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The B. Altman's Fire

In the wee hours of Friday August 23, 1996, an inferno in a vacant department store took the equivalent of 8.75 alarms to bring under control.

At 0306 hours a phone call was received at the Manhattan Central Office reporting a smoke condition at 4 East 36 Street. A search of the building was conducted with negative results. Eleven minutes later a second call also indicating a smoke condition was received reporting the address 11 Park Avenue. A search of that building also proved fruitless. With a definite odor lingering in the air, units continued to search the area.

The search ultimately led them to the B. Altman's Department store that was being renovated at 355 5th Avenue. The 13 story class 1 construction occupies an entire city block measuring 420 x 200. Emanating from the upper floors was a light smoke condition. The signal for a working fire was given. Within 3 minutes a second alarm was transmitted. The next 10 hours were described as being as close to hell as one would want to get.

The fire originated in the store's fur vault. A large windowless room with cinder block walls and cork insulation. A tremendous amount of heat created what some 30 year veterans said was the hottest fire they have ever fought. Because of the intense heat, all 4th and 5th alarm units were ordered to top off their canteens before reporting to the IC. All 5 Recuperation & Care units were at the fire.

Another complication arose when fire fighters discovered a sign indicating asbestos abatement was in progress. The Haz-Mat unit was special called, and later ordered the response of the Decontamination Trailer quartered with L015.

Before the fire could be declared under control, the fur vault had to be vented, and thermal imaging cameras were used to locate hidden hot spots.

No cause for the blaze has been officially declared, but investigators believe it was started by workers using a torch earlier in the evening. Over 20 fire fighters were treated for minor injuries. Relief units were special called throughout the evening and the box was closed at 2112 hours.

As had been done in previous major incidents, the Manhattan dispatchers set up an apparatus staging area at a nearby firehouse. The outer boroughs supplied units for the staging area, which were then used to supply the IC with the units he needed. This conserved fire protection for Manhattan and kept response times at an acceptable level.


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0306 BOX TRANSMITTED E065 L024 L007 BC09 RS01 0308 ROSTER STAFFING E001 0340 10-75 E016 E054 BC07 0342 7-5 E026 DC02 0343 2-2 E008 E034 E014 L004 L021 L012 BC08 E018 ST01 FC01 SB01 RA01 TS01 0356 S/C BC10 0405 PROGRESS REPORT 1 LINE STRETCHED AND IN OPERATION. SECOND LINE BEING STRETCHED. FIRE IS DARKENING DOWN. TRUCKS ARE OPENING UP AND CHECKING FOR EXTENSION. 0410 PROGRESS REPORT TRANSMIT A 3RD ALARM. 3 LINES STRETCHED AND OPERATING. A STAGING AREA HAS BEEN SET UP ON THE 5TH FLOOR. HAVE TRUCKS REPORT TO THE IC WITH 10 & 12 FOOT HOOKS. WE ARE HAVING DIFFICULTY OPENING UP THE ROOF DUE TO ONGOING CONSTRUCTION. 0410 3-3 E023 E005 E033 E040 L043 BC02 E027 MW01 E284 ST03 MK01 0411 S/C L008 L035 0416 S/C E003 L003 BC06 0440 PROGRESS REPORT SPECIAL CALL HAZ-MAT AND CAR 40A DUE TO ASBESTOS ABATEMENT SIGNS. 3 LINES STRETCHED OFF THE STANDPIPE. WATER IS GETTING ON THE FIRE. 0440 S/C HM01 0448 S/C RA03 RA04 0449 PROGRESS REPORT TRANSMIT A 4TH ALARM FOR ROTATING RELIEF SYSTEM & ACTIVATE THE RESERVE STAFF CHIEF. 0449 4-4 E028 E055 E039 E022 L002 0455 S/C L009 0518 S/C BC16 0530 S/C BC12 0536 S/C SB02 0617 S/C L015 HD01 0628 5-5 E021 E044 E024 E009 L005 0629 S/C L016 L020 0637 S/C DC01 0730 S/C BC04 0742 S/C BC01 BC11 0749 PROGRESS REPORT THE FIRE IS NOW PROBABLY WILL HOLD. SPECIAL CALL 5 ENGINES. 0749 S/C E015 E007 E076 E006 E058 0848 S/C DC06 0904 S/C E073 E303 E242 L056 L136 L026 L050 L035 0907 S/C RS04 0909 S/C E289 E075 E245 1006 S/C L040 1029 S/C RA02 1122 S/C RS03 1203 S/C E004 E035 E095 L013 BC20 BC44 1206 S/C L010 1208 S/C E249 1211 S/C TS02 1238 S/C RA05 1314 PROGRESS REPORT HEAT HAS BEEN KNOCKED DOWN. UNITS WILL BE REMAINING ON THE SCENE. THIS WILL BE A PROLONGED OPERATION. UNDER CONTROL.