Waldbaum’s supermarket fire: The historic fire that killed 6 FDNY firefighters

The 1978 roof collapse served as a wake-up call about the dangers hidden in building construction, specifically the weaknesses of trusses


Correction: A previous version of this article cited Joe Flood's book on the fire, incorrectly stating that Louise O’Connor used a portion of the settlement funds to pay for Jackson-Knight’s retrial. This statement is not accurate. We regret the error and have updated the article accordingly. 

“Louise O’Conner had seen it happen right before her eyes, but couldn’t believe it. Hours later, she sat with her kids, Billy, Jr., Lisa Ann, and Jean Marie, watching television reports of the supermarket collapse and the six men who died in it. ‘Is that Dad?’ Billy Jr. asked as the screen showed a fireman being pulled from the rubble. ‘Dad’s dead, right?’ said one of his sisters.”

– Joe Flood, “The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City – and Determined the Future of Cities”

 

On Aug. 2, 1978, a fire at a Brooklyn Waldbaum’s supermarket claimed the lives of six firefighters:

  • Lt. James E. Cutillo, Battalion 33 (working in Ladder 156)
  • Firefighter Charles S. Bouton, Ladder 156
  • Probationary Firefighter William O’Connor, Ladder 156
  • Firefighter James P. McManus, Ladder 153
  • Firefighter George Rice, Ladder 153
  • Firefighter Harold F. Hastings, Battalion 42

FDNY in 1978

At the time of the fire, FDNY had over 200 engine companies, over 150 ladder companies, four rescue companies and one squad company. The daily command structure consisted of a city-wide tour commander and five borough commanders (one for each borough). Each borough has multiple division chiefs (deputy chiefs), and each division has multiple battalion chiefs.

According to the NFPA investigation report published after the blaze, FDNY engine companies were staffed with an officer and four firefighters. Ladder companies were staffed with an officer and five firefighters. All chief officers have an aide. The standard response for a working fire was three engines and two ladder companies plus a battalion chief.  

In 1978, the fire department was recovering after the company closures and layoffs of the early 1970s brought on by the RAND research project and the city’s near bankruptcy. It was also the “War Years,” fueled by arson-for-profit schemes that resulted in constant fires across the city.

[Read next: The ‘War Years’: A brief history of the 1970s fire service]

Waldbaum’s supermarket

The 15,000-square-foot grocery store was undergoing renovations at the time of the fire, but the store remained open for business during the renovations. There was the original building and an addition that was under construction. The original building had masonry walls and a bowstring timber truss roof with a 100-foot clear span. The addition was unprotected non-combustible construction. Automatic sprinklers were to be installed as part of the renovation. The sprinkler installation work, however, was not completed.

The plans for the original building called for fire separations to be installed on trusses 2, 4, and 6. Over the years, these fire barriers were likely penetrated for ductwork and doorways. The openings would ultimately permit fire to travel across the entire roof assembly.

The roof was constructed of tongue and groove planks with a built-up tar and asphalt paper roof. A rain roof was added between the addition and the original building, creating a void that would serve as an insulation barrier during the fire.

The building had been inspected on April 18 during a regular fire company inspection. No violations or construction issues were identified.

The area of origin was identified as the mezzanine. The mezzanine was scheduled to be removed as part of the renovation. The fire traveled vertically into the space above the mezzanine and then into the truss area.
The area of origin was identified as the mezzanine. The mezzanine was scheduled to be removed as part of the renovation. The fire traveled vertically into the space above the mezzanine and then into the truss area. (Photo/FDNY)

Fire origin

The area of origin was identified as the mezzanine. The mezzanine was scheduled to be removed as part of the renovation. The fire traveled vertically into the space above the mezzanine and then into the truss area.

The fire was found by workers and store employees sometime between 0815-0820.

Several workers attempted to fight the fire while a store employee called the fire department and began evacuating the store.

The fire department received a 911 call at 0839. Initially, a reduced response of two engine companies and two ladder companies was dispatched. On receipt of a street box and another telephone call, the initial assignment was filled out.

Waldbaum’s fire response

The normal first-due engine and truck were out of service, operating at another incident, so the second-due companies were first on scene. Ten minutes after dispatch, an all-hands was transmitted, bringing an additional battalion chief, a division chief and Rescue 2 to the scene.

The first line placed into operation was stretched to fight the fire in the mezzanine. The company reported a moderate smoke condition with no visible fire. Two ladder companies were assigned to ventilate the building by opening the roof.

The second line placed into service went into the addition. Fire was showing through openings in the wall and would darken down but later flare back up when this line was shut down.

The third line placed into operation was a backup line for the crew operating on the mezzanine. At this point, the smoke conditions had improved inside the store. This is believed to be the result of the ladder companies venting the roof and removing the storefront windows.

