NFPA Journal®, January/February 2009
Fire destroys theater costumes
NORTH CAROLINA — Costumes used by a summer theater were destroyed as a fire spread through the building in which they had been stored for the winter.
The two-story, wood-frame storage building, which had a pitched roof covered in asphalt shingles, was 60 feet (18 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide. It had no sprinklers or fire detection equipment. At the time of the fire, the property was closed for the season.
The fire was discovered by someone who lived across an ocean sound from the theater, who saw it burning in the distance, and called the fire department at 12:35 p.m. Firefighters responding with a single engine found that the fire was spreading to a nearby building and threatening exposures and a propane tank on the side of the building. Additional calls prompted the fire department to assign additional companies. Meanwhile, the officer on the scene directed one 2 1/2-inch hose line to the right side of the building to protect an exposure and another 2 1/2-inch hose line to the left side, where a brush fire had started. Firefighters directed a third hose line on the propane tank.
Investigators determined that the fire began in the office and was electrical in origin.
The building, valued at $1 million, and its contents, valued at $2 million, were destroyed. A maintenance shed was also lost. There were no injuries.
Man dies trying to remove burning mattress
WISCONSIN — A 27-year-old man suffered third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body when he tried to remove his burning mattress from his third-floor apartment.
The three-story, three-unit, wood-frame building had one apartment on each floor. Battery-operated smoke alarms on the first and second floors failed to operate during the fire, and no smoke alarm was found on the third floor. The building was unsprinklered.
An occupant of an apartment on a lower floor heard screaming from the apartment above and called 911 at 6:46 a.m. Firefighters arrived minutes later to find heavy smoke coming from the third-floor unit. When they tried to enter the apartment, they found the doorway blocked by a burning mattress that lay on the kitchen floor.
They quickly extinguished the fire and found the unconscious victim in the bathroom. He was taken to the hospital and later airlifted to a burn unit, where he died.
Investigators determined that the man’s bedding had come into contact with the electric baseboard heating unit and ignited. The fire then spread to the mattress and to other combustibles as he tried to drag it out of the unit. He managed to get the mattress into the kitchen but no further before he had to retreat to the bathroom.
The home, which was valued at $150,000, and its contents, which were valued at $8,000, sustained property damage of $25,000 and $5,000, respectively. None of the occupants of the two lower floors were injured.
Two die in house fire
TENNESSEE — Two people died in an early morning fire that started in the basement of their single-family home. The one-story, wood-frame house, which was 50 feet (15 meters) long and 28 feet (9 meters) wide, had no smoke alarms or sprinklers.
Firefighters responding to the 4:57 a.m. alarm arrived to find that the fire had already spread from the basement to the attic and that flames were shooting from the roof. Using three 1 3/4-inch hose lines, crews tried to enter the building to rescue the pair, whom other residents reported were trapped inside. However, the intense heat and flames drove them back.
After firefighters began an exterior attack, they tried to re-enter the house, but the fire drove them out again. The incident commander eventually ordered the firefighters to fight the fire defensively.
Once the crews brought the fire under control, they found the two victims in a bedroom. Another occupant of the home was hospitalized overnight for smoke inhalation.
The house was so damaged that a rescue crew had to be called in to stabilize the fire-weakened floors so investigators could enter. Although they did not discover the exact ignition scenario, they determined that the blaze started in the basement and spread upward.
The home, valued at $125,000, and its contents, valued at $30,000, were destroyed.
Children die in portable heater fire
CALIFORNIA — Three children died in an early morning fire that began when a portable electric heater ignited fabric and carpet in the living room of the converted garage in which they lived. A lack of smoke detectors and building code violations contributed to the tragedy.
The single-story, wood-frame garage, which was 40 feet (12 meters) long and 12 feet (4 meters) wide, was built on a concrete slab and had an asphalt roof. There were no sprinklers.
Investigators believe the fire burned for 10 to 15 minutes before it was discovered.
The children, ages 6, 7, and 9, died of smoke inhalation. The building, which was valued at $30,000, sustained property damage estimated at $25,000. Its contents, valued at $15,000, were destroyed.
Occupant fails to respond to smoke alarm
KANSAS — A 54-year-old man died when he failed to respond to a smoke alarm activated by a fire that began when his cigarette ignited combustibles near the couch in the living room.
The three-family, wood-frame house, which covered approximately 900 square feet (84 square meters), had a brick veneer. A hardwired smoke alarm located in the hallway outside the living room operated as designed. There were no sprinklers.
