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July 1, 1988 (Hackensack Ford Fire)

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Hackensack tragedy from a quarter-century ago changed the way fires are fought
Sunday, June 30, 2013    Last updated: Sunday June 30, 2013, 9:14 AM
The Record   

Photos: Hackensack Ford dealership fire that killed 5 firemen 25 years ago

The deadly fire at Hackensack Ford on July 1, 1988, spurred reforms in fire safety standards.

Firefighters were devastated to learn that five of their comrades had died.

When firefighters responded to the Ford dealership on River Street in Hackensack 25 years ago, they did not know how deceptive the blaze would prove to be, nor how ill-equipped they were to fight it. They did not know that five of them would not survive.

That fateful day, July 1, 1988, the firemen rushed inside to knock down a fire they thought to be like any other they’d faced.

After 35 minutes, the dealership’s 60-ton bow-truss roof collapsed, killing three firefighters. Two others were trapped inside, radioing for help, but they could not be rescued before their air ran out.

Related: Anatomy of a fire (PDF)

It was one of the deadliest fires in Bergen County history, and it marked a turning point not only for Hackensack, but for fire service across the U.S. The Ford fire spurred reforms in safety, training and equipment, and highlighted the dangers of truss roofs in a fire. The lessons of Hackensack are now studied in firefighter classrooms from coast to coast and have been written into textbooks. Those lessons, experts say, certainly have saved lives.

For Hackensack firefighters, who will mark the anniversary Monday, that’s the one saving grace from an awful time in the department’s history.

“Sometimes it takes a tragedy to learn important lessons. I can’t say it was in vain. We didn’t only lose five brothers that day — we learned from them,” said Hackensack fire Capt. Marc Cunico.

Today, firefighters say they never would have gone into that building knowing what they know now: that a bow-truss roof, held aloft by horizontal bow-shaped supports — is prone to collapse in a fire.

“We’d ensure it was a defensive operation,” said Fire Chief Thomas Freeman, who helped fight the blaze that day. “We wouldn’t put anybody in harm’s way.”

The first firefighters arrived at the Ford dealership  at 3:01 p.m. and found smoke in the roof area, but the large dealership was clear of smoke and fire. The building had been evacuated of customers and staff. The firefighters climbed the roof and cut a hole to find fire in the attic space between trusses, but had a hard time reaching the flames.

The fire grew intense in the attic, where heavy auto parts and cleaning supplies were stored. Firefighters were ordered out at 3:34 p.m. The 60-ton roof collapsed about two minutes later, killing Capt. Richard Williams and Firefighters William Krejsa and Leonard Radumski, who were inside the building.

Lt. Richard Reinhagen and Firefighter Stephen Ennis had escaped to a tool closet and were trapped. They radioed for help for more than 10 minutes before running out of air. The single radio frequency firefighters used to communicate was overwhelmed and messages kept getting cut off.

A video from the scene shows very little smoke in the building interior, as firefighters point a hose on the building without any apparent sense of alarm. Because of communication problems, some firefighters didn’t know the roof had collapsed or that other firefighters were still inside.

At the time, only fire supervisors carried radios.

Freeman was directing a hose line at the back of the building with other firefighters when an off-duty New York City firefighter ran over and told them there were men trapped. “We gotta get them out,” Freeman recalled him saying.

They used battering rams and sledgehammers to break through the cinderblock, but couldn’t reach the two trapped men in time.

“When we finally broke through it was like a furnace,” Freeman said.

Cunico, who was off duty that day, arrived at the scene around 6 p.m. “I walked into a surreal scene of chaos,” he said. “Firemen hanging their heads. They were obviously distraught and crying.”

Three investigations identified a litany of mistakes at the Ford fire, which officials said appeared to have been caused by an electrical failure in an attic fan or air conditioner. Fire officers should have recognized the bow-truss roof and its dangers and should have evacuated the building sooner. Ineffective command and poor communication also were to blame, investigators said. The most critical report concluded that the five men died “needlessly.”

The deaths thrust the department into despair, as the men went to funerals for co-workers who were like family.

Despite the criticism of the reports, the men who were there say they don’t blame anyone for the failures that day, including the chief and battalion chief who were sharply criticized for their handling of the fire.

“The normal procedure in 1988 for any fire was aggressive interior attack … drag the hose lines into the building and put out the fire. We were doing what we normally did on any given day,” Freeman said.

