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Fire, with more detail and pictures

May 7, 2005

MrsDoF and I were headed for my office and saw the smoke from a couple miles out of town. With thousands of structures in the general direction of the smoke it seemed irrational to imagine the fire would involve either my home or office – but I had to resist the urge to drive faster.

As we neared the downtown area, looking over the top of the Historic Normal Theater, the smoke aligned perfectly with my office!  When I got closer, though, I was relieved to see it was a large student apartment building* just beyond it…

(Many pictures ahead, high-speed access would help.  I’ve made the pictures partially black & white so they’ll load faster.)

The building seemed to have no firewalls in the attic as the fire raced from the East end to the West.  Firefighters had to be rescued from the building as exits were closed off by flames.

A couple times the overshooting water fell on parked cars next to the building – this seemed intentional (they certainly didn’t need flaming cars on their hands!) 

I was puzzled by long periods – 10 minutes at a time – in which the water stream went right over the top of the East end of the building only to land 100 feet away on the other side. They seemed to be trying to put out the smoke. 

This is the extent of my firefighting knowledge.

If there are any firefighters reading, could you help us understand?  Why weren’t they putting the water on the fire? (or perhaps more correctly, on the fuel) 

Thousands of people gathered around to watch – from a respectful distance.  The wind shifted a few times, giving the spectators a small taste of what the firefighters were dealing with.

As the fire neared the West end of the building, long minutes went by when they couldn’t seem to get any water to the hose on the end of a ladder there.  When the water finally did come out, it was bright orange – full of rust – and didn’t seem to have much pressure. 

After a moment, the hose sputtered and the water pressure seemed to fail entirely.

Then maybe ten minutes went by with no water.  The men in the bucket must have had a spectacular view of the fire, which I doubt they were at leisure to enjoy.  At one point the wind shifted and enveloped them in dense smoke.  That sounds rather dangerous to me as the fire was generating a powerful updraft by that time.

Finally a thin stream of water came out.  By this time, the West end of the building was punching flames 75 feet in the air and the plume of smoke must have been visible for 50 miles.

At last the fire was put down, leaving a battered shell and about a hundred students left homeless, their clothes, books, and computers burned a week before final exams.

The University and the landlord stepped in to provide housing, books, and some slack on exams.  But many students reported losing all their research for final papers.

Was the building up to code? Shouldn’t it have had firewalls inside the attic?  Is the city water department flushing the hydrants on schedule?  Did the fire department have adequate water pressure?  Were they having some problem aiming the hoses?  Did they know how much water was missing the building entirely?  (Not just soaking the surroundings to prevent spread, but apparently landing on empty spaces.)  I’m not criticizing, because I have not studied firefighting – but I am hoping someone in the local paper or online will address how the fire was fought so I can understand.

Newspaper said the fire was probably started by a cigarette.  Fire chief on TV said mid-afternoon timing of the fire is a big reason why there were no fatalities – would have been a very different story if it had happened when the students were sleeping.  I’ll post more facts here as they become available.

* (No disrespect intended to the students affected by the fire, but I was relieved that my office was not aflame.)

Categories: Safety & Health
  1. May 8, 2005 at 02:32 | #1

    I’m not a firefighter but I do have some friends who are (and I once passed the entrance test to become a forestry fire-fightin’ type guy) and who’ve often talked to me about what they do.  I would guess that they were over-shooting the fire because they wanted a mist to fall over the building to bring down the air temperature and prevent the structure from just exploding into flames. 

    That or they might have decided that the building was a lost cause and were just trying to prevent the fire from spreading.  Was there anything they were hitting with the stream (besides parked cars)?

  2. May 8, 2005 at 09:47 | #2

    To the North of the building lay a parking lot, railroad tracks, and then an open area part green grass, part gravel.  Besides occasionally hitting the parked cars, the water landed the tracks and the open area.  Once it soaked a power pole located between the parking lot and the tracks but that was 100 feet from the building and the plume was going nowhere near it.

    A freight train came along later, and the wind direction had shifted to obscure the tracks with an opaque wall of grey smoke.  Must have been scary for the engineer but he drove right on through it. The train was a quarter-mile long so it wasn’t like he could stop.

  3. WeeDram
    May 8, 2005 at 18:53 | #3

    Must have been pretty intense to see.  I saw the results as I had lunch with Mom on Friday at the Garlic Press cafĂ©.  Just passing through, sorry no time to connect.  Next time!


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