"THE WALDBAUMS FIRE AND TRAGEDY"
BY STEVE SPAK
Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, a nice middle class neighborhood. Ocean Avenue being a main drag, with mostly 6 story apartment houses lining both sides of the 4 lane street, two lanes on each side, one going north towards prospect park and the other going south towards Emmons Avenue. Brooklyn's major fishing fleet boats are docked along Emmons Ave, along with Lundys , the famous Seafood Restaurant
The sun was shining brightly on that Friday morning on August 2nd 1978. The tempeture was about 75 Degrees and the wind was blowing about 15 mph. It was a relatively quiet morning. At about 8:15 am, workers noticed smoke emmimating from the mezzanine level of the Waldbaums supermarket on Ocean Ave. in Brooklyn. The supermarket was under going under extensive renovations. Workers immediately notified the fire department of the situation. At 08:17 hours box 3300 was transmitted for a reported fire in a supermarket at Ocean Ave and Ave Y. After receiving another phone call and the pulled street box. Three engine Companies, and two ladder companies, along with the 33 Battalion were dispatched to the scene. Upon arrival Engine co 254 noticing a smoke condition transmitted a signal 10-75 to the Brooklyn dispatch office via radio, signaling a working structural fire. Engine 354 stretched a handline into the supermarket while the first due truck ladder 153 started their primary search. Workers immediately pointed out to the firefighters where the fire apparently started. Due to the ongoing renovations, the fire was quickly spreading into the mezzanine and cockloft area. The 2nd due truck company raised their aerial ladder to the roof and commenced roof operations, Fire dept procedure dictates that the roof has to be ventilated by using saws to open up holes on the roof over the area of fire, so the super heated gases and smoke or flames could ventilate itself, allowing engine companies to advance their hose lines and also allowing truck companies to perform their searches for any possible trapped victims, upon arrival the 33rd battalion reported to the Brooklyn dispatch central office, that he was using all hands(meaning that all companies were being put to work), and that the fire was doubtful will hold (meaning, the fire was out of control). He then ordered an additional engine and ladder company to the scene ant appox 0820 hours. As conditions were worsening the 33rd battalion ordered a Second alarm. Bring an additional 3 engine and 2 ladder companies to the scene. Along with the field COM unit and the maxi water unit and Satellite Company, and additional battalion and assistant chief were also dispatched. As units were operating on the roof of the supermarket, conditions quickly worsened, Fire was now showing through the roof in 2 areas, At appox 9:02 am the roof suddenly collapsed sending at least 12 firefighters into the inferno….
BEEP!!!!BEEP!!!! Attention all Ems units a signal 10-22 code B, has been transmitted in the boro of Brooklyn, the location, Ocean Ave & Ave Y, Coney Island unit 312 come in. My partner Oliver Morris answered the radio, Coney 312 K, EMS 312 respond to the 10-22, location, Ocean Ave and Ave Y time out 0822 hrs. Dispatcher 842. 312 10-04, responding. When we arrived at the scene I noticed smoke coming from 2 different sections of the roof area, my partner and I exited the vehicle and reported to the EMS command post. Lt. Robert Becker told us our services would not be needed because unit 311, whose primary area this fire was located in was also at the scene at this time. I asked Lt. Becker if we could stick around, he told us we could if we remained in service for other calls. At this time I went to the corner of Ocean Ave and Ave Y, and took out my little minox 35mm camera and started to take photos. There were at least 12 firefighters operating on the roof of the supermarket at this time. I noticed heavy smoke coming from one section of the roof and firefighters using saws and pike poles opening up the roof. I then went to the front of the supermarket and took some photos looking at the front of the supermarket. I noticed an aerial ladder raised up onto the roof and a hoseline stretched up the ladder, also it seemed that the smoke condition was worsening, I took about 4 photos, then I ran out of film, in the next few seconds flames suddenly shot out of the roof about 60 feet in the air, the next thing I see is a commotion in front of the supermarket. Lt. Robert Becker was screaming into his portable radio, asking for every available ambulance in the Brooklyn south area to respond to the scene, that there was a major collapse and that numerous firefighters were injured and trapped in the blaze. In the next few seconds firefighters were being dragged out of the inferno, this time the supermarket was fully engulfed in flames, the scene became one of mayhem and confusion. Numerous injured firefighters were either being dragged out by fellow firefighters or were crawling or staggering out of the supermarket on their own. I quickly ran to my ambulance which was nearby and grabbed my o2, my tech bag and other supplies along with the stretcher, anticipating numerous serious injuries, the scene in front of the supermarket was one of ciaos. I could hear numerous sirens in the background getting louder. First I administered o2 to a firefighter who was having difficulty in breathing, then I splinted a firefighter who had a fractured leg, next I treated another firefighter who had severe burns on his arms and face, then I put on a sling and cravat on a firefighter who separated his shoulder. At this time other units began arriving on the scene, My partner Oliver Morris who was also treating numerous firefighters called to me that they loaded a severely burned firefighter in our ambulance using another units stretcher. Seeing the serious burns I knew we had to remove him immediately to the hospital. Also numerous units had arrived and were treating and triaging the firefighters at the scene, I jumped into my bus and started to administer oxygen to FF TerranceCampbell of ladder co 153. He was in a state of shock, he received 2nd and 3rd degree burns on his face, scalp and upper extremities and he appeared to be in severe pain. The protocol then was to use sterile water on the burns, which I applied, which gave him some relief, We were ordered by the dispatch center to transport FF Campbell to Long Island collage hospital, because the closest hospital, Coney Island hospital was being swamped with numerous injuries. Long Island Collage hospital was located on the other side of Brooklyn, but with lights and sirens we made it under 20 minutes, Firefighter Campbell was in great pain and I could see how shook up he was. After we delivered him to the emergency room, we went back into service and headed back to our primary area of response.
