It was about 10 P.M. when the initial alarm was struck for a building fire at a nearby auto lube shop. The building is just over the county line; we were dispatched as the second due truck. We arrived moments after the first arriving engine reported on location with heavy fire showing from the front of the building. We positioned in the rear of the building.
I exited the rear of the cab and conferred with the officer of the truck. We were both volunteer chief officers, and also career firefighters in other jurisdictions. We trusted each other implicitly and rarely disagreed on fireground tactics (or anything else for that matter). Tonight was no different. “Do you want me to take the roof?”, I yelled over the wail of still approaching sirens. We stared at the building for a moment. We shrugged at each other. “Yeah, get it!”, he yelled back.
I grabbed a 28 – foot ground ladder and walked toward the building. As I approached the rear of the building some thing really strange happened. Fire suddenly engulfed the entire roof space of the bays. It rolled out of the top of the recently vented twenty-foot high bay doors, and then disappeared as quickly as it had flashed. I should have paid more attention to that occurrence. I threw my ladder to Side #4 of the building. The bulk of the fire appeared to still be in the Side #1/Side #2 corner of the building. Engine crews were initiating an aggressive interior attack.
I ascended the ladder with a vent saw. I noticed that the section of roof over the bays was separated by a bearing wall from the roof atop the offices, where I now stood. The fire had extended to the roof on the opposite corner of the building. I leaned over the exterior parapet wall and yelled down to the remainder of the truck crew below, that I would need help.
I crossed over from the roof above the offices to the roof above the bays and made my way toward the fire end of the building, but something didn’t feel right. I decided that I wasn’t going to vent as close to the fire as I might normally. I stopped approximately 20 feet from the party wall I’d just crossed and started my cut. It was an ordinary, wooden roof and cut easily. Each cut was non-remarkable, and by the time I’d completed my last cut, two other firefighters from my crew had joined me. They began to hook the hole.
At this point, another member of the crew came to the tip of the aerial that had just been placed. “Get off the roof! They want everybody off!”, he yelled to us. I turned to the guys hooking the vent hole. “Let’s go,” I said, “they want us off!” Many firefighters have received an order to evacuate or an order to abandon an operation, and pleaded for “one more minute” to complete a mission. I’ve done it myself. But none of us did that night. No sooner were the words out of my mouth, than the three of us grabbed our tools, and left the uncompleted vent hole, and headed back toward the adjoining roof.
We were only a few feet from the party wall that divided the roofs, when I felt a sensation similar to that felt when standing in an elevator as it first starts to descend. At that instant, I dropped the vent saw, and the three of us literally flung ourselves head first onto the adjoining roof, almost like we were diving into a pool. As I lay on that roof, I felt silly for a second, like I’d just taken some super evasive action for nothing. But that feeling of silliness turned to intense anxiety, as I stood and realized that the entire section of roof over the bays had collapsed. Ten thousand square feet of roof now lay 24 feet below, engulfed in flame.
I’d read Brannigan’s text and Dunn’s text many times before that night. I should have interpreted the signs more clearly; we should never have been on that roof. Yet, it was those same texts that made me reconsider how far I was willing to leave an area of refuge, the bearing wall and adjoining roof. This was an intelligent task decision made while performing a not-so-intelligent tactical operation. It may have saved our lives.
But it was really something else that saved our lives. An arriving mutual-aide battalion chief saw us silhouetted against the night sky as he arrived that night. He immediately ordered all personnel off the roof. He did not have command. He wasn’t even in his jurisdiction. He saved our lives. I want him to know that I know that.