He described a different environment at that time.

“Back in the day, it wasn’t as common, the training wasn’t there, the information sharing wasn’t there. Nowadays you pull up to that kind of building and it stands out like a sore thumb,” he said.

Firefighter Bryan Brancaccio was on a tower ladder looking down on the dealership, trying to douse the flames, and saw the tangle of trusses and fire below where the roof had collapsed.

He said the loss left him in shock. “That’s 5 percent of the department and you know everybody personally.”

He harbored no hard feelings, he said. “They thought they were doing the right thing,” Brancaccio said.

As the firefighters endured, key changes were made.

The state passed a law requiring placards to be placed near building entrances to note whether the structure had a bow-truss roof — a measure that several other states later adopted.

Firefighters also began to study building construction as part of training, and in Hackensack, they go out on building inspections. They’re taught that buildings with any kind of truss construction can collapse from fire exposure in a short amount of time.

There were other fatal bow-truss fires — at a Waldbaum’s supermarket in New York City in 1978 that killed six, and another in a Cliffside Park bowling alley that killed five firemen in 1967. Roofs collapsed in both of those fires.

Hackensack’s was the one that resonated and became a turning point, in part because of heightened awareness in firefighter safety around that time. It’s the one taught in fire safety classes across the U.S.

“It’s in every major firefighting textbook in the country,” said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and former assistant chief of the Waldwick Fire Department. “Hackensack is in the top 25 fires that have really had an impact on the fire service and in making firefighters safe.” Just the mention of the name “Hackensack,” Corbett said, conjures for firefighters the unseen dangers of that day.

As a result of Hackensack Ford and several other fires, it became commonplace for firefighters to carry PASS, or Personal Alert Safety Systems devices, which are clipped onto clothing or equipment and sound an alarm when they’re immobile, Corbett said.

Hackensack also helped to change attitudes, he said. For years, the fire service was reluctant to talk about or criticize fire response. But after Hackensack, fire officers were more willing to analyze and discuss response after an incident.

In Hackensack, firefighters carry radios with buttons that can be pressed when they’re in danger — which is common, but still not universal in fire departments. The fire service also began using two separate radio frequencies, one for dispatch and another for ground response. A dispatcher would also know and advise on the kind of building construction and whether hazardous materials are stored in a building.

Even with the changes, there is room for improvement, Corbett said. The fire service needs a more precise method to track the vertical and horizontal locations of firefighters in a building.

But the fire service, experts agree, is far improved.

In Hackensack, fire officials call it a “180-degree turnaround” where equipment is modern and effective and firefighters train every day.

Earlier this year, the city’s Fire Department earned a Class 1 fire protection grade, ranking the 99-member department among the best in the nation from the Insurance Services Office, a company that assesses fire risk.

Just 61 departments in the United States have a Class 1 rank out of more than 48,000 surveyed fire districts.

Hackensack fire officials credit hard work, training and dedication. The firefighters go out of their way to train on their own and show the new guys the ropes, Freeman said.

“They go above and beyond, and I think in the back of their minds it’s because they know what happened here in 1988,” he said.

On a recent Monday, Deputy Chief Stephen Kalman showed a video of the Ford fire to a new fireman, describing what happened and what went wrong that day. It’s a video they show to new recruits.

“Their sacrifices are not forgotten, and we try to pass that along to all the new members coming on the department,” Kalman said.

“We would not be this good of a department today, probably, if that fire didn’t happen and those guys didn’t pay for it with their lives.”

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Hackensack firefighters' deaths are a wound that doesn't heal
Sunday June 30, 2013, 11:09 PM
The Record
Clara Krejsa lives less than three miles from where her husband died with four other firefighters in one of the worst tragedies in recent North Jersey history. But since the fire at the Hackensack Ford dealership — 25 years ago today — she has rarely gone there.

Clara Krejsa at the memorial in Fairmount Park to her husband, William, and the four other city firemen who died at Hackensack Ford: Stephen H. Ennis, Leonard Radumski, Richard Reinhagen and Richard L. Williams.

“Why keep looking at it, and seeing what was there before?” she said. “It doesn’t do me any good.”

Indeed, if the spot where William Krejsa, Lt. Richard Reinhagen, Stephen Ennis, Capt. Richard Williams and Leonard Radumski died on July 1, 1988, has any resonance today, it is in its mundanity. The stretch of River Street, lined with auto repair shops and a McDonald’s, is the type of place where no one ever thinks anything momentous would happen.

