FDNY Chiefs Recall First Moments at Deadly Bronx Fire

NY Post - December 31, 2017

by Kevin Fasick and Laura Italiano

They roll up into a nightmare of fire and ice — and somehow create order out of a chaos of smoke and terror.

The first two officials at the scene of Thursday night’s fatal Bronx fire — one an EMS borough commander, one an FDNY battalion chief — know that the earliest minutes of any fire rescue operation are the most crucial. “Fires grow very quickly. It doesn’t take long,” said Jeffrey Facinelli, a chief at the FDNY’s 18th Battalion, which covers the Belmont neighborhood where the fire broke out.

It was 6:55 p.m., just three minutes after the first frantic call to 911, when Facinelli pulled up in his car. One of his engine companies and one of his ladder companies had just arrived.

“Did not see any flames, but I saw a ton of smoke,” Facinelli remembered.

Men were trying to hook a hose to the nearest hydrant outside the burning five-story building at 2363 Prospect Ave. The hydrant was dead. They started tapping the 500 gallons of “booster water” in the tank inside one of the rigs.

Facinelli radioed back to the Bronx dispatcher: “I tell them I want full resources, an extra engine company, ladder company, because now I’m dealing with the water issue and I’m assuming people are home at this time of the day, because if you need them — and they’re not already coming — it’s too late. I want them already on the road.”

His engine company quickly found a working hydrant at 187th Street off Prospect, one intersection over.

“We had our water problem resolved. As long as there’s water in the main, we’re good.”

At this point, Facinelli had barely stepped out of his car. He hadn’t even put his gear on.

“I’m there maybe a minute.”

Firefighters rushed to drag their hoses into the first floor, only to find their entry blocked by the limp bodies of two adults and a child overcome by smoke.

They’re pulled out and given CPR by the firefighters.

“I knew they had it until EMS arrived,” Facinelli said.

Meanwhile, desperate residents poured onto a second-story balcony and its fire escape, which has at the bottom a metal ladder so rickety that few have the nerve to descend.

“Now I know from this area these buildings are a hundred years old,” Facinelli said. “They’re not in the best shape, the fire escapes, to begin with. I’m going to estimate there’s 15 to 20 people on the fire escape . . . and another 15 to 20 people on the balcony.

“I’m concerned that if that collapses, it would be injuring firefighters below or the people themselves . . . Smoke is pouring out, and honestly, do you want to put that much weight on something a hundred years old that’s been out in the weather? I don’t.”

A new ladder company pulled up. “They’re coming in for search and rescue on the floors above. I say to them on the radio, ‘I need portable ladders raised alongside because the fire escape has one ladder . . . It’s a little flimsy and it’s tough to climb down.’ ”

More ladders went to the balcony. “And we start putting firemen up, carrying kids down.”

It was barely five minutes since that first 911 call.

Meanwhile, the first ambulances were fighting their way through rush-hour traffic.

Michael J. Fields, division commander for EMS in The Bronx, had been planning to go home when his shift ended at 4.

“For whatever reason, I don’t know, I just felt the need to hang around,” Fields remembered, “and I hear the 10-75, which is an all-hands fire.”

As he arrived, firefighters were working on the first two adults and the child who had been pulled from inside the front door. Given the number of casualties — four people critically hurt, 12 dead — Fields had ambulances screaming to the scene from as far away as Queens.

Some of the patients were covered in soot and not breathing, Fields remembered.

Ice was everywhere.

“Freezing conditions. Water is coming off the building and coming onto the members and the patients, freezing up immediately. The streets are frozen. This is an event unlike any that we deal with on a daily basis.

“Everybody’s adrenaline’s going,” he said.

And although he was directing the EMS efforts, Fields still joined in giving CPR. “Especially when kids are involved, you kind of want to touch the kid, to try to do what you can do.”