Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Little Fireboat That Could

If they’d just open the drawbridges

by: Lou Angeli

Wilmington, DE (April 15, 2008) – On Monday of this week, Wilmington Fireboat Captain Joe Kempista listened closely to one of the dozen or so Fire-EMS dispatches that blare through his portable hand-talki each day. “Structure Fire – Kahunaville – along the Riverfront.” The tone of the dispatcher's voice was noticeably different -- there was urgency. That combined with the fact that he added a RIT Team as part of the first alarm assignment was an indication to the veteran Wilmington fire officer that there was work.

Kempista and two crew members immediately stepped aboard “Firefighter,” Wilmington's mighty 65ft Class-A fireboat, and prepared to push off from its berth alongside the Winchester Bridge in the Christina River. (see map) In just a few moments Fireboat-7 (the vessel’s radio designation) was underway, responding as quickly as land-based companies.

Normally Joe Kempista would point Fireboat 7's bow toward the Northeast, making way downriver along the Christina toward the Port of Wilmington, or even out into the Delaware River shipping channels. But on Monday, after clearing the berth, the Captain brought “Firefighter” 180 degrees about and began an upriver heading, toward the city’s highly touted, revitalized Riverfront.

Well, let’s say he attempted to travel upriver.

Unlike the trip into the Delaware River, when Fireboat-7 is required to respond upriver to the high-value riverfront district, the boat must pass under three drawbridges, one of which is unstaffed. The city’s Marine Emergency Services Facility stands in the shadow of the first span, the Winchester Bridge.

Even before he got underway, Captain Kempista signaled the Winchester bridge operator that he would need to pass through quickly. This wasn’t another training exercise – Kempista, the bridge operator and everyone on Wilmington’s Southside could see the heavy smoke lifting into the sky over the Christina River.

The bridge operator went about the routine of lowering the warning gates and stopping traffic. Next he pressed buttons to lift the recently renovated steel span – but nothing happened. He tried again to no avail. The old 3rd Street Bridge wasn’t budging.

Now, firefighters don’t curse while on duty, but I can only imagine the expletives flying about on the bridge of “Firefighter”, especially when the first-due Battalion Chief reported heavy fire conditions on the river side of the former warehouse-sized nightclub. Quartered just a half mile away from the fire structure, Kempista (and every other firefighter responding) knew that the job would have been easy work for “Firefighter” and its array of master stream nozzles and 6500 gpm pumping capacity.

But the damned bridge wouldn’t lift. And so the fire burned.

In the meantime, land-based companies began to arrive, stretching handlines to attack the blaze. Much of the vast outside wooden deck structures and adjoining facades were well involved, and it didn't take along for flames to make their way through broken windows and open doors into the main structure. The firefight was made even more difficult to control as flames snaked through voids between interior walls and the building’s corrugated steel exterior.

It was the type of blaze that demands a constant watch over the troops. The concern is building collapse and the conditions at Kahunaville were ripe for the prospect. Staying ahead of the game, Command quickly called for additional alarms, bringing in mutual-aid companies from surrounding New Castle County towns as well as off-duty shift members.

An hour later, the bulk of the blaze was knocked down. An hour later, Fireboat-7 finally arrived, docking just 50 feet from where the blaze had started. Joe Kempista, the most experienced marine firefighter in Delaware, stood on the aft deck simply shaking his head.

As the City of Wilmington continues rapid expansion along the Christina Riverfront, fire protection should remain a priority concern. Newly-constructed offices, residences,and commercial structures are clustered together with century old warehouses in an area that was once a major US port. Many of the buildings, which are being renovated, are vacant warehouses and factories, built at the turn of the 20th century. Old structures, when combined with a welder’s torch make for a lousy combination, and the WFD has experienced dozens of such fires.

Is there someone at fault? Certainly not the Fire Department nor the City of Wilmington, since the bridges are operated and maintained by the State of Delaware. And it would be bad gesture to point the finger of blame at the state. Two of the bridges, including the Winchester, recently underwent multimillion dollar renovations.

If you ask Joe Kempista, I’d bet he’d chalk the event up to Murphy’s Law. In the fire-rescue business, we often cite Mr. Murphy and his law when a job goes south and we don't feel the need to explain it. The heartbreak about the Kahunaville incident is that those of us who were on scene didn’t have the opportunity to watch Fireboat-7 in action.

But as long as there are old buildings and welder’s torches, we may still have that opportunity.
More importantly, this incident teaches us a lesson about firefighting marine vessels. Wilmington Fire Department’s “Firefighter” remains a vital fire-rescue resource for the entire region, as it is the ONLY Class A firefighting vessel operating along the busy Delaware River, from the Port of Philadelphia to the Atlantic Ocean.

PS: Next time, the bridge will open! Mr. Murphy

Photos of the incident:

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