Tales of the 7th Battalion 12

Hot Stuff

The corner of West Jefferson and Junction evokes memories of two strange fire calls. One I describe in my book “Fire Horses” and the other still scares the hell out of me. Late one evening we get a run to this location. Central office told us it was reported as heavy smoke in the area. This is one of the most heavily industrialized areas of the city. Heavy smoke is a common occurrence. I was driving Ladder 8. I pulled my rig directly in front of the location. I could see there was a problem inside of a building that looked like a foundry. The boss of Engine 27 and his crew were just approaching the big overhead door, which was closed, when the building exploded. The blast buckled the door but did not blow it down. Fire shot out of every crack in the building. No one was hurt but a helmet flew across the street hitting my rig. I was so startled that I rolled up my window. Yeah, right, like that was going to protect me. I finally wised up and moved my rig out of the path of destruction. A line was stretched into the front door and water was hurled into the smoldering interior. The reaction was more violent explosions. It took a few minutes before we realized this factory was processing magnesium. There were barrels of the stuff throughout the interior of the facility. Our chief backed everyone out and we protected the exposures while the volatile material burned itself out. It was the first time I encountered a fire that could not be extinguished with water. It was scary and we were lucky no one was injured.

It was late that summer when we got another call to West Jefferson and Junction. This time it was the Edison Power Plant. Central Office told us we had a workers trapped situation. When we arrived a guard told us a couple men had fallen into a vat of pelletized coal. He directed us to the top floor of the furnace building. This facility is eight stories high and covers two acres. When we entered we were deafened by the noise. We had to yell to speak to each other. There was a constant roaring sound interspersed by loud hisses and rumbles. It reminded me of sounds made by a steam locomotive. Laced through all this noise was the steady buzzing sound of high voltage electricity. Giant furnaces surrounded by steel grated walkways added to the oppressive heat in the building. It looked like a depressing place to work.

We had to climb five floors carrying our heavy tools to get to the area where the workers were trapped. When we arrived we found an amazing situation. There were several people standing around looking down into a huge circular structure that resembled a large swimming pool. It was the top of a large silo that fed pelletized coal to the furnaces. It measured thirty feet across and at least thirty feet deep. A thundering metallic banging noise was coming from the bowels of the device. We stepped to the edge and peered down. We saw a man buried up to his waist in coal. He had his hands in front of his body and appeared to be holding on to something that had disappeared beneath the coal. When I was finally able to focus on what he was holding the hairs went up on the back of my neck. He was holding a man’s face. The rest of the body had vanished below the coal. We had to act quickly. My boss asked the workers, “What the hell is that thundering roar?”

We were told it was the bowling ball sized steel balls rotating in the pulverizing room. The workers trapped below us were slowly sinking towards an opening at the bottom of the silo that would drop them onto a conveyer belt taking them into a rotating room that crushed the coal into a powder to be blown into the furnaces for efficient burning. It was a scene right out of a Perils of Pauline movie. The two men at the bottom of the pit were headed for the pulverizing room if we could not save them. We quickly ordered the machine to be shut down. I helped tie the rescue lines for two Squad 4 men who volunteered to go down to help the trapped workers. It took over a half hour to dig those guys out. The suction power of the wet coal was incredible. When we finally got the men out of the pit we were showered with the gratitude of the rescued victims. I still think about what would have happened if we did not get there in time. I was glad we were able to help those guys caught in a scary situation. That location at West Jefferson and Junction always seemed to spell trouble. It was not a fun place to respond to.

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"Fire Horses" book authored by firefighter R.J. Haig.


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