When we got close to our area, we were dispatched back to the scene of the fire. At this point we did not know all the details of the incident,
only that there were numerous injuries, we, being so busy at the onset of the disaster that we were operating in what was like a vacuum, only concentrating on the events, being the injuries before us, with everything happening so fast. When we arrived back at the scene, there were numerous fire, police and EMS apparatus, and numerous rescue workers at the scene.
I noticed the Fire Commissioner Agustus Beekman and Mayor ED Koch, Along with a numerous media presence. It was learned that six firefighters were trapped in the rubble of the supermarket. Tower ladders were pouring tons of water on the collapsed supermarket, and on the Ave Y side of the building Firefighters along with Police Emergency Services officers were breaching a hole in the wall to try and rescue the trapped firefighters.
There was an eerie presence about the scene, the emotions were so high you could cut it with a knife, numerous off duty firefighters began to arrive at the scene to lend their assistance in any way, Most of the firefighters appeared to be in a state of schock, some were weeping openly in the street. It was a very depressing scene, At this time most of the seriously injured firefighters were removed to local hospitals and some were still being treated from minor smoke inhalation at the scene and in the Mobile Emergency Room Vehicle or MERV for short.
All any one could do was to hope for the best and expect the worst. My partner and I helped a few firefighters from the merv to awaiting ambulances, for transport to a local hospital. Then I tried to console some of the grief stricken firefighters. One fighter who was visibly upset with tears in his eyes, told me he did a mutual swap with one of the firefighters who was trapped in the rubble, and that it could have been him. With tears in my eyes I put my arm around him my arm around tried to console him. But what could I possible say, that would take away his pain? All I could do was try and be as compassionate and helpful as I could, but it was such a helpless feeling that I could not do more. After the wall was breached and the fire darkened down , next came the grim task of locating the fallen firefighters, They were not expected to be found alive. Firefighters from the four rescue companies who were at the scene along with members from the companies of the missing firefighters began the dangerous task of find the victims while pockets of flames still was scene in the collapsed supermarket. There was a crowd fighters and other emergency personnel, including myself, in and around the breached wall. Ambulance 314, Vehicle # 183 an old bread box step van, was backed into position next to the breached wall. Then one by one the body bags were brought out of the collapsed supermarket into vehicle 183.
Firefighters had their helmets off as others fighters carried their fallen brothers from their perilous fate from the supermarket. The somber mood was indescribile, one I will never forget, the feelings that went through my mind on that day. I don't think anything I say can adequately describe this tragedy, Seeing all the despair and the tremendous overflowing emotions that were present throughout the scene, has had a tremendous impact on every one present, It was such a helpless feeling, knowing that all you could do was to express sympathy and compassion for all those involved.
In all six firefighters were killed, and more than 35 injured, some seriously. Killed in the blaze were covering Lt. James Cutillo 39, 33rd Battalion Fr Charles Bouton 38, ladder co 156 Fr William O'Conner 29 ladder co 156 Fr James P McManus 48 ladder co 153 Fr George Rice 38 ladder co 153 Fr Harold F. Hastings 40 ladder co 153 Just prior to the collapse, Louise O'Oconner, Wife of firefighter William O'Conner was at the scene of the blaze with her 3 small children. While O'Conner was operating on the roof, He waved to his family, and then they waved back, then shortly thereafter the roof collapsed, taking her husbands, and the father of her children's life. After reading this account in the newspapers I could only imagine what Louise was going through. Other Firefighters wives upon hearing the news of firefighters trapped started to arrive at the scene To find out if their husbands were OK, Some were relieved when they found out there husbands were OK, but 6 others, learned of their husbands fate. Changing their lives forever.
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