NFPA Journal®, May/June 2009
Apartment kitchen fire kills one
SOUTH CAROLINA — A fire that began in the kitchen of an apartment in a three-unit building killed its 48-year-old occupant and damaged apartments on either side before firefighters extinguished the flames.
The single-story, wood-frame apartment building, which sat on a slab, had a framed wood roof covered by asphalt shingles. Each unit had approximately 900 square feet (84 square meters) of living space. There were no smoke alarms or sprinklers in the apartment of origin.
Shortly after 7:30 a.m., a neighbor discovered the fire and called 911. He also alerted at least one of the occupants in the adjoining apartments. Firefighters arrived within six minutes of the 7:33 a.m. alarm to find the middle unit heavily involved in fire. Crews advancing a hose line into the burning unit knocked down the blaze, as additional crews entered the units on either side to control the fire spreading through and from the bulding’s common attic.
Once they brought the blaze under control, firefighters found the victim in his bathtub, where he had succumbed to thermal burns and carbon monoxide exposure. They found him during a secondary search, having been told he was out of town and that the apartment was unoccupied.
Investigators determined that the fire was started by the kitchen stove, but they did not determine what the stove ignited.
Two of the three units were declared total losses from fire and smoke damage, while the third sustained only light smoke and water damage. The reported loss to the structure and its contents was $90,000 and $60,000, respectively. Neither occupant in the other units was injured.
Gas explosion injures child, kills grandfather
PENNSYLVANIA — A 4-year-old girl was injured and her 74-year-old grandfather was killed when natural gas ignited in their single-family home and blew the entire structure to pieces.
The two-story, split-level, wood-frame house was 50 feet (15 meters) long by 30 feet (9 meters) wide. Its exterior walls were covered with a brick façade, and the roof was covered with asphalt shingles. Investigators could not determine whether smoke alarms were present, but there were no sprinklers.
The grandfather and child had returned home at 1:40 p.m. and smelled a strange odor. Leaving his granddaughter sitting on a sofa in front of a large window in the living room, the man went to the basement to investigate when the explosion occurred, blowing the house apart and starting a huge fireball that engulfed the remains of the dwelling. The explosion also severely damaged five other homes or related structures nearby.
A neighbor found the girl, who had been blown through the window, in the debris some 30 feet (9 meters) from the house. Both her legs were fractured but she was conscious and breathing. Her grandfather was found outside the house near his parked car. He was still alive, but he had suffered third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body, as well as major trauma to his trunk. Both victims were taken to hospitals, where the grandfather died a few hours later.
The explosion and fire damaged 30 dwellings, with a loss estimate of $750,000. Local, state, and federal authorities are still investigating the cause. One firefighter suffered an eye injury during extinguishment.
Home oxygen contributes to fatal fire
NEVADA — Two women, one aged 62 and the other 63, died in an early morning fire that began in the living room of their double-wide manufactured home. A third woman, also aged 62, managed to escape.
The 1,425-square-foot (132-square-meter) home, which was set on a stem-wall foundation and had a wood-frame roof covered with asphalt, had no sprinklers. It did have two battery-operated smoke alarms, but only one had a battery.
The working alarm activated, but the three women may have been awake already. One of them called 911 at 12:32 a.m. As the woman told the 911 operator that the living room and a bed were on fire, the operator heard the operating smoke alarm in the background.
Firefighters arrived to find the home well-involved in fire at one end and heavy, black smoke pouring from the windows. The woman who had escaped told firefighters that her two friends were still inside. Before crews could begin advancing a 1 3/4-inch hose line to the door, a small explosion blew out a living room window. Fighting through smoke, firefighters conducting a primary rescue search found the two victims and removed them from the dwelling. Firefighters also removed two dogs that died in the blaze.
Investigators could not decide between two possible causes. One involved the electrical cord powering the 63-year-old woman’s home oxygen concentrator, which had been pinched by the frame of a bed in the living room. The other possibility was smoking in bed, as all three women smoked, and the investigators found evidence of smoking materials throughout the home, including the living room. The investigators recorded some evidence consistent with a more intense fire fed by oxygen before the oxygen cylinders exploded in the blast that responding firefighters heard outside the house.
The home, valued at $263,625, sustained losses estimated at $129,500. There was no estimate of contents value or loss.
Clothing fire in apartment complex kills one
OHIO — A 57-year-old woman who lived alone died when the sleeve of her robe ignited as she prepared dinner in her fifth-floor apartment.
