At 3:05pm on June 8, the fire alarms sounded in the Puck Building; like all New York City fire alarms, they’re designed to be annoying as hell. Like all New Yorkers, the crowd was nonplussed and went about their interactions with the exhibitors … in New York, the alarm doesn’t mean anything unless somebody makes an announcement. At 3:10 it’s quiet again; three cycles of the alarm and some shouted announcements that there was no need for worry did the trick.
At 3:15, Matt Murray (President and Executive Director of MoCCA) asks everybody to leave; he has a loud voice that both carries and conveys that he will brook no foolishness. A few vendors look hopeful that a fire means they won’t have to carry unsold merchandise home with them.
A few minutes later on the street, the first due fire companies have already set up on the “A” side of the building: Engine 33 and Ladder 20 have emptied their crew compartments and the firefighters are pulling out Scott packs. Then more apparatus shows up: Engine 24, Engine 9, Hook & Ladder 5, Battalion 2, but the crowd hasn’t been moved away from the sidewalk in front of the Puck yet. That’s well within the collapse zone, and it’s where no fire commander will allow a crowd to interfere with operations.
Normally, the incident commander will send some guys in shirt sleeves to verify it’s a false alarm, and everybody can go home, but there’s the crew of Ladder 20 in full turnout gear. They think something’s really happening, and one of them says, “We’ve got a report of fire in the basement.” The sweeps will be done according to the book; what with all the paints, wall fixtures, fabrics, solvents, and thousands of other petro-based products that make up modern decor, they won’t put anybody across the threshold without an air bottle. Beautiful decor elements, really: lightweight, cheap, and when you heat ’em to the burning point, they start throwing off cyanide analogs that melt your lungs after the second breath. The crowd is still coming down from the seventh floor.
The Ladder 20 guys are looking serious — the Puck is an old building — from before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, even — and firefighters hate old buildings. They especially hate old basements because there’s not so many ways out of them. They’re mentally running down what they know of the building, figuring their sweeps, knowing exactly how many steps they have to cover to pull themselves and their partner out of a situation that suddenly goes bad and into sweet, clear air. “Stay safe,” I say. He nods.
The thing you have to understand is, firefighters are crazy. When EMTs have to strip a patient, they reach for the trauma shears that will cut through a leather jacket or the ballistic nylon straps of an aramid-fiber armorvest like a hot truck through butter. A fire-rated turnout coat and bunker pants laughs at trauma shears; to cut one sleeve is three solid minutes of careful cutting and ripping and cursing. The coat weighs as much as your three year old nephew, the chubby one.
Then when they’ve emptied their second 30-minute air bottle and get sent to the rehab area, firefighters don’t take off that coat — they sit in the cooling chairs slamming Gatorade and cursing the EMTs who’re trying to coax blood pressures and core temps down and pulse-oxes up, consciously willing their pulse rates back below 150 so they can get up and go back in.
It’s 101 degrees according to the thermometer under the vodka billboard on the corner of Houston, and every one of these guys is losing 2 kilos of water weight just standing around in that gear. And that’s just the 50 kilos of equipment that gives you a rational chance of not dying once you cross the threshold — add in the weapons that will actually let you knock down the fire and you’re carrying an extra 70, 75 kilos into an enviroment that’s 3000 degrees Farenheit and you love it. Do not ask firefighters to put on all this crap and then deny them chance to do something worthwhile. They are ready to go in, now.
And just like that, it’s done; an officer in shorts goes jogging up the steps, running accountability on his guys coming out. Scott packs come off, tools go away, and they clear the scene — first the engines, then the big unwieldy trucks. It’s 3:35 and they’re getting ready to wrangle the crowd back in. In 20 minutes, the line outside will be gone, Matt Murray will be drenched with sweat, and the show back in full swing. Just another day in New York City.
Con recap and photos tomorrow.