The sights, sounds and smells were too familiar as I walked down Lamont Street toward the scene of another fatal fire. Only a small knot of spectators gathered at 3 a.m., peering up to where a ladder poked into a blackened window. Other ladders leaning against the side of the building indicated there had been a frantic rescur effort. Exhausted fire fighters slumped on the back step of an engine, catching their breath, while others dug through the debris for bodies. They found nine.
It had been a foster home for mental patients, and that's early 30 years as a newsman and volunteer fireman, I've worked at fires where 40 were killed in a blazing factory; 10, 18, 23 and 36 at a time in tenements and skid-row flop houses; 13 and 61 in hotels, 8 in an office building, 164 in a night club and 93 children in a school. I've also seen people killed by ones, twos and threes in frame shacks, apartment houses and high-rise condomuniums, suburban ranch homes and even a luxurious mansion.
The stories followed a set pattern. These usually was a delay in discovering the fire and/or a delay in calling the fire department; or it spread so fast that people never had a chance to escape. Most were doomed before the alarm sounded in the nearest firehouse. The fireman make spectacular rescues and often suffer painful injuries in the attempt. Their story always in the same: heavy fire rolling from the windows when they arrive; wrestling with panic-stricken people atop the ladders; making super-human efforts to crawl down smoke-filled corridors.The fire itself is seldom difficult to put out; it's usually over in minutes, but a lot of people are dead.
Most of the victims died from smoke inhalation before the fire ever got to them; very few actually burned to death. In one fire, a woman hid in a bathroom that was untouched by flames; she was killed by the smoke, and her body left a perfect while outline on the soot-covered tile floor. Children hide under beds; some people jump from windows when they don't have to, others refuse to jump when it's the only way out. You really wonder about those who escapes, then go back in to get their money, a coat or something else they apparently value more than their lives.
The survivors seldom are hysterical. They sit dazed, wrapped in blankets, trying to figure out what hit them. For a few, there was no warning until they woke up and saw flames. Most tell of light grey smoke, which suddenly turned black and churned with intense heat. They don't understand it, but what they experienced is called "flash over" - the instant everything that will burn bursts into flame from radiated heart. It's unbelievable how fast it happens or how bad it gets when that light, benign smoke suddenly turns dark and malignant.
The post-fire outcry and investigation also follow a disgustingly familiar pattern. The investigation usually reveals an open stairwell that acted like a chimney in spreading smoke, heat and fire to the upper floors while cutting off escape. Often there was no internal alarm system, or it wasn't connected to the fire department. There was no fire-stopping material in walls and ceilings, no fire-resistant doors to check the fire's spread, insufficient exits and fire escapes, no smoke detectors and never an automatic sprinkler system. In fact, there is no record of a multi-death fire (three or more dead) in a building fully protected by a properly installed and operating sprinkler system - which should tell us something.
The investigation frequently reveals a weak building code and/or a code that is poorly enforced because of suspected corruption or bureaucratic confusion between city departments or a shortage of inspectors. Past violations went incorrected and never got to court or the courts failed to force compliance. It's the same everywhere, as political leaders and civic groups demand action and promise crackdowns. But months later, when the recommended fire-safety laws come up for passage, those who own and operate the buildings at a profit plead economic hardship. Special-interest groups exert political pressure and the law is watered down to the point of being ineffective. If a law is passed, it usually excludes existing buildings, which means the most dangerous are not covered. It's almost impossible to get a retroactive law because fire safety costs money.
But the carnage will not be stopped until those who earn the profits are forced to spend money to protect lives. You can't prevent people from doing the stupid things that cause fires; but you can prevent the conditions that result in panic and a loss of life once the fire starts. The only remedy is to engineer life safety into the buildings where people live and work; that can only be accomplished by tough building codes that are strictly enforced.
An automatic sprinkler, for example, can sound an early alarm, notify the fire department and confine a fire to it point of origin. It gives people a chance to escape. A sprinkler system to protect a large building costs about as much as wall-to-wall carpeting and almost pays for itself over a long period by lowering insurance rates. Every building where many lives are endangered should be required to have sprinklers. At the very least, every dwelling place must have smoke detectors inn sleeping areas - and this includes private homes as well as apartment houses.
But laws are meaningless if not properly enforced. The responsibility for fire safety should be concentrated in the fire department instead of being spread over a half-dozen jurisdictions. There has to be an aggressive inspection program that covers the entire city on a regular schedule. And the courts have to impose heavy fines and put the chronic violators out of business.
This time the fire was on Lamont Street in Washington, and the only question is where it will happen next. As always, there were no new lessons to be learned, only old ones that went unheeded. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption