By Raul A. Angulo
No survival story has affected me more than Black Sunday when six FDNY firefighters were forced to jump for their lives from the fourth floor of a burning apartment building on January 23, 2005. Two firefighters were killed in the fall, four were critically injured, and only one would return to full duty.
The Bronx fire occurred in an old four-story, ordinary construction apartment building. The fire started in a unit on floor three and extended up to floor four. These firefighters were sent to floor four for search and rescue and to check for extension. They encountered moderate smoke but no sign of fire.
|(1) Most bunker pants cargo pockets can accommodate 50 feet
of 7.5-mm rope, a descender, and the Seattle Hook. Designating a
cargo pocket as self-rescue pocket keeps your bailout system ready to deploy.
(Photos by author.)
For some reason the attack line lost water so the exposure line on floor four was redirected back down to floor four. Firefighter Jeff Cool had the thermal imaging camera (TIC) and opened up a wall that was registering hot in the apartment directly above the fire unit. Fire immediately started coming through the hole and spread into the room. They called for another hoseline, but conditions turned ugly in seconds. Fire extended from floor to ceiling into the hallway and the apartment, trapping the firefighters on the fourth floor.
What should have been one apartment was illegally subdivided into multiple smaller units, creating a labyrinth of walls and rooms that hid their normal egress routes to the fire escape. The firefighters were forced to four separate windows. With the intense heat and flames, four firefighters rolled out and hoped for the best. Cool, who was with his partner, Firefighter Joe DiBernardo, had a personal rescue rope but no place to tie off. After a quick argument, they decided since Cool had a wife and kids, he would go first. DiBernardo stepped on the rope and wrapped it around his arm to belay Cool as he rappelled down, but Cool lost his grip and fell 40 feet to the pavement, breaking almost every bone in his body. DiBernardo tied the rope off to a window guard and tried to lower himself down, but the rope broke and he also fell, landing feet first and breaking every bone below his waist.
Cool, though severely injured, fell only 40 feet at grade level. Because there was a basement and a below-grade walkway on the C side of this building, it added an extra 10 feet to that side. Unfortunately, five firefighters fell in this space, making it a 50-foot fall that killed Lieutenants Curtis Meyran and John Bellew and severely injured Firefighters Eugene Stolowski and Brendan Cawley. DiBernardo died in 2011 from long-lasting complications of the injuries he sustained on Black Sunday. His death was finally ruled to be in the line of duty.
|(2) If your bunker pants don’t have a built-in harness, you can
assemble or purchase a class 1 harness and lay it over your inside
liners and boots. As you step into your boots, you’re stepping into
your harness without disturbing the integrity of your bunker gear.
With one carabiner, you can clip your harness into your descender,
which is connected to your hook. Your system is ready to deploy.
Personal Escape Systems
I saw the four survivors give their gut-wrenching presentation at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC). I remember feeling physically ill as they explained in detail the fall, their injuries, and roads to recovery. One statement that stuck with me was from DiBernardo. He said that while standing trapped at the window, he remembered seeing his personal rescue rope at the bottom of his locker at the beginning of shift. He thought about grabbing it but decided to leave it in his locker-a decision he would live to regret.
This incident spurred the FDNY to equip every firefighter with the Crosby hook and the Petzl personal escape system (PES). Each firefighter carries his own hook, rope, and descender prerigged on their person for any situation where they may have to bail out a window or off a roof. Their bunker pants have built-in harnesses so the PES is clipped in and ready to deploy-a permanent part of their structural firefighting personal protective equipment (PPE) ensemble.
As soon as their presentation was over, I went down to the exhibit floor to buy a hook and personal escape system for me and my son, who was a volunteer firefighter. I wasn’t leaving until I owned one. I was determined to equip myself with whatever it would take to survive this type of event, and I wasn’t going to wait for my fire department to buy it for me.
|(3) The Seattle Hook can also be purchased as a complete bailout
system, which can be attached to a ladder belt or a SCBA harness.
You Will Jump
Here’s what I learned from this presentation: when faced with the decision to stay in a fiery room and burn to death or jump, you will jump! This is a fast event. If you think you’re going to have enough time to bury a tool into the floor for an anchor, pull out the rope from your drop bag, tie a knot to the tool, wrap the rope around your waist, and lower yourself out, think again. What if your tool is the TIC? Remember, Cool said he couldn’t tie off to anything, and he lost his grip. I’m convinced you need a hook, a harness, Kevlar® rope, and a descender with a hands-free lock to arrest your fall if you want the best chance of surviving a window bailout. You want the ability to just hook and go.
I chose the FESH hook with 50 feet of 7.5-mm Kevlar rope. I tried CMC’s The Escape Artist and the Sterling F4 descenders. They’re both excellent descenders and have hands-free, arrest-locking features. But, I felt I had more control with The Escape Artist. Plus, this unit can be operated with one hand in case you injure or burn your other hand. I created a three-point contact harness with one-inch webbing and assembled the system using one carabiner.
Currently, my fire department does not have personal harnesses built into the bunker pants. It also prohibits altering the structural firefighting PPE ensemble. One way to get around this is to lay your personal harness over your liners and boots. When the bell hits, as you’re stepping into your boots, you’re also stepping into your harness. You can snap your harness and pants at the same time. Your harness is now between your body and the interior liners of your pants-just like an extra layer of underwear. And unless the department is going to start regulating that, it really shouldn’t have anything to say about it! The structural integrity of the firefighting PPE ensemble is untouched. Remember, this event has already happened and you’re trying to survive a similar situation, not be insubordinate. I carry my PES in the cargo pocket of my bunker pants. The harness connects to the descender with the carabiner and it’s ready to go. I simply hook the windowsill and roll out.
|(4) The Seattle Hook can be incorporated into any of the
firefighter self-rescue rope systems on the market.
Firefighter and Inventor
One day I was working on Engine 29 with Firefighter Scott Bullene. He noticed the rigging on my bunker pants and asked about it. I’m always a little hesitant about showing this system because it’s my personal system-i.e. it’s unauthorized. He was especially interested in my hook. I showed him the FESH and the reasons I liked it. The only drawback was the weight. The FESH is a heavy hook. However, the weight also helps bury this tool into a surface for an anchor, so I deal with it. Then Bullene showed me his hook.
I was very impressed that Scott had his own PES. It was like we were in the same secret club. I liked his hook. It had great design features and was extremely light compared to mine. I asked him where he got it and he said, “I made it! It’s called the Seattle Hook.” At first I didn’t believe him. Then he showed me pictures of how he did it. This wasn’t a backyard weekend metal project. He actually started a company that manufactures these hooks. Interestingly enough, the incident that motivated Scott to develop the hook was Black Sunday.
The Seattle Hook
The Seattle Hook is an escape anchor with multiple uses and can be incorporated into any of the firefighter self-rescue rope systems on the market. It’s made of T-6061 aluminum and weighs less than eight ounces. This aluminum offers the highest strength of common alloys used for fire department ground and aerial ladders and is used by the aircraft and ordinance industries because of its light weight and superior strength.
The Seattle Hook is 7.125 inches high and 5.125 inches wide. It is 0.375 inches thick. The first thing you notice about the Seattle Hook is the finish. It comes in a red anodized or black oxide finish, which gives it a polished well-engineered look. There’s also an optional carrying bag available.
|(5) The Seattle Hook anchor is shown here on a wooden sill. The
eye is built-up to protect the rope from broken glass. The Agressive
Teeth provide addition contact points for added friction to
prevent slippage. The reverse teeth on the shank help lock the
anchor in place.
The next thing you notice are the serrated teeth and the wide anchor space between the point of the hook and the spine, providing the widest purchase point I’ve seen on a hook. Where most hooks have a smooth curve in the “J,” the Seattle Hook has patented “Aggressive Teeth” to provide added assurance against slippage with multiple contact friction points. The teeth can burrow into a wood windowsill for added anchoring strength. Each tooth can also set along a concrete sill, preventing slippage by adding numerous contact points. There are also two reverse teeth underneath the spine to lock the anchor in place. I have not seen these features on any other anchor hook, but this design makes sense to me.
The eye of the hook is large enough to accept 7.5-mm rope or a rescue carabiner and is built up to lift the escape rope off broken glass or sharp edges. The eye has a rope notch, which prevents slippage of the rescue rope while the system is stored. However you secure your rope to the hook, this notch keeps the hitch in place so it comes out clean and ready to deploy every time.
There are two things I don’t like about the hook. First, in the middle of the “J” there is a small hole which fits the stem of an oxygen bottle so it can double as an O2 wrench. I guess there was room to add something, but I doubt this giant claw is going to be your tool of choice when you have to change out an O2 bottle during a CPR resuscitation, and you certainly don’t need an O2 wrench when you’re bailing out. This is your parachute-it’s best to leave your rescue system packed and ready for what it was designed for. There are lots of ways to use this hook, but they should all be for self-rescue.
Secondly, the Seattle Hook’s open grip space within the spine is too narrow for a gloved hand. If Bullene makes a next generation design, I suggest dumping the O2 wrench and widening the grip to easily accommodate a gloved hand. A bailout scenario is an extremely hot environment. Keep it simple. This is a rescue tool, not a Swiss army knife.
|(6) The Seattle Hook lets you hook and go. A bailout system
has to let you get out fast with maximum safety for survivability
I believe that future National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards will require built-in harnesses for bunker pants, and PESs will be standard issue for firefighters in the years to come. In the meantime, your next alarm could be Black Sunday. Are you equipped to survive that event? Don’t wait for your fire department to equip you. How much is your life worth? How much is your family worth? In this case, I would take discipline charges for PPE policy violations if it meant surviving this event. Living is better than dying. If it costs you your job, so what! There’s life after the fire service. Yes-I feel that strong about it.
RAUL A. ANGULO, a veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6, has more than 30 years in the fire service. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development, and fireground strategy and accountability throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.