The Hackensack Ford fire: Code violations lead to tragedy
The July 1, 1988, fire claimed the lives of five New Jersey firefighters
For the firefighters on duty on July 1, 1988, the day started out like any other, albeit unseasonably cool with a steady breeze gusting to 25 mph.
Crews responded to a fire at a local car dealership – combustibles in the attic spread with intensity.
By the end of the day, five firefighters would be dead, and another fire earned a name known throughout the fire service – the Hackensack Ford fire.
Hackensack city and fire department
The City of Hackensack, New Jersey, is located a few miles west of New York City. At the time of the fire, it had a population of 46,000 within 4.5 square miles.
The fire department was staffed by 97 career firefighters operating four engine companies, a ladder company, a tour commander and a rescue.
On the day of the fire, there were 18 members on duty, plus two additional firefighters serving as dispatchers.
At the time of the fire, Hackensack Ford was an 18,000-square-foot building of ordinary construction. It housed a new car dealership and repair shop.
The service area was approximately 10,000 square feet with a bowstring truss roof. At some point in the history of the building, plywood was laid across the bottom string of the trusses to create floor space in the attic for storage. This windowless space was used for storing all manner of automobile parts and other supplies.
The building did not have any built-in fire detection or suppression systems. Fire protection was limited to portable fire extinguishers.
The building was constructed in 1948 under a local building code and renovated in 1973 under the B.O.C.A Basic Building Code.
At the time of the fire, the New Jersey Uniform Fire Code was in effect.
The post-fire investigation revealed two violations of the fire code that contributed to the fire:
- Combustibles were not stored in an approved storage areas; they were stored in the attic; and
- Combustibles were stored in a means of egress (attic stairway).
Unfortunately, Fire Prevention Bureau records indicated that no inspections had been conducted.
The Hackensack Ford fire
According to Hackensack Ford employees, at approximately 1450 hours, a burning vehicle exhaust hose fell from the service area ceiling. It was extinguished using a portable fire extinguisher. The fire department was notified at 1459 hours of the fire in the attic storage area.
The initial alarm consisted of two engines and one ladder company – 10 firefighters in all. Two minutes later, the first-arriving engine reported a working fire with smoke from a roof exhaust vent and light smoke in the first floor.
The first-arriving engine attempted to stretch a 1½-inch line to the attic via the stairs. They were unable to open the door and backed down the stairs. Crews shifted tactics to attacking the fire through two scuttles in the first-floor ceiling. At the same time, the roof was being cut to vent the fire.
As the ventilation continued, the fire in the attic continued to intensify. Engine companies continued trying to enter the attic through the scuttles. At 1523, just over 20 minutes after the arrival of the fire department, flames were observed coming out of the ventilation hole.
At 1534, crews were ordered to back out of the building. Two minutes later, a structural collapse occurred, trapping three firefighters under the debris. Two firefighters retreated to a tool room adjacent to the collapse. A sixth firefighter was able to find his way through the burning debris and exited the building. It was 36 minutes after the arrival of the fire department.
The two firefighters in the tool room continued to call for help, trying to explain their location for the next 16 minutes.
Firefighters worked feverishly to access the tool room from the exterior using a battering ram. During this rescue attempt, the remaining trusses and roof collapsed. The entire service area was destroyed by the fire.
The bodies of five firefighters were recovered after the fire was extinguished:
- Captain Richard Williams, Engine Company 304
- Lieutenant Richard Reinhagen, Engine Company 302
- Firefighter Steven Ennis, Rescue Company 308
- Firefighter William Krejsa, Engine Company 301
- Firefighter Leonard Radumski, Engine Company 302
All five died as a result of smoke inhalation and burns.
Hackensack Ford fire aftermath
The Hackensack Fire Department, like many others at that time, operated on a single radio channel. This includes all the portable radios, the apparatus radios, and the base station. Through the investigation, it was learned that of the 150 radio transmissions between the dispatch and the collapse, 32 were from the base station, 21 from apparatus radios, and the remaining 98 transmissions were from portable radios. One-third of the portable radio transmissions were repeated messages because of poor reception. A later audit of the radio transmissions revealed that 50% of all portable radio calls were not received.
In its report, the New Jersey State Bureau of Fire Safety found serious radio problems during the incident, and cited poor reception and an insufficient number of channels as contributing factors. The report went on to state that all New Jersey fire departments should establish a minimum of two channels to separate fireground operations from other functions.
Before this fire, Personal Alert Safety Systems (PASS) were not universally available because they were not mandatory under federal or state occupational health and safety regulations.
The Bureau of Fire Safety emphasized the necessity of enforcing the fire code through an inspection program. The report maintained that if the Hackensack Ford building had been inspected, the storage of combustibles in the attic would have been mitigated. The owner would have two choices: discontinue using the attic as storage or install an automatic fire suppression system.
The Hackensack Ford fire occurred nearly 10 years, to the day, after the Waldbaum’s Supermarket Fire in Brooklyn, New York. The similarities are eerie. The first-arriving companies encountered a light smoke condition on the first floor. An attic space with limited access for firefighting. A commercial building of ordinary construction with a bow string truss. A delayed alarm. A collapse of the truss 37 minutes after dispatch for Hackensack and 41 minutes after the dispatch for Waldbaum’s.
Learning from history is a necessity for all firefighters. Read the news reports, the investigation documents and any other source you can access. The lessons are there, paid for in blood by your predecessors. Moreover, the protective equipment you have today is there because some firefighter died because it was not provided, or it simply did not exist. So use it.
Adely, H. The Hackensack tragedy that changed how fires are fought (2017). NorthJersey.com.
Fire Investigation Report Firefighter Fatalities (1989). Bureau of Fire Safety, State of New Jersey (1989).
Hackensack Ford: What Went Wrong (2008). FirefighterCloseCalls.com.
Kalman, S. Learn From History: The Hackensack Ford Fire (2016). Firemanship - A Journal for Firemen.
Klem, T.J. Five Fire Fighter Fatalities Hackensack, New Jersey (1988). NFPA.
NFPA Fire Investigations. Auto Dealership Hackensack, NJ, July 1, 1988.