Lessons from the Fireground-1958: Wooster Street Fire and Collapse

Lessons from the Fireground-1958

Wooster Street Fire & Collapse Box 55-334 FDNY

 

137 -139 Wooster Street in Lower Manhattan (New York City) was a six story 80 x 100 loft building constructed of heavy timber construction and masonry brick perimeter walls. This was a common building size and type in this area of the city called “Hells’ hundred acres” in lower Manhattan. Hells Hundred Acres is an area bounded by Chamber Street on the south, the Bowery on the east, West Broadway on the west and West 8th.street on the north.

This area in lower Manhattan was named Hell’s Hundred Acres due to the numerous firefighters that had been killed or seriously injured in the line of duty over numerous decades in frequent multiple alarm fires and building collapses.

These characteristic buildings were constructed during the civil war era (mid 1850-1870), which resulted in a major build-out of the area and were predominately used for mercantile activities that included rag storage, baled goods, paper rolls and manufacturing with heavy machinery and varied occupancy uses.

On February 14, 1958 at 22:15 hours, FDNY Box 334 was transmitted for a report of fire in an occupied commercial building that housed a paper and twine manufacturer with baled paper storage. The building at 137 -139 Wooster Street was bound by West Houston Street and Prince Street and located in the center of the block area.

There were seven employees working on the third floor in the building at the time of the fire which was initially reported on the first floor. All the employees were able to escape unassisted from the building.

Building features and characteristics

  • Built Circa 1858, Loft Building,
  • Commercial-Manufacturing occupancy
  • Six Stories, 80 ft. x 100 ft.
  • Heavy Timber Construction Frame (Columns, girders with wood floor planks), Masonry Brick perimeter walls
  • Cast Iron Façade and Ornamental Brick with Predominate Arch on street side façade (Alpha side)
  • Metal Roof covering was present on the upper roof deck as was a water tank (a common building feature) that rested upon a structural steel frame system.
  • Significant floor loading due to manufacturing equipment, high fuel load resulting from staged and stored paper, rolled products etc.
  • Building age and deterioration at the time of the fire were considered contributing factors
1916 Bromley Mapping NYC

1916 Bromley Mapping NYC

The fire extended to the upper five floors rapidly via open shaft ways as fire suppression operations were underway. Firefighting operations were compounded due to the severe winter weather conditions in the City which had nine inches of snow on the ground and temperatures in the single digits. Reports indicated there was an undetermined explosion of some type after the fire started.

As early operations continued, without any precursor indication or warning, the upper number two thru six floors collapsed in rapid succession cascading down on each other and on the firefighters operating on the various levels.

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Two FDNY firefighters venting the roof, and four member of Fire Patrol No. 1 (members of the New York Board of Fire Underwriters) placing salvage covers were buried alive when the floors and the roof suddenly collapsed. The New York Board of Fire Underwriters operated the Fire Patrol Companies, whose primary responsibility at fire was to minimize smoke and water damage within the structures.

Multiple alarms were transmitted in rapid succession as fire extended throughout the six story structure. The operations extended to a Fifth Alarm with transmittals for special calls for additional manpower that would be utilized in the search and rescue operations to recover the six members.

The Fire Patrol Personnel and FDNY Firefighters and that died in the line of duty included;

  • Sargent Michael McGee, Fire Patrol # 1,
  • Patrolman Louis Brusati, Fire Patrol # 1
  • Patrolman James Devine Fire, Patrol # 1,
  • Patrolman Michael Tracey, Fire Patrol # 1
  • Firefighter Bernard Blumenthal, FDNY Ladder 20,
  • Firefighter William Schmid, FDNY Ladder 1

Twelve additional firefighters were injured during the building collapse and subsequent rescue efforts and operations.

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FDNY Fire Commissioner Edward F. Cavanaugh, Jr., who was in charge of the incident placed a request for volunteers to support the ensuing rescue and recovery efforts and in support of the 100 on-duty personnel, which brought more than 500 off-duty firefighter to the scene according to published newspaper accounts.

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Hand removal of debris and void search was conducted under the most hazardous of conditions due to collapsed conditions, instable wall and floor assemblies, unstable and secondary collapse and material movement and the presence of the precarious brick façade on the street side that resulted in a masonry arch losing a fifteen section of its keyway support. The roof top water tower was precariously resting in its steel support six stories above the street level.

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Cranes and rigging was brought in during the recovery operations support access and support material removal. The crane boom was also used to horizontally access suspected void and collapse areas that were possible positions of the trapped and buried personnel. Compounding the operations was the metal roof came down atop the debris pile causing extensive efforts to penetrate and move through the material and condition.