The six-story, 60-unit apartment building for low-income families was constructed of steel framing with concrete block walls and a brick exterior. It was protected by a dry-pipe sprinkler system and a fire alarm system that included smoke detectors and pull stations.
Although heat from the fire was insufficient to activate the sprinklers, smoke set off the smoke alarm in the apartment, and neighbors responded. One of them used a portable extinguisher to knock down the blaze.
Once they had controlled the flames in the kitchen, they found the occupant, who was mentally ill, sitting on the living room couch. She had tried unsuccessfully to put the fire out at the kitchen sink before moving to the bathroom, where she filled the tub with water and extinguished the fire on her robe.
By that time, however, she had suffered burns, many of them third-degree burns, over 90 percent of her body. She died two days later of her injuries.
Firefighters responding to the alarm completed extinguishment.
Damage to the apartment and the building were not reported.
Electric heat lamp starts fatal fire
WASHINGTON — An 80-year-old woman died in a fire that began when high winds knocked over an electric heat lamp she had placed on her patio to keep several cats warm. The lamp ignited wooden steps, and the resulting fire spread up the wood siding into the attic.
The one-story, wood-frame house did not have any smoke alarms or sprinklers.
A neighbor discovered the fire and called 911 at 12:31 a.m. Responding firefighters found the woman, with a phone in her hand, near the door of her bedroom, which was at the opposite end of the house from the patio. Unfortunately, she had already succumbed to smoke inhalation.
The house, valued at $180,000, and its contents, for which no value was provided, were destroyed.
House fire kills one child, injures another
IDAHO — A 2-year-old girl and her 18-month-old brother who had been left alone in their home were unable to help themselves when a fire that started on the front porch burned through the single-family house.
The wood-frame dwelling, which was 46 feet (14 meters) long and 28 feet (8.5 meters) wide, had a battery-operated smoke alarm in a hallway, but investigators could not determine whether it operated. There were no sprinklers.
Firefighters received the alarm from a passerby at 2:21 p.m. While en route, they received follow-up reports from dispatch stating the house was fully involved.
Three minutes after they were dispatched, the first-arriving engine company noted heavy fire on the outside front of the home and reported that the windows were just starting to fail, allowing the fire into the structure. Firefighters advanced a hose line and knocked down the heavy fire at the front of the building before repositioning their hose line to the rear of the building. Forcing entry through the locked kitchen door, they approached the fire from the unburned side of the living room and quickly extinguished the blaze.
Interior crews conducting a primary search found the boy in a crib in a first-floor bedroom, and another company found the girl in a crib in a second bedroom. Both were treated for smoke inhalation, but the girl died of her injuries. Several teams of firefighters searched the house several more times for an adult who was reported to have been inside, but found none. Neither parent was home at the time of the fire.
Investigators determined that the blaze began near two upholstered chairs on the porch where the children’s parents went to smoke but could not discover the cause.
Most of the fire damage was limited to the front of the house and front rooms on the first floor, although there was smoke damage throughout. Damage to the house, valued at $80,000, was estimated at $50,000. The contents, valued at $7,000, were destroyed. Both of the children’s parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the little girl’s death.
House fire kills mother, injures daughter and grandmother
CALIFORNIA — A 66-year-old woman died of smoke inhalation as she and her 43-year-old daughter tried to rescue her 89-year-old mother from an early morning fire that began in the daughter’s room.
The single-story, single-family, wood-frame house, which covered 2,630 square feet (244 square meters), had single station smoke alarms, which were reported to have operated, but there were no sprinklers.
The 43-year-old awoke to find her legs on fire. After she extinguished the fire on her legs, she alerted her mother and grandmother and called 911 at 6:41 a.m. Her mother also called 911.
One minute later, dispatch sent seven engines and six other apparatus with 23 personnel, who arrived at the scene seven minutes later. Firefighters knocked the fire down and removed the victims within 27 minutes of arrival.
Investigators determined that the fire started in the 43-year-old’s bedroom near wire racks being used as a desk and spread to other areas of the house. The ignition source could not be determined.
The 89-year-old woman survived, although she suffered from smoke inhalation, as did her granddaughter, who also suffered burns. Her daughter died of smoke inhalation.
The house, valued at $800,000, and its contents, valued at $125,000, sustained $500,000 and $100,000 in damage, respectively.
Sprinkler controls hotel fire started by candle
COLORADO — A single sprinkler successfully extinguished a fire started by a candle in an occupied guest bedroom of a four-story hotel. The waterflow activated the building’s fire alarm system, alerting guests and staff to the presence of the fire.
