National News

In Deadly Bronx Fire, Responders Battled Fire and Ice

Posted December 29, 2017 8:44 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The frozen hydrant in front of the burning building. The icy steps tripping up firefighters as they carried people out. The frigid fire escape cramped with dozens of people clambering to safety.

A brutal chill Thursday night made battling a fast-moving fire that killed 12 people in the Bronx all the more difficult for emergency responders. Fighting fires is always a challenge, fire officials said, but low temperatures can be especially problematic, leading to frozen equipment, firefighter fatigue and unseen hazards.

The New York Fire Department responded to the fire, at 2363 Prospect Ave. in the Belmont neighborhood, three minutes after the first emergency call was made Thursday night. Firefighters rushed to a hydrant located directly in front of the building, but it was frozen, said Lt. Mickey Conboy, a 32-year veteran who was on the scene. After sending a signal that they had no water, a second engine arrived and an officer found a working hydrant up the block and around the corner.

Temperatures had fallen into the teens after several days of below-freezing weather, and firefighters wore thermal gloves to protect against the cold, Conboy said. The railings were hot from the fire and the marble stairs cracked from the heat, but soon, he said, the cold produced a different effect: The stairways iced over, and firefighters began slipping and falling.

“You can imagine how difficult it was to carry unconscious people down a flight of stairs that was ice-covered,” Conboy said. “It was like ice-skating down a waterfall. That slows us down. Hooking up to the water slows us down, slipping on the water in the street — everything slows down because of the cold.”

The city fire commissioner, Daniel A. Nigro, said six firefighters sustained sprains or strains, and an emergency medical technician slipped on ice and broke his ribs. In an interview Friday, Nigro said the cold weather certainly presented “a struggle,” but insisted that the frozen hydrant had not affected responders’ efforts to fight the blaze.

Nigro said the city’s fire engines are equipped with 500 gallons of water that can be used while waiting to connect to a hydrant, though it is not enough water to combat a blaze.

After Thursday, 71 people have died in fires in New York City this year, up from 48 last year. Twenty-four of those have come in December alone — the deadliest month in 10 years, Nigro said. Over the decades, though, the number of structural fires has decreased tremendously: There were 26,075 in fiscal year 2017, compared to 56,810 in 1976, according to Fire Department data.

Fire officials have said that there are typically more fires during the winter months, when people use space heaters to keep warm or leave lit candles unattended.

Gerardo Fitzgerald, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, a union representing city firefighters, said cold weather made fighting fires considerably harder.

“The ice builds up on our tools, our ladders, which becomes a safety problem,” Fitzgerald said. “And inside the building it can become like an ice-skating rink. It adds a whole bunch of different obstacles for us to fight the fire and to make rescues.” Fire officials said there were also instances when ladders froze and were unable to extend.

Emergency responders in other cities have encountered similar issues during frigid winter months. When a three-alarm fire erupted inside a building in East Boston over the weekend, firefighters there encountered a frozen hydrant, which slowed their ability to combat the blaze. Everyone in the building survived, though several firefighters were injured after falling on ice.

“The challenges are immense,” said Joseph E. Finn, the Boston fire commissioner. “The potential for frozen hydrants can hamper our ability to get water on the fires quickly.”

Finn said frozen hydrants used to be a common problem in the city, but in recent years efforts were stepped up to check and maintain them. During periods of heavy snowfall, firefighters dig out hydrants to make sure they are available.

Similarly, in Toronto, where temperatures are expected to drop into the single digits this week, Chief Matthew Pegg said his firefighters are trained to fight fires in extremely cold conditions. Fire vehicles are also equipped with onboard heating systems and pump heaters, he said. Pegg said hoses are never turned off, so as to prevent the water from freezing.

Pegg said he also worked closely with the Toronto Transit Commission to make sure there are buses nearby to keep displaced residents warm.

But, Pegg said, despite preparation, challenges persist. Last year this time, he said, there were several major fires in mansions, and efforts to battle them were complicated by heavy snowfall.

“The road conditions were difficult and more dangerous,” he said. “It takes longer to respond.”

When a hydrant is shut off, leakage can occur in the valve and, over a period of months, water can leak into the pipe and freeze, said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor in the department of security, fire, and emergency management at John Jay College.

“Time is of the essence in a fire,” he said. “We’re talking about minutes here, not an hour. A frozen hydrant can really mess things up.”

Firefighter supervisors also have to carefully manage how long a firefighter is working in the cold, said Greg Cade, director of government affairs with the National Fire Protection Association.

“You really have to pay attention to the crews and rotate them on a more frequent basis because of potential issues with hypothermia,” he said. “It is a miserable time.”