By Charles Angione
We responded one sunny fall afternoon to multiple calls for the odor of natural gas in the area. Upon arrival in the vicinity, we found that a strong smell had permeated the entire neighborhood. For a few moments I feared a main break, but there was no loud rushing noise that you get from a broken main.
Gas leaks can make you nervous. We’ve had several gas explosions in our city. One massive blast occurred when a leaking gas main in a small strip mall on Park Avenue ignited. It produced several fires and enormous damage. The whole neighborhood was littered with broken masonry, wood and glass. The scene in the foggy, eerily lit night looked like WWII footage of a strafed boulevard in a war-torn European city.
For this current gas leak incident, our standard response was to stage a block away. The first due company officer, Lt. Al Chandler of Engine 3, shut off his portable radio (the use of which can actually ignite a flammable gas mixture) and walked in with his step man, Gil Flood. Both were wearing Scott air packs. I followed about 20 yards behind to relay any info to Central Dispatch.
We soon narrowed the odor to a recently abandoned two-story house. Al found a flexible gas line in the kitchen flopping around under pressure. Apparently some thieves had stolen the gas stove hours ago (residents said they had been smelling gas all day). Since there was no shut-off at the stove connection, they had simply disconnected the gas line and yanked out the stove.
The electric meter showed service to the building. When I got inside, Al sent Gil to shut off the gas main in the basement.
“Make sure you don’t turn on — or shut off — any electric switches,” I warned him.
Most people are aware that turning on the electric lights could result in a gas explosion. What many people don’t realize — not even some firefighters — is that shutting off an electric light switch also produces a small spark that is more that hot enough to ignite a gas mixture. Theoretically, so can the tiny arc from a ringing telephone.
We called for the ladder company to begin ventilating the entire building, starting at the top. The rescue company set up a large exhaust fan in the front door blowing in to flush out the gas. They had to power the smoke ejector by running a line from the generator of the rescue rig parked some distance away.
Soon after the place was opened up, a phone on the kitchen wall began ringing. Apparently, the mixture of gas was either too rich or too lean to ignite. We knew that somewhere in the place the mixture might be just right.
“Tell whoever it is that we just left,” I joked as we all got the hell out of there until the ventilation from the fans was completed.
Another time, back when I was a truckie, Lt. Wernicki and I were slogging through the water in a flooded basement.
“Truck 3, have someone shut off the electric service,” the deputy had ordered.
“The electric is off,” the middle-aged female occupant had told us. “I shut it off myself.”
“Are you sure the main breaker is shut off?” the ladder company lieutenant had asked her.
“Yes, yes,” she’d insisted, impatient with us, “I told you. I’m positive it is off.”
Now she was standing at the top of the basement stairs urging us to hurry.
Suddenly, the motor of a basement refrigerator began running. The lieutenant and I looked at each other. Then I spotted the electric control box on a far wall. I went over and shut off the main. We both shook our heads at our stupidity and continued the dewatering process.
“Don’t know what you shut off, ma’am” the lieutenant told the woman later, “but it was not the main electrical switch. If you come with me, I’ll show you where it is in case you ever need it in the future.”
Then there was the scene we responded to early one morning that was right out of a disaster movie. I was a back step guy on Engine 4 in those days, and we had spent the night before pumping out basements and otherwise dealing with major flooding, especially in the flood prone East End. Now we had a multi-family two-story frame house lying on East Third St. I mean it was actually lying on East Third St. The house had slid forward like a deck of cards and the second floor was down in the street. There were people strewn all over the place.
“Come on, Ange,” Rocky said. “You and me, kid. Let’s get some of these people out of there.”
The nearest victim was a heavyset woman in a black negligee lying under a piano in the side yard. She had apparently tumbled out of a second floor window as the building was coming down. Rocky and I carefully picked the pieces of plaster and firing strips off of her as she lay there calmly, no doubt in shock.
She had some pain in her leg, but it didn’t appear broken. I got a splint and a blanket from our emergency squad. Rocky hurriedly splinted the leg while I returned to grab a folding stretcher. We carried her to an improvised staging area and then returned to help somebody else.
After a half dozen people were rescued, the chief reorganized things a bit, and my company was assigned to work with the Public Service Gas Company.
Soon the area was swarming with press. TV crews from the major networks and reporters and photographers from the big New York papers were all over the place and getting in everyone’s way. They were yelling and pushing, and all but baying at the moon, ignoring the cops and refusing to stay behind the fire lines.
Just about the time we learned from neighbors that a couple from the first floor was missing, an animal howl of anguish shattered the neighborhood. It was the wife of the missing man. She was inconsolable, and had to be attended by the medics. We did manage to find out that she had left to do some early morning shopping around the corner. She said that her husband, Neal Cleveland, had risen early and had gone down to check the water level in the basement. Someone asked if he was a smoker. She nodded and began crying harder.
Lt. Frank Wood and George Zampella managed to tunnel through the remaining structure to get to the basement. It was a dangerous job. Public Service had shut off the gas service at the curb, but the structure was still very unstable. George found the victim buried under a pile of debris, but with his head above water. He was still alive. The two men carried him out of the darkness and onto a first floor kitchen without a roof or walls. Bill Maddison came over and covered him with a blanket. The man was conscious but in deep shock. He might have had internal injuries.
As soon as the press guys found out that the missing man had been located, they went into a kind of feeding frenzy, running and scampering and yelling at the top of their lungs.
“Al, over here with the camera . . . Move over, for Chrisake . . . Hey Jimmy, I need lights . . . @%#%& it, get outta the &%@#$ way . . .”
There were a couple of near fistfights.
It turned out that flooding water in the basement had extinguished the pilot light on the water heater. The escaping gas built up to explosive levels and was ignited by an open heat source, probably Mr. Cleveland smoking a cigarette in the basement.
That night I saw my buddies and myself on TV carrying Neal Cleveland. There was an extreme close-up of him staring with wide frightened eyes at the camera. The footage was from a cameraman who had been all over me. I wondered if this guy who had slowed us up while he shot his video was pleased he had gotten so much airtime. Did his bosses and his coworkers congratulate him? Did he get a raise or a bonus? Did he even know that Mr. Neal Cleveland died in the hospital from his injuries that afternoon?
Charles Angione, former operations chief for the city of Plainfield, New Jersey, Fire Department, is the author of Days and Nights of Fire. The decorated 25-year line veteran is a National Fire Academy alumnus and a longtime incident commander of note. Send your comments or requests for his book (also available for purchase online at www.ebay.com).
This story appears in the September/October edition of The Volunteer Firefighter magazine, just one of many benefits of FASNY membership.