On a par with things that go BANG previously written about, are also things that go CRASH. Things that go crash have probably killed more fireman than any other cause at fires, the things that go crash that I have particularly in mind, are collapse of buildings, or structures.
This is something that I have never talked or written about until now, over and above the many rescues etc that I was involved in, in my career. I have saved from death or very serious injury at least a dozen firemen, always this involved collapse of buildings or structures. With time/years served in the job, plus perhaps the responsibility of rank, one acquires a great deal of awareness on the fire ground. It was not my job in the rank of rider station officer, to go charging into fires with the jet or hose reel, nor to climb the ladders and get the glory of the rescue. Instead it was my job to cover every eventuality, and cover the backs of those doing the hairy dangerous bit. The man inside the fire squirting the water, even if he had the experience and knowledge, would not necessarily be aware of an impending building collapse, that was my responsibility.
It was on a Sunday day duty in early spring of the year. At this time in the brigade, the station routine on Sundays was that only essential operational work was carried out on the fire stations, then the men being stood down for the rest of the day. The exception to this was that for the office staff this was quite a busy day, for all the routine paperwork, filing etc in the station office was brought up to date. This could entail quite a busy morning, if then if fire calls were received this work would carry on well into the afternoon. Then as the office staff, the station officer, sub.officer, plus any volunteers, IE. Guys interested in promotion battled with the paperwork, the remainder of the men read the newspapers or suchlike, or washed their private motorcars in the station yard.
As I remember it, it had been a fairly routine Sunday morning with not too many disruptive fire calls, so that the routine office work had been completed. Then the whole watch sitting down to the ritual of Sunday lunch, which was almost without fail a roast joint of meat, roast potatoes etc. At around 1-45pm I was seated at one end of the long mess table engaged in conversation, at the opposite end of the table the ubiquitous (at the time) card school of contract whist had commenced play, when the clamour of the fire bells disrupted all. The call slip ordered both of Hammersmith’s machines, to a fifteen pump fire at Corney road on D25 Chiswick’s ground.
Chiswick’s fire ground borders on with Hammersmith’s, so if they have just made pumps fifteen and we get a move on, we should be in time for some interesting fire fighting. Both Hammersmith’s machines arrived at the address, which was a very large single storey warehouse type building; it was about 100 yards long by about 40 yards wide. The building had a steep pitched cement asbestos type roof, which was about 60 feet high at the apex. Out off just about every crack and orifice of the building, nasty grey smoke was punching out, but there was no sight of the actual flames themselves. Whilst this was patently an angry old fire perhaps waiting to bite someone, at least it was in a single storey building, albeit a fairly large and high one.
I jumped down from the appliance and saw that Chiswick’s station officer was in Ernest conversation with a small group of other officers, so I walked over to join them. The station officer was explaining that there was a severe water shortage in this district, and that it would be necessary to set into an open water supply nearby. As I listened and faced him, framed in the background I could see the burning building. I listened attentively whilst he detailed the plan of attack on the fire, at the same time my eyes were watching the burning building.
At a certain point in time my visual senses cancelled out those of hearing, for I could see that one of the sixty foot high gable end walls was leaning out of perpendicular. My brain immediately registered the cause of this; the roof girders were expanding in the heat and pushing the walls outwards. My eyes then went to the base of the wall; there they saw a group four firemen with a charged length of hose, trying to force an entry into the building. Without explanation I walked quickly away from the group of fire officers, towards the four firemen at the base of the wall. As I approached them from a better viewing angle I could see that the high brick gable wall, was dangerously leaning outwards.
The group comprised a sub officer and three firemen were endeavouring to force an entry through a steel rolling shutter door, and these can be notoriously difficult to break into. Continuing to walk towards them and using my loudest sergeant major voice I called the sub officer to bring his crew over to me at once. He paused and I could see the puzzled look on his face, so I repeated my call even more stridently. He started to walk towards me on his own a look of anger clearly upon his face. this I repeated again more softly but still urgently “no bring your crew with you” his face was now a mixture of anger and puzzlement. I then walked them well clear of the gable wall end then simply took them to the side of the building and pointed upwards. The sub officer looking up towards the gable end got it in one, a couple of the more junior firemen had to have it explained to them.