“There was a common belief, not only in Hackensack but at every firehouse across the country, that it’s not going to happen here,” said Fire Chief Thomas Freeman. “But when it happened to us, it was like you got slapped in the face. And — you know what? — it can happen anywhere.”

As the chief at the time, Anthony Aiellos, bluntly put in the days after the fire: “You die as dead here as in New York, Chicago or any big city.”

Today, there is no reminder of the fire on the property, now an empty lot where the neighboring Toyota dealer sometimes stores cars. A memorial service planned for this evening will be held at a monument built in the firemen’s memory in Fairmount Park, where it has been held every year since the fire.

But even back then, the building was the type of place that locals could pass hundreds of times and never really notice.

Its long, low roof — a type of construction fire departments everywhere would only later consider a death trap — was typical of thousands of car dealerships, bowling alleys and supermarkets that spouted like weeds across America’s suburbs in the ’60s.

Until the moment the structure caved in, the fire itself seemed so ordinary that no one on the scene objected to off-duty colleagues working in jeans and tennis shoes. A videotape, recorded by a volunteer fireman from River Edge and now used as a training tool across the country, captured no sense of urgency.

With the blaze hidden in the attic, a handful of firemen tried to cut through the roof while clusters of colleagues — some of them moments from death — moved unhurriedly through the vehicle bays. Battalion Cmdr. Sandy Williams, a lanky figure in a white uniform who was officially in charge of the scene, darted around, climbing up a ladder to peer at the roof, conversing with the other officers and helping two men with a hose as the microphone on the camera captured casual commentary from the onlookers.

“Everybody was getting ready for the Fourth of July,” said Peter Danzo, now a 49-year-old captain in the department and one of only five current members of the department who were on the scene. “The guys were talking about getting ready for barbecues. The furthest thing from anybody’s mind, even those five guys, the furthest thing from their minds was that something could happen and they wouldn’t come home.”

Danzo, then a rookie, was bringing a hose line to the other side of the building when the roof collapsed, and everything changed.

The men outside didn’t know it at the time, but Krejsa, 51, Richard Williams, 54, and Radumski, 38, were crushed and killed instantly. Reinhagen, 48, and Ennis, 30, ran to a closet for cover, but they were trapped there for 15 minutes as they radioed that they were running out of air.

“We all knew there were guys inside,” Danzo said. “It was frantic. Everyone was doing what they had to, to get to those guys.”

Those moments have been replayed countless times since then — whether on the training video, in the media or in the private thoughts of those who were there.

The events are forever fixed: As the men working outside tried to locate Ennis and Reinhagen, the blaze erupted into an inferno so hot that, even when rescue crews broke through one wall, there was no way to get to them. It was hours before they could even remove the bodies.

Capt. Marc Cunico said dealing with the deaths was like finding one’s way through a dark building.

“It cast a pall over the firehouse and firefighters. We had no protocol or help for dealing with a death,” he said.

The firefighters were close, like brothers, he said. They slept, ate and worked together. On their off days, they were doing construction together or fishing.

The interpretation of what happened that day has evolved.

In the immediate aftermath, the backlash against Aiellos and Sandy Williams was so strong that Aiellos — who has since died — was forced into early retirement. One of several studies commissioned by an outside expert faulted Williams for misidentifying the roof. Several firefighters even told reporters that two of the victims had voiced concerns that Williams’ incompetence would one day get someone killed.

Over the years, the sting of those early emotions has dulled, Danzo said.

“I don’t put any blame on him about what happened,” he said, referring to Williams. “I just hope he’s able to enjoy his retirement, and that he’s able to move on from this.”

But in many ways, those who were most closely touched by the accident will never completely move on.

Williams, now living in Dela­ware, declined to talk to a reporter.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, shutting his door. “Too many memories.”

Most of the family members of the firemen who died have had increasingly limited contact with the department, Freeman said.

All but Clara Krejsa declined to speak to a reporter for the anniversary or did not return requests for comment.

Krejsa, who chokes back tears when she talks of her husband of 28 years — his interest in politics, the time he suffered a minor injury at work and she scolded him for having a priest call her from the hospital, or just his kindness toward other people — said it is important to her to keep his memory alive.

She often thinks of what he would have looked like, how he would have played with his grandchildren or stopped by the firehouse for long talks about politics even after he would have retired. She said she rarely talks about the fire itself.

