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The Hackensack Ford Fire, which occurred 20 years ago today on July 1, 1988, still holds many lessons and is a modern landmark fire. For my generation, the Hackensack Ford Fire was a major learning fire. The practices and procedures of our day were greatly affected by the tragic loss of five wonderful men. Captain Williams, Lieutenant Reinhagen, and Firefighters Kresja, Radumski, and Ennis were killed while fighting a fire at Hackensack Ford at 320 River Street, Hackensack, New Jersey. These five men were inside the structure, which had a bowstring truss roof assembly, when suddenly it collapsed. Williams, Kresja, and Radumski were killed instantly, and Reinhagen and Ennis, despite heroic rescue attempts, ran out of air and died of asphyxiation while trapped in a tool room.

This fire was one of the first caught on video tape and the radio transmissions are still being used in training today. The fallout, if not predictable, was not unlike what we are seeing today regrading the Charleston fire and other recent multiple line-of-duty deaths. Pundits armed with 20/20 hindsight (even folks who have never even used a fire extinguisher in their kitchens) were somehow suddenly experts.

We as fire service providers should review these events and ask ourselves: What were these good men seeing that made them believe their tactics would be successful? What items had captured their attention so that they were unable to see the cues to events which soon would claim their lives? It is easy to say the troops zigged when they should have zagged--it is like picking the lottery numbers the day after. Study the events and put yourself there try to see what they saw and always try to avoid the blame game. The villains are usually guys like me and you the day before but they are Benedict Arnold the day after. Saying someone messed up is easy; saying why takes courage, insight, and reflection. Before we throw stones first, let's be sure that we have walked a few miles down similar roads ourselves and then be sure we have something constructive to add. These are important lessons and these fires are complicated events. We must avoid being quick to oversimplify these very dynamic and challenging fires to meet our own personal agendas.

The link below will take you to a story from today's Hackensack Chronicle:

A side note: things are happening right now in Hackensack which are not good. The fire-based EMS system is being threatened by forces which would remove it the Fire Department's control and make it privately controlled by a hospital. The IAFF and many other knowledgeable and informed groups, including the citizens of the good city of Hackensack, are outraged and doing everything they can to prevent the takeover. The next link will take you to pictures of a rally held yesterday:

And for those of you who would like to see and excellent short history on the inspiring and courageous history of one of America's best firefighting departments, here is a link to the history of the Hackensack (NJ) Fire Department.

Never forget means respect those who came before you. Learn all you can, be the best you can be, and remember: be careful out there.


posted by Bobby Halton
7/01/2008 11:33:00 AM

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Blogger PM Fire said...

I lived through that era although it was very early in my career. I remember going around with the on duty captain and identfying all of the bow string arch constructed buildings in our area within a few days of the tragedy. What could thay have done different? I don't really know. In our area the dangers of bow string arch construction weren't understood until this took place. They didn't have the necessary information to make the needed decisions. After this incident we all got a wake up call to the dangers, much like the fire service did about BLEVE's following the Kingman explosion. Especially in our profession we have to learn from the past or we may not live long enough to learn from the future.

James Cleveland

Wed Jul 02, 12:25:00 PM EDT  

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