In a very firm voice I told the young sub officer “stay here and do not let anyone enter this area” indicating a zone where I thought the gable end wall would expectedly crash down. I could see by the look on his face, that he did not much fancy being delegated as an officer in charge of a wall, when there was much exciting fire fighting to be done. I then did something that I rarely did at fires, sternly I said to him “what is your name sub officer” then adding “what station are you from”. After he had given his name and station to me I then repeated my order that he stay there and not let anyone enter the area. (Should he ever read this book, I cannot remember his name, but do recall that he was from Richmond fire station). I then walked away to re-join the group of officers at the battle conference. Just as I arrived I heard a thunderous crash, (that word again CRASH) as the sixty-foot brick gable end smashed into the ground, mere minutes after I had evacuated the crew of four firemen. The three firemen were probably by this time busily engaged elsewhere at the fire, but I am quite sure that the event will be indelibly stamped for ever, on the young sub officers mind.
The remainder of the fire was a bit of an anticlimax, myself being designated as water officer and Hammersmith crews being involved in relay pumping from the open water supply (I think it was a canal). Never-the-less it was quite an interesting experience, inner city firemen do not usually get involved in pumping from open water supplies.
The second occasion that sticks in my memory probably saved six to eight firemen from death or serious injury, but this was a far more straightforward incident. We had received the call at Hammersmith fire station in the early hours of the morning to Hammersmith market. Upon our arrival we found the building involved to be a terraced three-storey shop and dwellings and again to use the much used phrase, all three floors and the roof were going like a bloody bomb. The initial worry was were persons involved (not that we could have done much about it) with the severity of the fire. Fortunately the next-door premises were a greengrocers who tend to start work very early in the morning and were already in attendance. They were then were able to inform us that the whole of the building on fire was unoccupied, thus we were able to concentrate on merely extinguishing the fires.
The first attack on the fire was to lay out two large hose lines with three quarter inch nozzles attached, then attempt to beat back the fire, which was leaping out, over the pavement on the ground floor. The two jets of water crackled into life working at high pressure, which entailed three or four firemen manning each one. This was really a stand back fire fought from the outside, the kind that the press photographers love so much, pictures of the brave firemen squirting water on the leaping flames. Once the two jets of water were working, I set about my next worry, fire spread to the adjoining buildings. I entered the greengrocers shop to the left of the building on fire, and made my way up to the top floor checking for fire spread on the way both at the side and rear of the building. On the top floor I espied a ladder leading up and out onto the roof of the building. Making my way up this ladder I opened the trapdoor and made my way out onto the roof. There I found that the two premises were separated by a firewall that extended up and above the two adjoining roofs. I was now beginning to relax somewhat, not much danger of fire spread here, never-the-less over my personal radio I ordered a covering jet to be brought to this rooftop. My trusted leading fireman Eddie Thirkettle had previously been despatched to check the building on the other side of the fire for spread, then since it was of a similar style as this one spread was unlikely.
Just when I was beginning to feel self satisfied and relaxed I had covered all eventualities, I saw it!. The building on fire had a gable end at the front of it facing the street, the fire had vented through the roof burning away the supporting timbers, and the gable end was beginning to lean outwards. Oh Sh-t I muttered under my breath, I shouted over my radio to whom-so-ever would hear “quick get the crews away from the front of the building its in danger of collapsing”. By the time I had arrived back on the ground floor and out in the street, the two crews with the jets had retreated. But they had merely moved back and away from the building, where when the gable end crashed down, the rubble would spew out and still get them. It was not until I had positioned them to the sides and away from the falling debris zone could I once again relax. Strange to say some minutes later when that gable end crashed down with a thunderous roar, and showers of sparks and dust, I felt immensely pleased with myself.
I don’t suppose that the firemen involved (they are probably all retired by now) ever gave much thought to what might have been, that early morning. Nobody seems to remember the one that didn’t get you, even if it came close by. It is only when I trawl through my memory for stories to tell, that I myself remember. So as I finish this story I can feel a little glow of satisfaction welling up within myself, at the memory of what could have been.