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The fire on Bricelyn Street

Even with the passage of decades, our most tragic fires still hold lessons that can keep present-day firefighters safe

On a frigid night in 1995, shortly after midnight on Valentine’s Day, three Pittsburgh firefighters died tragically in the line-of-duty on Bricelyn Street. They died together — confused, disoriented, and out of air — in a small, cluttered room in an old wood-framed house situated on a slope in East Hills.

The house fire at 8361 Bricelyn Street is one that many would like to forget. But for firefighters, this is one to remember.

A line of duty death is tragic enough, but having three firefighters killed in a single fire is gut-wrenching, and so it was for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire. If any good came from this tragedy, we can say of the Bricelyn Street fire that the three firefighters did not die in vain because their deaths served as a wake-up call to Pittsburgh’s firefighters and the fire service.

The fire in that small house marks a turning point where traditional ways of firefighter behavior began to evolve into the contemporary occupational culture with its increased focus on teamwork and safety. Bricelyn Street illustrates in stark imagery sequential actions, including errors and omissions connected and unrelated, that built one upon the other to create a chain of tragedy. And within that same picture highlights the common bravery of the firefighters and medics that night.

None of the investigative reports prepared by City of Pittsburgh Board of Inquiry, the USFA, or the NFPA offer more much more than basic information, and all follow a similar line of inquiry. We know that Thomas A. Brooks, Patricia A. Conroy, and Marc Kolenda entered the structure at 8361 Bricelyn St. with a 1 3/4-inch attack line.

The fourth member of their company, the driver, remained outside with Engine 17 parked in front of the neighboring house 8363 Bricelyn. The investigative reports tell us that Brooks, 42, was a fire captain and a 13-year veteran; Conroy, 43, had eight years in the department; and Kolenda, 27, had just one year on the department.

Conroy was also a state fire instructor and Kolenda was a second-generation firefighter, the son of a deputy fire chief. Conroy was the city’s first woman firefighter to die in the line of duty.

The Allegheny County coroner found that Brooks died of smoke inhalation, while Conroy and Kolenda both died of carbon monoxide intoxication. A fourth firefighter from another company entered the structure and made contact with the three. He found them in trouble and by then found himself in trouble and near unconsciousness. This fourth firefighter was a captain who was covering a firefighter’s position on Truck 17.

Surprised by the fire
The remorse of the firefighters, line officers, and chiefs involved with this fire is evident in the various investigative reports and in the American Heat video segment that featured Bricelyn Street. In reading the reports and listening to the video one senses there is more unsaid than said.

Obscuring the truth and avoiding the reality of what really happened may stem from an internal acknowledgement of their collective failure as a fire department that night. Through these words of remorse you sense that they know they screwed it up bad, but they also intend to make things right.

Examination of a line-of-duty-death begins with asking difficult questions into department procedures and individual behavior. In this fire, it is into the behavior of the firefighters attending that we must look closely and it is precisely the degree and scope of questionable behavior and judgment on the fireground that night that demands our attention.

In asking pointed questions the goal is to learn not condemn. We must recognize that there is more here than we can ever know and in the end both remember and honor the sacrifice of three firefighters by learning what we can from their deaths.

8361 Bricelyn St.
The house at 8361 Bricelyn St. stood on a sloping hillside, built in a manner similar to other homes in the tightly packed neighborhoods throughout the Pittsburgh area. Homes built on hillsides are thus common and well known to all firefighters in the region.

Despite this, a common response of many individuals involved was that this fire somehow surprised everyone. The surprise they express cannot be so much the fire in that building, but that so many involved in the fire attack failed to grasp what they confronted. The house appeared to have two stories in the front when it actually had four levels, but that fact should not have escaped the first-in crew, as it is alleged.

The challenge in staging an effective firefight is having just enough information to make a quick decision on how to attack a fire. The strategic goal is full suppression executed by tactics comprised of objectives aimed at locating, confining and extinguishing the fire. There is nearly always a “fog of war” associated with firefighting — meaning that we cannot know everything, but we need to know something to make informed decisions. On Bricelyn Street that night, the first-in crew missed or ignored an important fact.

A failure of judgment
To learn something from this fire we are first obliged to ask a fair and legitimate question. Why did the crew of the first-arriving company (three of whom would lose their lives) miss some obvious and critical factors essential to understanding the situation they faced?

