
Until July 1, 1988, Aiellos had led a charmed life in the fire service. Born a block from the present-day Hackensack fire headquarters on State Street, he rose steadily through the ranks to finally lead the department by 1980. He is proud of his service to the city, especially his work in fire prevention. While Aiellos maintains that the deaths of the five firefighters could probably not have been prevented, he continues to feel pain over what happened.
“The previous fire chiefs of Hackensack had individual losses, but nothing like this. Its hard to describe,” he said. “As the psychologist said to me, firefighters have other firefighters. Lieutenants have lieutenants. Captains have captains. But the chief has no other guy he can talk to. Each of the five men lost were outstanding firefighters. It was a terrible loss. You never get over it.”
When July 1 comes around every year, Aiellos doesnt attend the annual remembrance ceremony at the memorial on Main Street. His reason is simple and stark.
“You just dont lose five men and dismiss it,” he said. “For me, it comes up all year long.”
(by Mark J. Bonamo – July 02, 2008)
This article is the second in a series about the July 1, 1988 Hackensack Ford dealership fire. E-mail: [email protected].