But she goes every year, not to the place where her husband died, but to the memorial, where his name is engraved with the others’ on one of five granite columns. She sees relatives, old friends and some of the other family members. They catch up on each other’s lives, or simply wave from across the grass.

“I think of the memorial as a beautiful commemoration,” she said. “The coming together of everyone. It’s still a beautiful act.”


'So much spirit here,' widow says at tribute to fallen firefighters
Monday July 1, 2013, 10:54 PM   
The Record

Photos: Hackensack Ford dealership fire that killed 5 firefighters 25 years ago

Clara Krejsa, second from left, widow of the late firefighter William Krejsa, watches together with Tom Berntson, left, her significant other, and her daughters Ann Marie Bierbaum, third from left, and Diane Atwood as a wreath is brought to the monument.  

HACKENSACK — For the 25th time in as many years, the city on Monday honored the five firefighters who died in one of the deadliest fires in Bergen County history.

The audience of about 250 who gathered in the muggy heat under a gloomy sky was slightly larger than in previous years. But by way of acknowledging the lasting mark the July 1, 1988, blaze at the Hackensack Ford dealership left on this city, the details of the short ceremony remained the same.

“We’ve tried to keep the same routine,” said Chief Thomas Freeman of the Hackensack Fire Department. “Every year is special to us. No year is any different.”

Three wreaths were laid, one in honor of the five firefighters who died that day — Capt. Richard Williams, Lt. Richard Reinhagen and Firefighters William Krejsa, Leonard Radumski and Stephen Ennis – one in honor of all the city’s firefighters who have died in the line of duty and one in honor of retirees who have died in the last year.

An honor guard fired blanks into the air. The uniformed members of the Fire Department offered a silent salute.

Those in attendance, including relatives of Ennis, Reinhagen and Krejsa, said they have found comfort in the routine. Over the years it has been a sign that the city remembers their loss as well as a chance to reconnect with others who share memories that have remained stubbornly fresh.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” said Keith Reinhagen, Richard Reinhagen’s son. “But it’s great that people come out and show their support.”

Reinhagen, who lives in Northvale, said he likes to see his father’s old comrades, many of whom he worked with as a high school student doing summer construction work, a common side job in the department. But his mother, Margaret, still finds it too difficult to come.

Kevin Ennis, Stephen Ennis’ brother, made the trip from Mount Holly with his wife and daughter, who was born shortly after Stephen’s death. He caught up with old high school friends and the firefighters who had been his brother’s closest friends when they were rookies but have since retired, a career arc his brother, who was 30 when he died, never experienced.

“It’s just a good way to remember them and to honor what they chose as a profession,” he said.

And Clara Krejsa, William Krejsa’s wife, who attends the ceremony every year, said its power has remained strong.

“There’s so much spirit here today,” she said. “It was beautiful. So emotional. I could tell everybody could feel it.”

The ceremony also paid tribute to the legacy of the fire, which has been dissected in textbooks and studied by firefighters in training across the country. It spurred reforms in safety, training and equipment in Hackensack and elsewhere. It also highlighted the dangers of buildings like the former Ford dealership, where the roof gave way without warning while the firefighters were working beneath it. In the aftermath, New Jersey and several other states passed laws requiring placards near building entrances to note whether they have that type of roof, called a bow-truss, which was once ubiquitous in the construction of bowling allies, grocery stores and car dealerships.

Williams, Krejsa and Radumski were crushed when the 60-ton roof collapsed on them, about 35 minutes after they arrived at the structure, and two minutes after firefighters were ordered out of the building.

Reinhagen and Ennis escaped to a tool closet, but they were trapped there. They radioed for help for more than 10 minutes before running out of air.

Later investigations found that the officers on the scene should have recognized the bow-truss and evacuated the building sooner. The most critical report concluded that the five men died “needlessly.”

But Michael Shiner, president of the Hackensack Professional Firefighters Association, said in his remarks that the department has worked hard over the last quarter-century to ensure that the deaths were not without purpose.

“Our training, our education, the gear we wear is because of them,” he said. “Everything this department is today is because of the passing or our brothers.”


Memorial marks 25th anniversary of tragic Hackensack fire
Tuesday July 2, 2013, 1:24 PM
Hackensack Chronicle
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HACKENSACK - Hundreds gathered at Firefighter's Memorial Park on July 1, underneath a grey and rainy sky, to honor and remember the tragic events that took place 25 years ago.