Recovery efforts were also hampered by the periodic flare-up and fire extension of deep seated smoldering fires that fed off the bulk paper and combustible materials under the debris piles and within the voids. Archived reports stated that Firefighter Bernard Blumenthal, FDNY Ladder 20, was removed from the debris pile alive, but succumbed to this injuries at the hospital. He had been married for three weeks.

The origin of the fire was never determined, however published reported circulated that a probable cause was careless smoking on the fifth floor according to fire officials.

The building collapse was a combination of building structural system failures that included the timber column & girder systems, wall-floor connection points resulting from the compromise and failure of the cast iron columns on the street side (Alpha side) and subsequent masonry wall collapse.

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The consequential increase in loading of the floors due to hose stream applications and the resulting increased weight due to the absorption of water of the stored paper products were apparent contributors. Building age, deterioration and were considered contributors to the apparent causes.

This area of lower Manhattan is now home to numerous upscale residential, artisan, entertainment and business and mercantile establishments that have resulted in numerous building renovations, alternations and resulting in a wide variety of building changes that have significantly changed the existing building’s expected predictability of performance based on occupancy use, structural, assembly and material use and application based on architectural, engineering and construction design, parameters and anatomy.

 

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These same buildings today have a varied predictability of performance that is influenced by the building’s originating design and construction, however their expected performance under fire conditions requires a redefined set of operating parameters based on building changes and differential occupancy risks.

137-139 Wooster Street Today

137-139 Wooster Street Today

 

The variations to the loft style buildings, heavy timber, cast iron and mixed type III and IV construction, the evolving age of these buildings which exceeds greater than 157 years of age and the impact of renovation and adaptive reuse and renovation present in NYC are reflected of similar conditions and building types in many jurisdictions and area throughout the country.

These building types and occupancy risks  requires a new found degree of building insights and the need for increased building pedigree knowledge and understanding of how these type of buildings are built and impacted by fire on today’s fireground.

  • Start learning or reacquaint yourself on the principles of Type III and Type IV construction
  • Increase your knowledge of Heavy Timber construction
  • Increase your insights on Cast-Iron construction
  • Be aware of renovations, adaptions, alterations, conversations and reuse of buildings of Type III and Type IV construction and the change in building and occupancy use and risks
  • Increase your skill set in Reading Buildings and indicators of collapse in buildings with masonry bearing walls or infill masonry walls
  • Understand the principles of Collapse Management Zones (CMZ)
  • How’s your KSA in the mechanism of compromise and collapse of Type III & IV Buildings?
  • Remember: on Today’s Fireground- The façade may not give you a clear indication of the building type or use; That Type III façade may have an engineered structural support system (ESS) of wood assemblies on the other side, changing the tactical and operational profile.

New York Fire Patrol Insights

  • The New York Fire Patrol was a salvage corps created by the New York Board of Fire Underwriters which operated from 1839 until October 15, 2006.
  • Their original mission was two-fold: to discover fires and to prevent losses to insured properties. The Patrol responded primarily to fires at commercial structures, however they would respond to high loss residential fires at times. During the fire the Patrol would spread canvas salvage covers, remove water, operate elevators and secure utilities.
  • The Patrol’s primary purpose was to reduce fire damage. After a fire, the Patrol would attempt to prevent further damage to facilities and equipment, with the goal of reducing insurance claims for the damaged goods. Over the years, they grew adept at preventing water damage by immediately pumping out excess water from fire department hoses, at preventing computer and electronics damage by covering and removing equipment as soon as possible, and at preventing damage from the elements by covering broken windows and doors with tarps as soon as possible.
  • The Patrol was also credited with saving hundreds of lives from burning buildings throughout the five boroughs over the course of two hundred years. In the late 20th century the Patrol was reduced to three Patrol Houses, one each in Midtown and Downtown Manhattan and one in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn which was responsible for Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Throughout their history, 32 patrolmen died in the line of duty, including Keith M. Roma, Badge 120, on September 11, 2001.

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Typical Cast-Iron Columns Façade Photo: CJ Naum

Typical Cast-Iron Columns Façade Photo: CJ Naum

 

Typical Heavy Timber Loft Building with Cast-Iron Columns and Lintel Beam street side. Photo; CJ Naum

Typical Heavy Timber Loft Building with Cast-Iron Columns and Lintel Beam street side. Photo; CJ Naum

 

 

Typical Heavy Timber Construction w Masonry Perimeter Walls. Photo: CJ Naum

Typical Heavy Timber Construction w Masonry Perimeter Walls. Photo: CJ Naum