The 158-unit hotel was built of steel and concrete panels and had a flat, built-up roof. A wet-pipe sprinkler system provided full coverage and monitored waterflow tied to the fire detection and alarm system. Both systems were monitored by a central monitoring company.
The fire alarm operated at 12:25 a.m. and alerted the front desk staffer, who silenced the alarm. Occupants were advised to evacuate, and some went down to the lobby. Firefighters arriving within minutes of the alarm noted light smoke on the first floor and located the operating sprinkler in the first-floor guest room. By that time, the sprinkler had extinguished the blaze.
Investigators determined that a candle on the nightstand between the room’s beds ignited a T-shirt on the nightstand, and the fire spread to bedding, mattress, and headboard of one of the beds. The room’s occupant was in the bathroom when the fire started and told investigators, “When I came out of the bathroom, there was smoke and water everywhere.” He was not injured. The hotel staff told investigators that guests are not allowed to use candles in their rooms.
Asked why she had shut off the fire alarm when it activated, the staffer admitted she was wrong to do so.
Damage to the hotel and its contents, valued at over $5 million, was estimated at $10,000 and $5,000, respectively. There were no injuries.
Children playing with lighter start fatal fire
INDIANA — A 3-year-old girl died in a fire that started when she and her 6-year-old brother were playing with a lighter in the basement of their single-family home.
The one-and-one-half story, wood-frame house had a basement that contained two beds and two sofas. The home had no sprinklers, and the presence or absence of smoke alarms was not reported.
The children’s babysitter discovered the fire and ran to a neighbor’s house to call 911 at 12:03 a.m. Arriving firefighters were told that the little girl was trapped. They found her body behind a bed in the basement after they knocked the fire down. She had died as a result of smoke inhalation and severe burns.
Investigators determined that the children had been playing with a lighter and ignited the bedding. The fire then spread to the mattress, wall coverings, and ceiling tiles. When a nearby window broke, the fire vented and spread to the exterior of the house and to the upper floors.
The house, valued at $75,000, sustained $30,000 worth of damage. Its contents, valued at $30,000, sustained a $20,000 loss.
Smoke alarm alerts occupant
MASSACHUSETTS — An operating smoke alarm in a single-family house being used as a group home alerted an occupant to a fire in the basement laundry room. He used a fire extinguisher in an effort to control the fire, but flames spread through a pipe chase to other parts of the home.
In accordance with state law, the two-story, split-level, wood-frame house, which contained 2,344 square feet (218 square meters), had local smoke alarms on all floors, but they were not connected to a monitored fire alarm system. Fire officials said that central station monitoring or a fire department connection would have allowed firefighters to attack the fire earlier and limit fire spread. There were no sprinklers.
A resident had put a load of laundry in an electric dryer and gone to take a shower. While he was in the bathroom, he heard a smoke alarm operating and went to investigate after he finished his shower. Finding smoke and flames coming from the back of the dryer, the man tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire before leaving the building. A neighbor called 911 at 11:30 a.m.
The fire department, arriving with a ladder company and two engines, found that the fire had spread to the home’s upper floors through a pipe chase and into the attic. Investigators determined that the dryer’s electric motor had malfunctioned and ignited the wiring insulation on the unit.
Damage to the house and its contents, together valued at $215,000, was estimated at $90,000. There were no injuries.
Children ignite mattress; fatal fire kills two
ALASKA — Firefighters responded to a 7:37 p.m. 911 call reporting a fire in a manufactured home that was started in a bedroom by two 5-year-olds with a history of fire play. The blaze quickly spread throughout the home, which collapsed, killing one of the children and burning a 15-year-old boy.
The single-family, steel-frame home had wooden walls and a metal roof. A battery-operated smoke alarm was found in the hallway, but investigators could not determine whether it had operated. There were no sprinklers in the house.
Before the fire, the two children were seen igniting combustibles on a gas-fired stove. One or both of them ignited an item on the stove, then used it to ignite a mattress in their room. The children had depleted extinguishers found at the scene, and they were inoperable, but it is not known when they were used.
The house, valued at $30,000, and its contents, valued at $20,000, were completely destroyed.
Gasoline vapors ignite in house, killing boy
PENNSYLVANIA — A father-and-son car repair project ended tragically when gasoline vapors ignited, trapping and killing the 12-year-old boy in the basement of his single-family house.
The two-story, wood-frame house had smoke alarms on the first and second floors, but they had no batteries. There were no sprinklers.
