The Hackensack Ford Fire cost the lives of three firefighters in 1988. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).
On July 1st, 1988, the Hackensack Fire Department in Northern New Jersey was dispatched for a reported fire at the Hackensack Ford auto dealership in downtown Hackensack. When the initial crews arrived at the massive auto display and repair building, a light smoke condition existed near the roof, with no visible fire or smoke in the display area.
Firefighters investigated the building and a small fire was found in the attic of the servicing department, and area used as storage for auto parts. Several crews of firefighters went to work, venting a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape, and beginning to put water on the fire in the attic area.
However, conditions began to rapidly deteriorate due to the large amount of auto parts fueling the fire, and at 3:34pm, commanders on location ordered all firefighters to evacuate the building due to heavy fire presence. However, less than two minutes after the evacuation was issued, the building’s 60-ton bowstring trussed roof collapsed, killing three firefighters – Capt. Richard Williams, FF William Krejsa, and FF Leonard Radumski – instantly.
As other firefighters attempted to escape the collapsing inferno, two firefighters took shelter in a tool storage room – Lt. Richard Reinhagen and Firefighter Stephen Ennis. Reinhagen and Ennis had become trapped in the room due to the surround collapse and tried desperately over the department’s radios to call for help – but due to high radio traffic and poor radio quality, their calls were never heard. They eventually ran out of air and perished before fellow firefighters reached them.
The deaths of five firefighters was a devastating one to the town of Hackensack, who had never seen such a tragedy unfold in their own town, and had never lost a firefighter in the department’s 17-year history.
A subsequent report by the NFPA and the International Association of Fire Fighters’ found that ineffective leadership, poor communications and the failure of command personnel to recognize that the roof could collapse led “needless” death of the five firefighters. HFD immediately began to make changes in the way they responded to fires, and set a national precedent when it came to fire response.
A series of sweeping changes came as a result of the Hackensack Ford fire. New Jersey became the first state in the nation to require by law the display of a placard on the outside of all commercial businesses designating the type of construction the building contains. Other changes included the now-common practice of firefighter wearing Personal Alert Safety Systems, or PASS- a device worn by firefighters that sets off a loud alarm and LED light to help locate a firefighter in trouble that is either activated after a period of no motion or can be manually activated by a firefighter.
Finally, it became common practice for fire departments to use separate channels for dispatching and fireground operations, something that was not done on the day of the Hackensack fire. Until after the incident, the same channel was used by both the dispatching center that was attempting to get more units to the fire and the firefighters trapped inside, with the more powerful dispatch radios cutting out the trapped firemen’s pleads for help.
Often, major catastrophes led to changes that better the fire service and prevent similar tragedies from happening again.