Dozens of firefighters including Hackensack Fire Chief Thomas Freeman, seen here in the foreground, lined the lawn of Firefighter's Memorial Park on July 1, for the 25th anniversary of the deadly Ford fire that took the lives of five Hackensack firefighters. The tragic event spurred safety measures for firefighters nationwide.

A scene of the Hackensack Ford fire on July 1, 1988 that claimed the lives of five city firefighters.

July 1, 1988 has been engrained in the memory of many. On that day, five firefighters - Capt. Richard Williams, Lt. Richard Reinhagen, and firefighters Steven Ennis, William Kresja, and Leonard Radumski - lost their lives fighting one of the deadliest fires in Bergen County. The deadly fire became known as the Hackensack Ford fire - gaining its name from the establishment where the blaze took place.

During the memorial, three wreaths were presented: two were in honor of the firefighters who perished during the Hackensack Ford fire, one was for all the firefighters who served in the city's Fire Department and have since died.

Michael Shiner, member of the Hackensack Fire Department and president of the Hackensack Professional Firefighters Association IAFF Local 2081, spoke to those gathered. Poignantly, touching upon the idea that the deaths of his fellow comrades were not in vain.

"The training and education we have today is because of them," Shiner said. "Our fallen brothers keep us up and keep us together today."

The fire marked a turning point - spurring the change in fire safety measures across the country. It has become an incident that is taught all over the country to newly minted firefighters.

Chief Thomas Freeman also addressed the area residents who came to pay their respects.

Freeman was off-duty that July day in 1988. However, he was called in to assist in fighting the flames.

"It's hard to believe that 25 years have passed since the tragedy," he said. "We cannot stop remembering their sacrifice."

On that fateful summer day, the Hackensack Fire Department was notified of a fire at Hackensack Ford, located at 320 River St., and dispatched at 2:59 p.m., according to a report by the Bureau of Fire Safety of the State of New Jersey dated Jan. 18, 1989. "At 3:01 p.m. Engine 304 arrived on the scene and reported to headquarters they had a working fire."

The fire was found in the attic space between the trusses of a bowstring truss roof, however, fire personnel had a hard time reaching, and thus, extinguishing the blaze.

Bowstring truss roofs are known to collapse when exposed to heat and flames.

As the fire grew in force, firefighters, who, at that time, were under the direction of Battalion Chief Sandy Williams "ordered all companies by radio to '&back your line out.' This message was repeated. The order to retreat was given at 3:34 p.m.," according to the published investigation.

Two minutes after the order was given, the roof collapsed, trapping three firefighter under debris. Two additional firefighters saw refuge in an adjoining tool room, however, this fact was not immediately known to the other rescuers.

"For approximately [16] minutes after the collapse, Lieutenant Reinhagen, who was trapped in the tool room with firefighter Ennis, used his portable radio to request help and to try to explain where they were located," the report states.

Due to the fact, that at that time only one radio frequency was available and used for both dispatching and ground communications, there was an unprecedented amount of radio traffic that lead to the initial distress calls from the trapped firefighters to go unheard.

They ran out of oxygen before anyone could rescue them.

According to the Bureau of Fire Safety report, all five firefighters died as a result of smoke inhalation and burns.

Following the tragedy, upgrades and new policies fell into place in order to prevent similar incidents from happening.

Training for fire personnel became mandated. According to the report, at the time of the fire there was "no state requirement for any specific amount of training as a prerequisite of active firefighting."

Communication systems and radios were also subjected to change following the fire since "there were serious radio equipment problems encountered during this fire. Poor reception of hand-held units and an insufficient number of fire ground channels were both factors before and after the building collapse," according to the report.

The Bureau of Fire Safety recommended that all departments within the state establish at least two radio channels in order to separate the ground communication from all others.

Another change that took place as a direct result of the events on July 1, 1988 was the implementation of personal alert safety systems. Today, Hackensack firefighters carry with them radios with emergency buttons that can be pressed when they are in danger. This measure is not state mandated.

A New Jersey law also required signs to be placed by the entrances of buildings to designate if the structure has a bowstring truss roof. This has since been implemented by other states.

"They live inside us, everyday," Freeman said during the memorial. "They brought many changes to our lives. What has not changed is the honor and esteem to which we hold these five heroes."

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