The two had removed the fuel tank from a car and brought it into the basement, where there was a 5-gallon (19-liter) open bucket of gasoline to prime the new fuel pump. Vapors from the gasoline reached an operating kerosene heater about 3 feet (0.9 meters) away and ignited. The father managed to escape, but the fire quickly involved the basement and spread to the first and second floors of the house.
An occupant of the home called 911 to report the fire at 10:19 a.m. Once fire fighters knocked down the main body of the fire, they found the boy in the basement, where he had succumbed to smoke inhalation and thermal burns.
The fire destroyed both house, which was valued at $30,000, and the home’s contents, which were valued at $15,000.
Space heater causes fatal fire
OHIO — A 96-year-old woman died in her single-family home when a baseboard-style electric heater located too close to a family room couch started a fire that was further intensified when the aluminum regulator on a gas fireplace in the room failed. Fifteen minutes earlier, the woman had said goodbye to a visitor, who had not noticed that anything was wrong.
The two-story, wood-frame house had battery-operated smoke alarms on each level, which operated. The house was unsprinklered.
In a 12:11 p.m. call to the fire department, a passerby reported seeing fire at the rear of the house. While they were en route, firefighters were advised that a person was inside the house. Four minutes later, arriving firefighters found heavy black smoke coming from the home and fire showing across the house’s rear façade.
The incident commander ordered two teams into the building, one for fire attack and the second for search and rescue. The second crew was driven back by the fire, but the first crew found the woman’s body after they knocked down the blaze.
The house, valued at $108,000, was destroyed, while its contents, valued at $30,000, sustained $15,000 in damage.
Sprinkler extinguishes bedding fire
ARIZONA — A sprinkler in the bedroom of an assisted-living facility extinguished a fire that began when the room’s wheelchair-bound occupant ignited his bedding while lighting a cigar. The sprinkler triggered the system’s central station alarm, and the monitoring company notified the fire department.
The single-story building, constructed of concrete block walls with a wood roof covered in asphalt shingles, had a wet-pipe sprinkler system. Smoke detectors located in the hallways operated as designed.
Arriving firefighters, who received the alarm at 8:53 p.m., found the fire extinguished. They treated the room’s 82-year-old occupant, who had suffered burns on his legs, and took him to the hospital, where he contracted a fatal infection.
The $3-million structure sustained $5,000 in structural damage, as well as $3,000 in damage to its contents, valued at $750,000.
Electric heat gun ignites historic home
WISCONSIN — A construction crew using an electric heat gun to strip paint from the fascia board of a 100-year-old home and historical museum started a fire on the roof. The workers sprayed the flames with water and thought they had extinguished them, but the fire proceeded to spread into the attic and other hidden spaces.
The three-story, wood-frame house, which measured 60 by 45 feet (18 by 14 meters), was sided with wood and had an asphalt-shingled roof. At the time of the fire, it was surrounded by scaffolding covered by opaque tarps for protection against the weather. The museum had a monitored smoke and fire detection system, which operated during the fire. There were no sprinklers.
As the contractor stripped paint from the fascia board, he inadvertently ignited a patch of decayed wood. The workers immediately sprayed the fire with water, which appeared to extinguish it and sprayed it again about 15 minutes later to make sure it was out. The crew was then called to a safety meeting. When they returned to work about 20 minutes later, the crew saw that the fire had rekindled. They attempted to put it out again with additional fire extinguishers, but failed to notice that it had spread into the attic of the house. The workers then proceeded to call 911 at 10:18 a.m.
Firefighters arriving three minutes later saw smoke coming from the roof and advanced hose lines to the building’s top floor. The fire had just started to break through one room’s ceiling from the attic, when the crews began pulling down the ceiling and attacking the fire. They continued pulling down the ceiling and a bathroom wall while pursuing the fire and succeeded in confining the blaze to the third floor, the attic, and some wall spaces.
The house, valued at approximately $3 million, sustained $180,000 in damage. Its contents, valued at $500,000, were not damaged. There were no injuries.
Grease fire destroys restaurant
MARYLAND — Employees of a take-out restaurant had begun preparing to open for the day when they discovered a fire in the ductwork over two rotisserie ovens and a deep-fat fryer. They tried to put out the flames with fire extinguishers, but the fire spread through the ductwork to concealed spaces above.
The single-story, wood-frame restaurant, which measured 100 by 30 feet (30 by 9 meters), was separated from adjacent stores by gypsum board walls. The restaurant had no smoke or fire detection equipment, and its kitchen hood system was not operational as heads were missing.
