Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How to Spot a Shill in the Professional Fire Services:

Although the research, analysis and conclusions concerning other fire disasters discussed in this article by Francis L. Brannigan, SPFE and Harry R. Carter, Ph.D. published in Firehouse magazine, may or may not be legitimate, the section on the January 9, 1912 fire at the Equitable Building in New York City is demonstrably inaccurate, and appears designed to obscure a yet retrievable historic truth. How can a structure be described as "literally riddled with dumbwaiter shafts, elevators and multiple unstopped entrances and passages," and at the same time be an example of the failure of the "latest method of fireproofing structural members," circa 1912?
"Fire Disasters: What Have We Learned?"
As we all know, change takes time. Less than a year after the Triangle fire, another major blaze struck New York, taking the lives of six men. The Equitable Building was a giant 10-story structure composed of five individual buildings linked together, which covered the better part of a city block in the financial district. Sad to say, the fire began in a wastebasket and spread throughout the building. It seems that the employee who found it was frightened, and chose to run away. The building was literally riddled with dumbwaiter shafts, elevators and multiple unstopped entrances and passages.

As the fire grew in intensity, it made its way upward through these shafts. Fire personnel quickly moved lines down into the basement and pressed home an aggressive attack, not aware of the fire burning above their heads. Soon after discovering the fire above them, a second alarm was transmitted. As the fire escalated, the number of alarms increased.

The weather could not have been worse, with heavy gale winds blowing freezing, wind-driven spray back onto the firefighters, who were pouring tons of water onto the blaze. Firefighters attempting to rescue the building's occupants on the roof just missed being killed when the roof the men were standing on collapsed, hurling them to their deaths.

The debris from this collapse also trapped three men in the basement. Unbeknownst to the fire department, these men had made their way into the basement of the building to rescue millions of dollars in negotiable bonds which, if they had burned, would have created financial chaos for their owners. Only through the heroism of Seneca Larke Jr., a full-blooded Native American, were these men saved. While laying on his belly over the grate where the men were trapped, under torrents of freezing water and falling rubble, he worked with a hacksaw to cut them free.

The toll from this disaster included the three civilian workers, one of the basement occupants and two fire department members. One of the major lessons learned from this fire was that the latest method of fireproofing structural members had been proven useless. The lessons from the earlier Parker Building fire had been ignored. In that era, engineers and architects had specified cast iron as the supporting members for a number of large buildings. To protect them from the weakening effects of fire, they had been encased in hollow tie blocks. These just did not work. In the wake of these fires, improved fireproofing of structural members was developed.
Brannigan and Carter's appeal to an emotional heroic narrative sidestep the causes and development of the fire.

Would a treasure house that held the modern equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars, being the repository of the Harriman's, the Gould's, August Belmont's, Thomas Ryan's, and many other fortunes, also house an eating club and restaurant that would put the building in a grave, "unexamined" risk? Both enterprises were owned or controlled by the landlord, the Equitable Life Assurance Company, which had only been recently purchased by J.P. Morgan before the fire.

The New York Board Of Fire Underwriters' Report on Fire in the Equitable Building, came to the following conclusions and recommendations regarding these uses:
Restaurants: Restaurants with the kitchens, store rooms and large unbroken floor areas incident thereto introduce a serious fire hazard disproportionate to that of the usual office building occupancy.

Approximately 55,000 square feet of floor area in the Equitable Building was devoted to restaurant purposes.

Among the most dangerous features commonly found in restaurants are the flues for ranges and removal of grease laden fumes from the kitchen, also floor openings such as dumbwaiter shafts and the like. The protection of the range and ventilating flues should be equal to that of boiler stacks. The dumbwaiters should be in fireproof enclosures with fire doors at all openings.

The fire started in the receiving room of the restaurant in the basement and spread by way of the dumbwaiter shaft to the dining rooms and kitchen on the upper floors. The latter by reason of their size and combustible contents enabled the fire to get beyond control.
With such direct culpability acknowledged, it is strange that none of the tenants sued the landlord for damages, especially since few carried fire insurance---and as lawyers, bankers, and brokers, might be expected to be first to seek redress in court.
This photograph is from the Fire Underwriters' report. It purports to represent the melting and bending of a steel structural support. How or why the thick masonry fire insulation we see surrounding a lower section of the column became missing from above, or why such a heavy fire-proofing failed to do its intended job, is left unaddressed. Also ignored, is how such a condition of high heat as necessary to deflect heavy metal could leave apparent tin ventilation duct-work nearby unaffected. It is unclear what the associated lathing material is made of, but its proximity to the evidence of extreme conditions is implausible.

It is wrong for Brannigan and Carter to suggest that the Equitable Building collapse of 1912 came because of the failure of cast-iron structural members encased in hollow terra-cotta fire-proofing.

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