Raleigh fire commander says firefighters’ rescue efforts not seen on video

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comAugust 30, 2013 

— A YouTube video of the Camden Crest apartment fire last weekend shows that Raleigh firefighters who arrived on one side of the building did not begin spraying water on growing flames for well over 10 minutes, drawing criticism online and elsewhere.

But Raleigh fire officials – and the guy who shot the video – say what viewers can’t see is firefighters on the other side going into the burning building to make sure everyone is out.

Putting water on a fire in an occupied building would be asking for trouble, said James Poole, the city’s assistant chief of operations.

“People think we should have put water on the fire as soon as we got there,” Poole said. “But we had firefighters inside trying to save lives. We were not going to put water in there and drive them back. You can’t push water, fire, smoke and debris on the people you are trying to rescue.”

Mike King, who lives in a different building at Camden Crest, shot the video and posted it on his website, RaleighGazette.com, and on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 21,000 times.

King says the people who are criticizing the fire department’s response based on his video aren’t seeing the whole picture.

“You’re looking at it from one perspective,” he said. “It’s like taking a small snapshot of a heart surgery and calling it a murder scene. They don’t know any better.”

As King began filming, flames were already shooting through the roof of the building, and residents from the complex had gathered to watch. Soon, two Raleigh fire engines arrived, and firefighters jumped out but didn’t unfurl their hoses.

About five minutes into the video, one onlooker wondered about the apparent inaction. “They’ve given up,” he said. “They’re not even trying.”

More minutes pass.

“They gotta go up and do something,” another onlooker said.

On the YouTube site, viewers debated the work of firefighters, with early criticism drawing a strong response.

Fire investigators still have not determined what caused the fire.

By the time firefighters arrived at the 30-unit, three-story apartment building last Saturday evening, flames had burst through the roof, sending dark, roiling plumes of smoke into the air.

Raleigh Engine 17 arrived first, about four minutes after the fire department got the call. Firefighters reported to their commander that a heavy fire was burning multiple apartments and shooting through the roof.

The firefighters also had another challenge. “Upon our arrival, people were coming up telling [the firefighters] that there were people trapped inside the building,” Poole said.

A second truck, Engine 23, arrived behind Engine 17. Firefighters spotted a hydrant in front of the building near one corner, unspooled a 250-foot length of hose from Engine 17, capable of releasing 150 gallons of water per minute, and advanced toward the building. They were accompanied by firefighters who went inside to search for residents who might have been trapped.

Getting residents out

The seven firefighters who went inside the building included Jake Jakowski and his team member, Sean Scanlon. Jakowski and Scanlon radioed to the battalion commander that they had found a woman in a second-floor apartment with her two dogs.

“She – to my understanding – did not want to leave,” Poole said. “Jake told her, ‘You gotta get out.’ She told them, ‘I gotta get my dogs out.’ ”

Jakowski grabbed up the pets and took the woman by the arm. He was guiding them out of the building when an explosion sounded on the roof, visible on King’s video.

“We think it was a smoke explosion,” Poole said. “Heavy smoke filled with gases. People call it a backdraft, but that’s when smoke confined in a superheated area goes off. The smoke [in the roof] was already vented, but it was superheated, filled with gases. That was the cause of the explosion.”

Smoke thickened and burning debris began falling where Jakowski and Scanlon were with the woman and her pets, and the two firefighters were momentarily separated.“Jake and Sean were separated for about 30 seconds, but in a situation like that it can seem like an eternity,” Poole said.

Escaping to safety

Jakowski saw his partner through the smoke and fire, and the two firefighters, along with the woman and her dogs, got out of the building. The two firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion and elevated high blood pressure rates, fire officials reported.

All of this took place in front of the burning building, away from King and the other onlookers in the rear, where the two fire engines idled behind a Raleigh police car. Engine 14 was manned by members of the fire department’s heavy rescue team. Engine 16 carried the rapid intervention team that would have gone into the building to find Jakowski if he had not been located.

Following protocol

Poole said it is “crucial” that each fire unit sticks to its assignment.

“It’s just like the military,” Poole said. “There can be some deviation, but if people start doing something other than what’s been assigned it can create chaos.”

Also not visible on the video, Poole said, are firefighters aiming their water nozzles at the fire in front of the building after the search was completed.

Eventually, three ladder trucks joined the effort, helping to knock the fire down just before 8 p.m.

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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