In addition to venting the roof, the ladder companies opened several inspection holes to locate the seat of the fire. It was at this time that the companies operating on the roof identified several locations that had a rain roof, a complete roof assembly constructed over an existing one. Moreover, fire was observed venting through the roof near the air conditioning units and truss number 5.

Many lines were placed in service to control the massive fire.
Many lines were placed in service to control the massive fire. (Photo/FDNY)

The collapse

At approximately 0916, the battalion chief who was with the companies working in the mezzanine noticed fire on his left side accompanied by a “whooshing sound.” He ordered the companies on the mezzanine to back out. Truss 5 had just failed and a 4,000-square-foot section of the roof collapsed. No sound or vibration occurred before the collapse. Twelve firefighters who were working on that part of the roof plunged into the seat of the fire. A third alarm was transmitted immediately. The roof had collapsed 32 minutes after the first company arrived. (Note: A detailed description of fireground operations by retired FDNY Deputy Chief Jay Jonas is available in the Division 7 Training and Safety Newsletter below.)

Six of the firefighters fell to the floor and were seriously injured. The other six were hung up in the truss area between trusses 4 and 6, and ultimately died from severe burn injuries.

A fourth alarm was transmitted at 0917 along with special calls for the three remaining rescue companies, Squad 1, and two additional ladder companies.

At 1052, the bodies of the deceased firefighters were located and removed from the building.

It is believed that once the fire extended from the mezzanine into the truss area, truss 5 was quickly involved in heavy fire conditions. The trusses were identified as lightweight trusses. The top and bottom chords were 3x10s and 3x12s. The members were joined together using splines and 5/8-inch bolts. They were placed 20 feet on center. The exact cause of the failure of truss 5 is unknown. It is believed that the fire weakened the truss, and the additional load of the firefighters and tools exceeded the remaining strength.

It is believed that once the fire extended from the mezzanine into the truss area, truss 5 was quickly involved in heavy fire conditions.
It is believed that once the fire extended from the mezzanine into the truss area, truss 5 was quickly involved in heavy fire conditions. (Photo/FDNY)

Lessons learned from Waldbaum’s

“Beware the truss.” – Frank Brannigan, 1971

Firefighters of all ranks should learn to identify all types of building construction and characteristics. According to FDNY Chief Vincent Dunn in Flood's book, despite all the training bulletins and circulars published by the FDNY before Waldbaum’s, none of them discussed trusses. 

Trusses depend on the inherent strength of a triangle. And like the fire triangle, when one leg goes away, the truss begins to fail. The value of preplanning target properties with an emphasis on identifying those buildings with trusses cannot be understated.

Where trusses were once limited to larger buildings needing open floor space, they are now commonly found in all types of commercial and residential construction. Trusses are used in the roof assembly, the floor assembly and, more recently, they are appearing in wall assemblies. They are made of wood, steel, combinations of wood and steel, and can use laminated lumber.

Vertical ventilation places additional live loads on the roof assembly in the form of firefighters and their tools. The additional load is likely to be too much for a truss roof assembly where the fire has gained access to that space.

Never assume that the incident commander knows that the building contains truss assemblies. The IC cannot see what you are seeing on the roof or interior. Communication between the IC and members operating inside and on top of the structure is critical.

Waldbaum’s aftermath

Based on a tip, police arrested Eric Jackson-Knight, who was charged with setting the fire and the deaths of the six firefighters. In 1980, Jackson-Knight was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison. However, according to the National Registry of Exonerations: “In 1988, the judge vacated Jackson-Knight’s conviction and ordered a new trial after finding that prosecutors improperly withheld information from the defense, including a statement from a police arson investigator that the fire was not arson, but electrical. The judge also found that prosecutors withheld a statement by a police detective saying that he believed the fire department had planted evidence of arson, and a memo showing that the fire marshal had given false testimony at trial about some aspects of the investigation.”

Jackson-Knight was released in 1988 and retried in August 1994. The jury acquitted Jackson-Knight of all charges.

Additionally, the families of the fallen firefighters successfully sued the building department and the fire department for not conducting building or fire inspections and not providing firefighters with training to deal with trusses.

Final thoughts

The fire service has an unfortunate record when it comes to truss buildings. We are taught lessons, paid for in blood, that sometimes don’t stick. Such is the case with building construction generally and trusses specifically. Learning about building construction, its characteristics, features and failures should be high on the list of every firefighter. Frank Brannigan was spot on when he said the building is the enemy, and you need to know your enemy.

References

Additional resources

Read more about Waldbaum's 

FDNY Deputy Chief (ret.) Jay Jonas writes about the Waldbaum's supermarket fire in 1978 that claimed the lives of six FDNY firefighters.

 

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