Riding Short

As captain of the first engine to arrive at the Four-Leaf Towers before dawn on October 13, Jay Paul Jahnke had to make a tough call. Flames engulfed a fifth-floor corner apartment in the west tower and pitched wildly in the blustery air, hungrily lapping at the floors above.

Startled residents, awakened rudely from their slumbers, were filing out of the deluxe 40-story high-rise into the wind and rain. Some spoke ominously of people who might still be trapped. Four other engines and three ladder trucks were speeding toward the scene but had yet to arrive. Jahnke's truck had only three men, including himself, although industry standards call for a minimum of four to begin the initial stages of attack on a structural fire.

Should he get to work on the blaze or wait for backup while the inferno spread?

Jahnke's dilemma was one faced by many Houston Fire Department personnel in recent years as scant resources and political dogfights have made three-person crews on engine and ladder trucks the norm.

A 20-year veteran, Jahnke was not one to sit around while an apartment tower burned. After calling for a second alarm, the 40-year-old captain, a scion of one of Houston's legendary firefighting families, did what came naturally: He loaded up with the heavy gear and headed into the building.

Standard procedure for an engine company calls for the driver to remain with the vehicle to pump water. That left Jahnke, a fresh-faced fellow with sandy hair and a workingman's mustache, and a lone fireman named Mike Phillips to launch the assault on the fire.

What exactly happened in the ferocious battle that ensued remains under investigation, the results of which may not be made public for months. However, the tight-knit community of firefighters doesn't need a drawn-out probe to reach certain conclusions about the debacle at the Galleria-area high-rise. Accounts from people at the scene allow a picture of events to emerge.

Weighted down by fire-resistant suits, helmets, radios and other equipment, Jahnke and Phillips would have had to make critical decisions about what to carry with them. They would have needed air packs, axes and other forcible entry tools. The hose presented a question. One person familiar with the scene says that they opted to use a one-and-three-quarters-inch hose rather than the heavier two-and-a-half-inch. If that's true, says Matt Stuckey, a district chief who wrote department guidelines for high-rise fires, they would have been handicapped from the get-go because the larger hose sprays more than twice the water.

Already saddled with a heavy load, the men were unable to carry extra air bottles in the event that their roughly 20-minute supplies ran out, firefighters familiar with the episode say.

Records of radio transmissions indicate that Jahnke was in the building at 5:01 a.m., 13 minutes after the first alarm sounded and eight minutes after his company from Station 2 arrived at 5100 San Felipe.

He and Phillips clanked up the narrow metal staircase, passing residents who were hurrying down. Somewhere along the way -- either in the stairwell or on the fire floor itself -- they reportedly encountered a traumatized woman from the apartment where the fire started. The woman, Melina Bible Cain, had witnessed her husband, 38-year-old Charles Harrison Dill, in flames before he died.

At the fifth floor, the firemen exited through a small vestibule and into the hallway, where the apartments stood two on each end, bisected by the elevator lobby, which veered off to the right. The burning unit was to their right all the way at the end of the hall.

At some point, Captain Robert Green and firefighter Dan Matt from Ladder No. 28 arrived on the scene. They, too, were a man short.

Jahnke was concerned about the shortage of manpower. The first alarm meant five engines and three ladders. Of those, according to fire department officials, only two of the engines had four people.

At 5:02 Jahnke radioed to the incident commander on the ground, asking about the whereabouts of his backup on the fire floor. The backup unit allegedly was delayed because it went to the wrong floor.

Jahnke and the three others entered the burning apartment without the reinforcements, encountering an inferno that consumed much of the dwelling. They turned their one-and-three-quarters-inch hose on the blaze, "hitting the lick" with some 100 gallons of water per minute. With full staffing, the captains would have had an opportunity to quarterback the effort behind the advance of their crew. Shorthanded, they would have had to be more active in front-line suppression and less able to orchestrate the action, says Ed Hauck, a senior captain who recently retired after 32 years with the department.

Air packs allow firefighters to breathe clean air even in the most smoke-clogged settings. Thirty-minute bottles, however, do not necessarily yield a 30-minute supply. In the heat of battle, when exertion and nerves run high, a firefighter can suck up the air in half the time, Stuckey says. It wasn't long before the men in the blistering conflagration found their supplies growing low. Since they had been unable to carry extra bottles with them, Phillips and Matt reportedly went to fetch more air from below, leaving the captains with the fire.

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John Suval
Contact: John Suval