There was no fire yet, not up here, but there was smoke. The six men sent to the fourth floor of the tenement couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of them. There was heat too. They could feel it and see it on the screen of a handheld thermal-imaging camera, surging behind a wall.
The call had come at 7:59 on a Sunday morning, the day after a January blizzard had shut down the city. There was still more than a foot of unplowed snow on East 178th Street off the Grand Concourse, and some of it was still swirling in 45-mile-an-hour gusts. Wind like that has a habit of working like gasoline on even the tiniest fires. Five trucks from five companies inched through the snow to converge on the tenement, a cookie-cutter version of thousands of other old buildings in the South Bronx. Engine 42 got there first; its men were stretching hoses from their truck and running them upstairs. Ladder 33 got there next, and a number of its men were sent to the third floor, where the fire was burning. The firefighters from Ladder 27 and Rescue 3 had arrived next; they were sent to the floor above the fire to clear it and keep the flames from spreading upward.
When the six men got to the fourth floor, they started searching from apartment to apartment, but they’d found no civilians (except the skinny guy and naked fat lady one of the guys saw hightailing it out of there just as they came up the stairs). Now they were in Apartment 4-L, feeling their way along the walls from room to room—six men loaded down with gear, sucking in air from their tanks—and soon they got turned around, lost in the smoke. Brendan Cawley, the probie with just a month on the job, kept seeing padlocks on the doors of every room and was confused; he hadn’t been around long enough to know how many apartments in this neighborhood had been converted into cheap, crowded rooming houses. This place had been chopped up, probably illegally. Random walls and carelessly thrown-up partitions created a maze. The men were trying to make their way to the source of the heat surge, but among the locks and the walls and the smoke, they couldn’t seem to get there. And there was another problem: The men didn’t have working hoses. First, there was a frozen hydrant; then, something seemed wrong with some of the hoses themselves. The six men on the fourth floor couldn’t fight a fire they couldn’t find—and if any fire did come, they had nothing to fight it with.
At 8:26 a.m., Curt Meyran, the lieutenant in charge of the Ladder 27 crew, checked in on his radio. He was asked about the status of the fire on the fourth floor. “Slight extension, slight extension,” Meyran said—meaning they still saw just smoke, no fire.
“Ten-four,” came the response.
Somewhere between 18 and 23 seconds later—still 8:26 a.m., maybe even as the responder was talking—a turret of flame roared up though the floorboards. None of them saw it coming—in an instant, all six were pinned against the windows that faced the back. “We need a line on the floor above,” someone barked into the radio. “We have heavy fire on the floor above. Rescue to Battalion. Urgent.”
In the background, another voice—no one’s sure whose—could be heard: “We got no water!”
The flames formed a wall between the men and the apartment door. Walking out was no longer an option. Meyran called in a Mayday and he and Gene Stolowski and Cawley stuck their heads outside for air. At the windows next to them were two guys from Rescue 3, Jeff Cool and Joe DiBernardo. They had lost track of the sixth man, John Bellew. It was 17 degrees outside, but even as their faces were freezing, the men felt a scorching heat on their backs. Leaning out, they could see a fire escape two windows away—but it was too far for them to jump.
Meyran called in a Mayday at 8:29. Seconds later, DiBernardo radioed an outfit on the roof: “Brothers on the roof, you’re gonna need to send a rope over the side. Roof team—send a rope over the side to the two-four side of the building.”
The flames were closer now. Jeff Cool could feel them at his neck. Cool had a wife and two kids. Meyran had a wife and three kids. Bellew had a wife and four kids. Stolowski had a daughter, and his wife was expecting twin girls in June. DiBernardo’s dad was a retired deputy fire chief. Cawley had an older brother who had died on 9/11.