The reports offer little in this regard except to draw some conclusions related to the decisions and actions of the captain leading the initial fire attack crew. Unfortunately, these conclusions are not substantiated by evidence in the form of verbal communications or radio traffic — or at the least the reports fail to provide the evidence if it exists. Without communication from the captain in charge, how can we assume the crew did not recognize this was a multi-level house situated on a slope? Though there was another home a mere 27 inches from the fire building on one side, on the other side there was a 12-foot wide space.

We cannot use poor weather as an excuse as it was cold and clear. The weather data for that period shows the temperature at 10 degrees F, the dew point low, visibility good at around 13 miles, a light west to southwest wind, and 2 inches of snow cover. The moon would be full on the 15th.

There was a streetlight in front of the fire building. The engine positioned at 8363 Bricelyn had the captain egress the cab and the attack lines advancing so that they had to walk past the 12-foot gap between the houses at 8363 and 8361. With the ambient and natural light, plus reflected light it would be difficult, almost impossible, not to see the fire building was multi-leveled and not a simple two-story structure.

The reports indicate without offering evidence that the captain thought he was entering a two-story house and that a four-foot fence on the 11-foot retaining wall blocked his view of the structure. There was no radio communication to back this claim, though perhaps it was a face-to-face conversation with Engine 17’s driver.

Given the positioning of Engine 17, it would have responded from its station and used Frankstown Avenue. They apparently drove past the first cross street — Dornbush — that would have taken them to Bricelyn from Frankstown. If that is what they did, their direction of travel took them past the rear of the fire building that at that point was less than 300 feet away and around 15 to 20 feet higher in elevation. They would then have turned right on Wilkinsburg Avenue and then another right onto Bricelyn leaving the apparatus facing roughly southwest.

This was their response area. Their response choices should have been purposeful and so they would have (or should have) known that these homes were on a slope — locals refer to this large geographic area of the city as the East Hills.

What went wrong
Clearly, the failure to look more carefully at the fire building to assess its construction features and in turn perhaps better identify the location and conditions of fire played the most critical role in the deaths. Lack of communication and individual freelancing coupled with a loose or non-existent command structure further compounded the lack of reconnaissance on the fire building by the first-in officer and subsequent incident commanders.

Some of what happened in this firefight appears to spring from the least desirable of old-school firefighting methods. But that does not satisfy as an answer to the question of why did experienced firefighters on the first-arriving engine not put more effort into figuring out the fire they faced. Had they done a better job of reading the fire and the building, the outcome may have been far different.

The situation only turned around when a crew from Engine 18 gained access to the rear of the dwelling. They placed a ladder over the retaining wall, climbed down and advanced a line, then by exterior attack knocked the basement fire down.

NIOSH tested the SCBA worn by the fallen firefighters and the findings place considerable blame on faulty breathing apparatus components, though this does not fully account for what happened in the room where they died. Something happened to affect all three in that room rendering them unable to respond to the conditions of the situation.

Toxicology tests reported that all three had elevated levels of carbon monoxide in their blood. That medical fact informs us as to their ability to function and think clearly under dangerous, life-threatening conditions. The reports do not offer other factors of influence such as whether the crew fought any other fires earlier on their shift where cumulative exposure to carbon monoxide is potentially relevant.

Is this really a fatally flawed fire?
There may be more questions of judgment in this tragedy generating the possibility that this was a fatally flawed fire from the start. It did not take long for fire investigators with the city and ATF to reach a conclusion that arson was involved. Authorities charged Greg Brown, Jr., 17, a resident of the house, with arson and a jury convicted him. Attempts to appeal his conviction now bring into question the use or promise of reward money for witnesses and the application of so-called junk science by arson investigators working the case.

The on-going controversy and these new developments should not discourage firefighters from learning about this fire or cause us to question the sacrifice of the three Pittsburgh firefighters. We can seek the truth and learn something valuable from every aspect of this fire.

There were human errors and equipment failures under difficult and dangerous conditions that contributed to the deaths. These things we can expect; bad things happen and fire attacks often go wrong. But training, planning and preparation coupled with dedication to duty and courage to serve improve the odds of a good outcome. Do not forget what happened at the fire on Bricelyn Street.

Bruce Hensler served as a firefighter from 1976 to 2011 in career, combination and volunteer departments. He previously served as a fire program specialist in the Emergency Response Support Branch of the U.S. Fire Administration, retiring in 2017. He also previously served as deputy director of the operations division for the firefighter training program in Maine. Hensler has a master’s degree in public administration. His interest in history led him to write “Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service.” More information about his book is available at Connect with Hensler on LinkedIn.