Aerial rescue: How I plucked a victim seconds before collapse

Houston Fire Capt. Brad Hawthorne describes what it was like responding and rescuing a construction worker from a collapsing high-rise structure

By Capt. Brad Hawthorne

March 25 started like any other day at the firehouse.

I arrived around 5:50 a.m. for a shift change, and checked equipment and apparatus for operational readiness. Our regularly assigned unit, which is a ladder tower, was out of service due to needed maintenance; the reserve apparatus that we were issued was a 100-foot ladder truck.

Around noon, Ladder-18 was dispatched on a carbon monoxide check in a single-family residence. The call was investigated; a dead battery was the problem.

L-18 returned to service and was en route to the firehouse when a high-rise fire was dispatched. We were the last assigned truck on the run schedule, but the previous call put us two miles closer to the dispatched address. 

While responding, we could see a small amount of light colored smoke in the distance. As we were making our way to the fire, there were at least 17 intersections with traffic signals and only two held up our response. Traffic was unusually light.

District Chief 6 was the first-arriving officer and took command stating there was fire and smoke visible from the roof and there could possibly still be workers on the roof. Tower 6 was on the west side of the structure and District 6 ordered the second arriving truck to the north side to access the roof. 

Arriving as the second truck, L-18 started to move through now thickening traffic — due to onlookers — at the nearest intersections.

We made access to the north side parking lot by jumping curbs and driving across a flower bed. The parking lot was full and maneuvering through the tight rows of cars was a challenge.

There were three driveways to choose from to make access to the building, one on each end of the building and one in the center. We backed to the building using the center driveway.

Attacking the fire
Through the years of taking promotional exams and training, I knew that the safest area of the building to ladder is the corners, but we were not sure where our victim(s) were. So we picked the center of the building because we could cover more of the building with our aerial.

From where we were setting up, there was no smoke or fire visible. The wind was 15 to 20 mph from the northeast, so we were on the windward side of the building. We saw the first sign of smoke on the building as we were setting up the ladder. 

As we extended the ladder to the roof, the fire showed itself on the northeast corner and was rapidly moving throughout the attic and fifth floor of building. I radioed District 6 and advised, “Emergency, heavy fire on the roof and we are going to the roof for rescue.” District 6 called for a defensive fire and removed the crews stretching lines into the building.

When I reached the roof, heavy fire had now engulfed the entire attic and fifth floor and no one was seen on the roof. 

High heat conditions were encountered and the noise was deafening.

I felt the ladder move and looked down at Engineer Operator Wyble, who was pointing to a balcony to my right. I looked in the direction he was pointing and saw the worker for the first time. 

I knew that I needed to get my firefighters off the ladder in the possibility that we needed to extend and also to not overload the ladder.

Deafening noise
The noise from the fire and wind was very loud and radio communications to my firefighters was almost impossible. Hand signals were used, pointing down to get the firefighters off the ladder.

The ladder was placed into position without having to extend, and when it was even with our victim, I advised him not to jump. I moved toward the end of the ladder and noticed there was about a 2 ½-foot gap the victim would have to cross.

I waved him to come to the ladder. As the victim stepped onto the ladder, I grabbed him and told him to sit down and hang on.

Engineer Operator Wyble then started moving the ladder away from the building and within five seconds there was a catastrophic collapse of the roof and fifth floor that just missed the ladder by only a few feet. We climbed down to make the victim was OK.

Our concerns quickly turned to moving the truck away from the fire because of the intense heat. Afterward, it was noted that all emergency light covers and lenses on the entire truck, as well as 50 cars in the parking lot, had heat damage.

We moved the ladder forward and set up again to start flowing water on the building and protect the cars in the parking lot. The structure eventually burned and totally collapsed within 40 minutes of arrival.

Houston Fire Department had over 200 firefighters respond to this fire. The complex was five stories with 385 luxury apartments consisting of multiple buildings under construction. The complex was a total loss.

There were two exposure apartments across the street to the south that also caught fire. HFD engines were dispatched and kept one to a balcony and living room fire before it was extinguished. The other apartment was a small fire on a balcony, both caused by embers.

Lessons learned
One lesson learned from this fire was how fast fire spreads throughout an unprotected building under construction. From the first sign of smoke to the complete collapse of the roof and fifth floor was approximately four and a half minutes after arrival.

The wind and the building being under construction and no gypsum board on the walls or ceilings created a perfect condition for this fire to spread as it did.

I now treat these types of buildings with more respect after seeing how fast the conditions can change. Lessons learned from this incident are now used for a situational awareness class by HFD.

By the grace of God, good training, and a little luck, this fire was kept under control and no one was hurt or injured.

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