On the night of Jan. 5, 1996, Firefighter James B. Williams was the "can man" for his company, Ladder 121, when it pulled up to the 13-story building at 40-20 Beach Channel Drive in Far Rockaway after just after 10 p.m. It was windy.
Ladder 121 arrived four minutes after the 911 call came in reporting fire in a third-floor apartment. Capt. John Rokee led Williams and Firefighter Brian Gallagher into the lobby and up the stairs to the third floor. Other firefighters on the scene took to their assigned tasks. Engine companies grabbed hoses and nozzles off their rigs and marched into the building. Rokee and his men came to the entrance to the fire apartment, put on their face masks and pushed through the unlocked door, Rokee and Williams moving to the left, Gallagher to the right—all three searching for people who might be trapped inside. They got about 10 feet in. "Within 15 seconds," an investigation later found, "conditions in the apartment deteriorated to extreme heat and blinding smoke conditions."
Rokee, the report said, "saw a fireball coming at him from within the apartment. … The temperature in the apartment became unbearable." Out in the hallway, three engine company firefighters were quickly surrounded by smoke; they hit the ground and hurriedly put on their masks. Heat roared from apartment 3F, burning these men on their faces and ears and forcing them to evacuate. Outside, residents screamed for help from windows, and fire dispatchers began to get calls from "panicky people" and elderly folks stuck inside.
Rokee, Gallagher and Williams fled down the hall. The apartment door stuck open as they ran out, allowing the heat and smoke to race after them. The hallway was shaped like a T, with the exit located at the long end. As they hustled out of the flaming apartment, all three men missed the turn. Rokee and Gallagher found their way back to the corner and down the hall. Williams did not, and collapsed. In the anxious moments that followed, a firefighter from another ladder company crawled into the hallway, found the hose the engine company had dropped and moved into position to spray the fire but came upon Williams lying in the hall. It took several firefighters to get Williams down the stairs and into the street. He was pronounced dead at Peninsula General Hospital.
A lot went wrong the night Jimmy Williams died. As at Deutsche Bank 11 years later, the delay (a half hour this time) in getting water on the fire was devastating. FDNY investigators blamed this largely on one engine company bringing the wrong hose and trying to hook up to the standpipe so close to the fire that they were exposed to flame and smoke and were unable to finish the job.
But the report concluded that "adverse weather conditions were a significant contributing factor." The tenant in the fire apartment had left her window open. "When the door to the fire apartment was opened, gusting winds drove the fire back into the apartment and toward the members of Ladder 121," the report found.
Ten years later, on Jan. 27, 2006, there was a fire in a sixth-floor apartment in the same building, 40-20 Beach Channel Drive, which is a 234-unit building owned by the New York City Housing Authority. Thirty-three FDNY units responded, led by Ladder 121. This time, it was the apartment door that was left open. As firefighters were searching the room for victims, the windows failed and 40-mph winds turned the fire into a blowtorch. Firefighter James T. Byrne grabbed a probationary firefighter working with him and ran to a nearby apartment to seek refuge. There he heard a Mayday, crawled back into the hallway and discovered Firefighter Kevin McCarthy lying on the ground near the door to the fire apartment, surrounded by flame. Byrne dragged McCarthy 22 feet to safety. For this, Byrne won the FDNY's highest medal for valor. Had he not acted, 40-20 Beach Channel Drive might have killed a second firefighter. As it was, 10 firefighters were injured in the blaze.
Less than a month later, 138 firefighters responded to a blaze at Tracey Towers, a two-building high-rise complex on Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx. By the time the fire was brought under control, flames had lapped from the 24th floor to the 30th, and nine firefighters were injured, including one who suffered second- and third-degree burns. "The wind conditions were terrible," Mike Parrella, a fire department spokesman, told the local Norwood News.
Wind has been a factor in at least five FDNY deaths since 1991. The two nearly disastrous wind-driven fires in 2006 spurred the FDNY to consider new ways of approaching a fire when flame and wind are allied against them. Luckily, the hunt for better methods was already under way—thanks, in no small measure, to Lionel Hampton.
A better way?
A year after James Williams died, a breeze blew through an open window in the 28th-floor apartment near Lincoln Center where Hampton, the legendary jazz vibraphonist, lived. It knocked over a halogen lamp, which fell on a bed, starting a fire. A woman with Hampton in the apartment apparently opened a window to relieve the smoke and then, to get the wheelchair-bound 82-year-old band leader out of his flat, propped the apartment door open. Soon, says former FDNY battalion chief Jerry Tracey, the wind-driven fire became "a blow torch."
Tracey retired from the FDNY in 2009 with 31 years of experience. Back in the 1990s, he was the commander of a ladder company that responded to the Lionel Hampton blaze. He was off duty the day of the fire but later learned what happened: As they responded to the alarm, fire companies came up a stairway that put them 54 feet from the door to Hampton's apartment. Buffeted by heat and fire, it took the FDNY 45 minutes to cover that distance. The heat was so intense that one lieutenant was burned by the brass ring of his helmet. "We kept sending companies. We went through eight engine companies," Tracey says. "The fuel sort of burnt away. That's what allowed entry, finally, to that apartment." Eleven firefighters were hospitalized. Mayor Giuliani told The New York Times that "a fire that could have been life threatening was an inconvenience with some injuries, none of them life threatening and most sustained by firefighters."