Fire Dept. reconsiders policy after collapse

Two remain hospitalized after fall in vacant building

January 04, 2001|By Peter Hermann and Rafael Alvarez | Peter Hermann and Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

The city's Fire Department is re-evaluating its practice of sending firefighters into burning vacant dwellings after a floor collapse Tuesday at an East Baltimore blaze injured eight firefighters, one of them critically.

"I don't want to put any more lives on the line to fight fires in vacant buildings," Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. said yesterday.

Firefighter James Critzman, a 20-year department veteran who was injured in the collapse, said he had had close calls before, "but nothing like this."

"It's out of the ordinary when a [ceiling] comes down in front of your face when you were just standing under it minutes before," said Critzman, assigned to Engine 31 at Greenmount Avenue and 32nd Street. "We were on the first floor and backed out because the [ceiling] looked dangerous and a couple of minutes later, it came crashing down with three firemen."

Critzman said that as he and fellow firefighters worked to free colleagues from the rubble that had been the building's second floor, the first floor gave way, sending everyone into the basement.

"It was like slow motion, we just went falling," said Critzman, likening his aches and bruises to the feeling the day after playing tackle football without pads. "My helmet got knocked off, and I couldn't find it. Finally, a hose line came down, and I held onto that and was pulled out. There were other guys still down there, trapped in the basement."

Investigators ruled the fire arson yesterday but would not say more about the cause.

The most seriously injured firefighter, James E. Smith Jr., 32, fell two or three stories when one floor of the burning rowhouse in the 1500 block of N. Broadway gave way. He and four others were trapped in the basement under burning debris.

"This is one of my worst nightmares," Williams said.

Smith, whose father, James Smith Sr., is a retired 30-year city fire veteran, was in critical condition yesterday at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Officials said he suffered second-degree burns on his legs, arms, abdomen and to his lungs, but he is expected to survive.

"He breathed in super-hot vapors," said Williams, who noted that Smith's air tank broke during the 20- to 30-foot fall. He said Smith had not talked to officials because he was heavily sedated.

Smith is one of 10 firefighters who received an exemplary performance award for rescuing a small child in October 1998. The child was sitting on the third-floor window ledge of a burning West Baltimore rowhouse as neighbors urged the child to jump.

Firefighter Daniel Geraghty, 39, also remained hospitalized yesterday. He suffered second-degree burns to his legs and was in serious condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

The remaining six firefighters, including Critzman, have been released from Mercy Medical Center. Their injuries included cuts, bruises and fractured bones.

The three-alarm fire broke out about 3:30 p.m. at the three-story red-brick rowhouse on a block in which 12 of 20 homes are vacant and boarded. The fire spread to the roof of an occupied house next door before it was stopped.

Firefighters typically make an interior attack to save a structure and prevent fires from spreading. In the Broadway fire, officials were concerned about the fire spreading along a common attic that runs the length of the block.

Williams said an exterior attack, in which firefighters pour water from the outside, would have jeopardized the occupied dwelling next door, and others. "We could have lost the whole block," he said.

But because of the injuries, Williams said the department's "tactics will be re-evaluated" even if it leads to an increase in property damage. Firefighters will still go into buildings if they receive reports of people trapped inside, he said.

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