The next door neighbor called 911 to report the fire at 5:22 a.m., and firefighters arrived four minutes later to find the apartment full of smoke. They extinguished a small fire burning on the couch, where they found the victim’s body.
Investigators found evidence that a discarded cigarette had ignited trash and other combustibles. An autopsy revealed that the victim had several medical conditions that could have made him unable to respond to the smoke alarm
Damage from the fire was limited to the room of origin. The dwelling and its contents, valued at $82,000, sustained losses of $10,000 and $5,000, respectively.
Unattended cooking fire damages home
MASSACHUSETTS — A three-family apartment house was damaged during a midday fire that started when the two occupants of the first-floor unit left cooking oil heating on the stove unattended.
The wood-frame house was 60 feet (18 meters) long and 40 feet (12 meters) wide. Hardwired smoke alarms had been installed in the common hallways, and there were battery-operated smoke alarms in each apartment near the bedrooms. All the smoke alarms and detectors worked as designed during the fire. The structure was unsprinklered.
One of the apartment’s occupants who was on the way to the bathroom saw the flames in the kitchen and warned the other occupant. They both escaped unharmed as the fire spread to other parts of the house and vented out a window.
Firefighters arrived three minutes after a 11:51 a.m. call to 911, and the incident commander sounded a second and third alarm when he saw how intense the smoke and fire were. Fire crews placed the first hose line in the front door, while other crews established a water supply and vented the rear-facing windows on the first floor. Additional crews were sent to upper floors to conduct a primary search and attack the flames that had spread to the two upper floors and the attic.
Firefighters managed to control the blaze within 40 minutes, although they had to overhaul the scene for several more hours.
All of the occupants escaped unharmed, but two cats died in the fire. Structural damage to the house was estimated at $200,000.
Children die in house fire
OHIO — Despite the efforts of two babysitters to rescue them, three children under the age of 7 died in a fire that started in a first-floor room of their single-family house.
Smoke alarms had been installed in the basement and second floor of the three-story, wood-frame home, not the first, and investigators do not know if the second-floor alarm was operational at the time of the fire. The house had no sprinklers.
A neighbor saw flames and reported the fire around 12:30 p.m., and the call was relayed to an engine that was returning to the station from another call a few blocks away. When firefighters arrived a few minutes later, they discovered flames coming from the back of the building and heavy black smoke coming from the front.
The two injured babysitters, ages 13 and 11, were on the front lawn. They told the firefighters that three younger children were still in the house and pointed to a partially open window on the second floor when asked where they thought the children were.
Firefighters tried to enter the house using a ground ladder, but heavy black smoke and intense heat only allowed them to sweep the area around the window without success. Several crews managed to knock down the heavy fire at the rear of the house with hose lines and entered the home to search for the missing children. They found the 6-year-old victim on the first floor and the 1- and 2-year-olds in a second-floor bedroom. All had succumbed to smoke inhalation.
Investigators determined that baseboard heaters on the glassed-in porch ignited the curtains, and the fire spread to the cedar siding on the interior wall of the porch. At some point, one of the sitters heard a popping sound and went to investigate.
She found the curtains on fire and told the 6-year-old, who was on the first floor, to get out of the house. She had gone up to the second floor to gather the other two children and the other sitter when the fire vented through the windows, resulting in flashover. As heat and smoke quickly filled the upper floors, the two sitters jumped from a second-floor window to the ground. Firefighters found the 6-year-old near the front door, which was locked and could not be opened.
Damage to the house was estimated at $125,000, while damage to its contents was estimated at $50,000. One firefighter was injured when he fell during extinguishment.
Three trapped by fire die of smoke inhalation
MARYLAND — A boy, woken by a sounding smoke alarm, managed to escape from his single-family house when an early morning fire of undetermined origin spread throughout the structure. However, his mother, grandmother, and 5-year-old brother died of smoke inhalation.
The unsprinklered, one-story, wood-frame house, which was 30 feet (9 meters) long and 42 feet (13 meters) wide, had a wood truss roof. There were two bedrooms on the first floor and another in the basement. Battery-operated smoke alarms in the basement stairwell and first-floor hallway operated.
The boy was asleep in his basement bedroom when he heard the smoke alarm. Upon opening his door, he encountered considerable smoke but managed to make it upstairs, where he found the living room and dining room on fire. The boy left the house through a sliding glass door at the rear and ran to a neighbor’s house for help.