Approximately 30 minutes after a worker cleaned the overhead duct filters and ignited charcoal in the ovens, he noticed the fire and used several fire extinguishers in an unsuccessful effort to control the flames. After a delay of about eight minutes, a restaurant employee called 911 at 8:40 a.m.
Investigators determined that the fire began when heat from the ovens ignited a build-up of grease in the ductwork. A hole in the ductwork allowed the fire to spread into the concealed ceiling space, where it charred the combustible construction and ignited the roof assembly. The owner told investigators that the ductwork had been poorly cleaned two weeks earlier and that he had contacted another firm about future cleaning.
The structure, valued at $2 million, and its contents, valued at $500,000, were destroyed. There were no injuries.
Fire destroys warehouse
PENNSYLVANIA — Combustible materials that were stored too close to ceiling lighting ignited when the lights were left on over the weekend, destroying a warehouse filled with sheet metal automobile parts.
The single-story, steel-frame building had metal and concrete block walls and a steel-frame roof with a metal deck covered by tar and gravel. It had no fire detection or suppression protection.
Employees of the warehouse discovered the fire when they arrived at work late Sunday evening. They called 911 at 11:30 p.m. Five companies of firefighters arrived minutes later to find flames coming from the skylights and one-third of the interior involved. The incident commander ordered a second alarm and called special tower units to the scene. Fifteen additional fire companies from three counties responded. Shortly after the first units arrived, the middle section of the building collapsed and fire crews fought the blaze for six to eight hours with five master streams, taxing the municipal water supply so badly a secondary supply from static sources was needed.
The fire destroyed the warehouse, valued at $1.5 million, and its contents, valued at $2 million. There were no injuries.
Sprinklers control fire
MASSACHUSETTS — A cutlery manufacturing plant was spared a major loss when a dry-pipe sprinkler system controlled a fire started by a cigarette in a restroom.
The three-story building, which measured 300 by 60 feet (91 by 18 meters), was constructed of heavy timber, with exterior walls of brick and a wooden roof covered by slate shingles. The waterflow to the sprinkler system was monitored, but the plant had no other fire detection equipment.
A central station alarm company alerted the fire department at 11:25 a.m. to a waterflow alarm at the plant.
Arriving firefighters found the fire, which had started in a second-floor restroom, had spread into a hall, up a wall, and into an attic storage space above. Some 17 sprinklers operated to help control the fire.
Investigators determined that someone smoking in the restroom had put a smoldering cigarette in a wet paper towel and dropped it in a cardboard drum that was used as a wastebasket. The fire ignited the contents of the barrel and the barrel itself, then spread into the room and down the hall. The restroom is located in an area with limited foot traffic and the fire could have burned undetected for some time. Working through the layers of debris, firefighters found evidence of multiple cigarettes previously disposed of in the same location.
Although the sprinkler system helped control the fire, the building, valued at $800,000, and its contents, valued at $2.1 million, sustained $500,000 in damage.
Fire officials said the absence of smoke detectors and the fact that the sprinkler system was a dry-pipe system combined to delay detection and fire department notification and contributed to the less than satisfactory outcome of the fire.
Sprinkler extinguishes fire
CONNECTICUT — A sprinkler quickly extinguished a fire in an office building, triggering the exterior waterflow alarm. However, the alarm was not tied into the fire alarm system and the building was closed for the evening, which is why the gong operated until a passerby heard the alarm and called 911 at 10:15 p.m.
The three-story, wood-frame office building, which had 1,200 square feet (111 square meters) per floor, was of ordinary construction with brick walls and an asphalt roof. A wet-pipe sprinkler system provided full coverage, and a fire alarm system provided detection in the common spaces.
Firefighters found the sprinkler valve on the lower floor and confirmed a waterflow, while others searched the first and second floors until they saw water seeping under the door to a second-floor doctor’s office. Forcing the door, they discovered that the water was coming from a third-floor dentist’s office, where they found the operating sprinkler and detected a slight odor of burning plastic. That odor led them to the remains of a fire that began when a ceiling-mounted utility fan overheated, causing the motor to ignite accumulated dust and the plastic fan cover. Dripping, burning plastic dropped into another plastic fan unit and a plastic pump shroud, and eventually there was enough heat to activate the sprinkler.
Damage to the structure was estimated at $5,000, while damage to its contents was estimated at $2,000. The smoke was confined to the closet and did not reach the common areas.