In the course of a firefighter’s career, he or she may respond to hundreds of fires, but there is always one fire that stands out, which rises above the rest as being the most dangerous and most memorable. For the members of FDNY Ladder 138, the fire at Box 22-7889, which occurred at 37-52 89th Street in Queens on December 15th, 2004, will always be that fire.
“I have been to many fires in my career,” wrote Division 14 Deputy Chief Mike Ferran, “and after working 23 years in our department I consider this fire, combined with the life hazard involved, to be one of the worst I have responded to.”
The box came in at 0244 Hrs., with responding units initially being given an incorrect address. By the time the correct address was ascertained, the fire, which had started in apartment 2-F on the second floor of a 6-story Class-3 Multiple Dwelling, had grown to include not only the entire apartment but half the length of a 40-foot public hallway outside it as well. The hallway had a smoke door, but it had been left chocked-open, allowing the fire to advance farther down the hall.
For the members of Ladder 138, the change in address also had its consequences; rather than being first-due into the box as they would have been at the first (incorrect) address, they arrived at the second (correct) address second-due. What this meant was that now their responsibility would be to search the floor above the fire. Getting there was a problem. However, of the two stairwells that serviced the building, one of them, Stairway B, was blocked due to the intensity of the fire in the hallway on the fire floor, which because of a windy day was now shooting blowtorch-style out from the fire apartment and rapidly expanding past Stairway B and past the smoke door.
Using the second stairway (Stairway A), Ladder 138 Firefighter Brian Cullen and a firefighter from Ladder 136, both assigned to the Can (Fire Extinguisher) position, combined efforts using their extinguishers to drive back the flames in the second floor hallway far enough so that the smoke door could be closed, containing the fire to that wing of the building, and enabling the firefighters to continue up Stairway A to search the third floor, the floor above the fire.
The act of closing the smoke door on the second floor had an unwanted side effect. However, with Stairway B (closest to the fire apartment) still open, the heat, smoke and flames blowing from apartment 2-F were now concentrated up the stairwell and into the third-floor hallway.
Any firefighter will tell you that the area above the fire is the most dangerous place a firefighter can be. Not only were the members of Ladder 138 now moving into this area, the area was now itself experiencing extremely high heat and heavy smoke conditions from the fire extending from Stairway B.
Facing these conditions, L-138 Firefighter Brian Cullen crawled down the right side of the third floor hallway, without the protection of a hose line. He came upon an unconscious male burn victim, transmitted a “10-45” on his radio, and dragged the victim back the length of the hallway to Stairway A, where he handed him off to L-138 Firefighter Joseph Tarantini. Resuming his search down the now zero-visibility hallway, he located a second unconscious male victim and again dragged him back the length of the hallway, this time down the stairs, where he handed the victim off to a firefighter on the second floor. Despite his exertion, he returned again to the third floor to resume his search.
After helping Firefighter Cullen remove his victim to safety, Ladder 138 Firefighter Joseph Tarantini returned to the third floor to continue searching for victims as well. With still no water yet on the fire below him, conditions in the hallway were extremely brutal. Searching blindly, he came across an unconscious female child. After dragging her back to Stairway A, he placed her over his shoulder and carried her down three flights of stairs to the street, where he was met by other firefighters who assisted him. Returning to the third floor a third time, Tarantini was met at the top of the stairs by another firefighter dragging another unconscious adult male victim. For the second time he placed the victim over his shoulder and carried him the three flights down to the street, where he turned him over to waiting personnel. Two rescues notwithstanding, he then returned to the third floor again to join his company.
Ladder 138 Firefighter Victor Rosa, who was assigned to the Outside Vent position that day, had meanwhile placed a 24-foot portable ladder at the window of apartment 3-G, where he had seen a woman crying for help. Upon entering the apartment window he saw that the room was relatively clear of heat and smoke, so he directed the woman to wait by the window, where she was eventually led to safety by L-138 LCC Steven Muller.
Continuing his search out into the third floor hallway, Firefighter Rosa was immediately met with the same extreme heat and smoke conditions his brother firefighters had been working in. Despite his proximity to the now-burning Stairwell B, Rosa located an unconscious female in the hallway directly outside the apartment, and dragged her to the safety of the apartment interior. At great risk again, he again ventured out into the hall and located a second, badly burned unconscious female and brought her to the safety of the apartment as well. Then, risking his life a third time, he searched the hallway and came across the unconscious body of a small child. Rather than return to the apartment, however, Firefighter Rosa carried the child the length of the third-floor hallway, past the flames coming out of Stairway B, in an effort to find what he knew must be a second staircase. After locating Stairway A, he carried the child down the three flights of stairs to the safety of the street below.
As a direct result of Ladder 138’s actions, numerous civilians were rescued that morning. “This was an extremely difficult and stressful job,” continued Deputy Chief Ferran in his letter to the members of Ladder 138. “[FDNY Assistant Chief Kilduff] and I both realize that the many victims that are still alive are so because of your combined courageous efforts. ALL members did an outstanding job and deserve to be commended.”