The neighbor called 911 at 3:50 a.m., then he and other neighbors went around the house banging on widows to alert those trapped inside. As they did, they heard the smoke alarms operating.
Responding firefighters arrived to find heavy fire coming from the front of the house and began an offensive fire attack. Once they knocked down the fire, they found the three victims.
Investigators determined that the fire started in the living room, but they could not discover the cause.
The home, valued at $300,000, and its contents, valued at $200,000, were destroyed.
Child playing with flammable liquid dies
MAINE — A 7-year-old boy who threw a flammable liquid into a wood stove was fatally burned when the vapors ignited. The fire occurred in the basement of an unsprinklered, single-family home that was under construction, where a wood stove had been placed for heat. No smoke alarms had been installed.
An 11-year-old boy, an 8-year-old girl, and the 7-year-old were tending to the wood stove when the 7-year-old threw the flammable liquid into it. The resulting fire quickly extinguished itself, but not before it flashed back at the children. The fire department was not called as the fire did not spread to the dwelling, but it became involved after the children were taken to the hospital.
The 7-year-old died of complications from the burns at the hospital. The two other children were also burned but survived. Property damage was not reported.
Fire safety education credited with saving child
OHIO — A 12-year-old boy died in a fire that investigators believe began when a candle burning in a glass container on top of a television fell to the floor of his three-family home. His sister used training from a fire department safety house demonstration to save herself.
The two-story, wood-frame dwelling was 43 feet (13 meters) long and 18 feet (5 meters) wide. One smoke alarm had been installed in a first-floor bedroom, two had been installed in a second-floor hallway, and three had been installed in the second-floor bedrooms. The house was unsprinklered.
Investigators believe that the candle, which had been left burning unattended, fell from the television and continued to burn after the glass container broke, spilling wax and igniting combustibles.
The children, whose mother had left the apartment at about 5:40 a.m., heard the smoke alarms sounding around 6:00 a.m. They tried to go downstairs together, but the heat and smoke drove them back, and they retreated to their own bedrooms.
The girl, whose age was not reported, told investigators that she closed her bedroom door and climbed out a window onto the porch roof to escape. Her brother left his bedroom door partially open. As firefighters were about to enter his bedroom from outside, the contents of his room reached its ignition temperature and flashed over, killing the 12-year-old.
The home, which was valued at $80,000, and its contents, which were valued at $20,000, sustained losses estimated at $70,000. No firefighters were injured.
Ashes on porch start fatal fire
WEST VIRGINIA — A 74-year-old woman with mobility problems died in a house fire that began when fireplace ashes put in a cardboard box and left on the front porch ignited. Her 77-year-old husband survived.
The couple’s two-story, single-family home was 25 feet (8 meters) long and 30 feet (9 meters) wide. A smoke alarm on the second floor next to the bedroom operated as designed. There were no sprinklers.
The fire spread from the cardboard box to wood stored on the porch, and radiant heat eventually ignited the curtains on the living room window. When the smoke alarm activated, the husband went to investigate, leaving his wife in bed on the second floor. Seeing smoke in the living room, he opened the front door to let it out, and the influx of oxygen caused the fire to flash over.
The husband ran to a neighbor’s house to call 911 at 11:00 p.m. On his way out, he sustained second-degree burns to his ears and arm. His wife, whom firefighters found in bed, succumbed to smoke inhalation.
The house, valued at $192,500, and its contents, valued at $177,375, were destroyed.
House fire kills four
PENNSYLVANIA — An early-morning fire that started in the first-floor living room of a single-family home killed four and injured three others who jumped from upper floors while trying to escape. Five firefighters were also injured.
The three-story house, which had an asphalt shingle roof and brick walls, was 49 feet (15 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) wide. Smoke alarms were installed in the basement, on the second floor, and in the attic, but the occupants did not hear them and they appear not to have sounded during the fire. There were no sprinklers.
An occupant discovered the fire and called to report it at 2:54 a.m. A 1-year-old boy, a 12-year-old girl, a 38-year-old woman, and a 40-year-old man died when they failed to escape from the burning house, though the report does not say where they were found. A 14-year-old girl and a 16-year-old girl were injured when they jumped from a second-floor window, as was an 18-year-old girl who jumped from a third-floor window.
Investigators believe that the fire began when an electrical fault ignited combustibles, including an artificial Christmas tree and a sofa.
The home and its contents, valued at $95,000, were nearly destroyed.