About an hour ago
Four Harrison volunteer firefighters were properly equipped, trained and working by the book when they responded to a fire at a Brackenridge business 30 years ago this year.
Despite all those things and valiant efforts to save them, Hilltop Hose Lt. Rick Frantz, Chaplain Frank Veri Jr. and firefighters David Emanuelson and Michael Celicki Burns did not go home from the call at West Interior Services that cold December morning in 1991.
“Those guys were just doing their job. They didn’t do anything wrong. They were volunteers,” said Gordon Routley, author of the U.S. Fire Administration report on the incident. “They all lived close enough to the firehouse at Hilltop that they all ran to the firehouse to answer the call. They did their thing and what’s expected of them.”
In honor and memory of the four lost in the line of duty, Hilltop Hose Chief Mike Krzeminski is holding a four-part memorial training program at the Allegheny County Fire Academy, where he works as an instructor.
The first session, dedicated to Frantz and recounting the incident, is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 7.
“It’s our obligation to tell the story to the next generation of firefighters and the next generation of people in our community,” Krzeminski said. “We need to learn from this horrible tragedy
so we can prevent it from happening again.”
That tragic morning
An employee arriving for work shortly before 6 a.m. Friday, Dec. 20, 1991, reported the fire at West Interior Services, a furniture refinishing business then on Brackenridge Avenue at Morgan Street. Hilltop Hose was dispatched for its ladder truck.
The four Hilltop firefighters were part of a crew that went in the front door, not knowing the fire had been burning for several hours in a finishing room directly below. A section of the concrete floor between them and the door collapsed, cutting them off from their only way out. They were immediately overwhelmed by fire.
Investigators determined the fire most likely was caused by the ignition of overspray residue on an electric heater in the finishing room, although the spontaneous combustion of chemicals used in the room was not ruled out.
Krzeminski, 46, was 17 and not yet a firefighter. His father, Vincent Krzeminski, was a veteran Hilltop firefighter, but not among those who responded that day. His family attended all the memorials and funerals.
“Now that we’re removed 30 years from this incident, we have to train the next generation of firefighters who weren’t there, who didn’t see that event, who didn’t hear the history firsthand from the people who were there,” Krzeminski said.
“Here was a group of men who were trained, equipped and operating with all of the proper tools, who were doing everything, as the reports say, ‘by the book,’ and they didn’t get to come home,” he said. “It shows how dangerous of a profession this is that, even if you are doing it right, you can be killed in the line of duty.”
Training commemorates loss of volunteers
Brad James, 53, deputy chief of Eureka Fire Rescue EMS in Tarentum, will be one of the instructors at the first session Feb. 7. He was 23 and a fire captain that day in 1991, and involved in the attempts to rescue the Hilltop crew.
“I never want to be in that situation again,” he said.
James is among the last at Eureka who were there.
“In the fire service, we’re constantly reviewing incidents that happen,” James said. “It’s a dangerous profession. We’re always behind the eight ball. We’re constantly trying to learn and educate ourselves to prepare ourselves.”
The second session, on May 2, will be dedicated to Veri and focus on situational awareness.
The third, on Sept. 21, will cover fire behavior and basement fires.
Routley is scheduled to speak at the fourth and final session Dec. 5. Dedicated to Celicki Burns, it will look at the lessons learned from the tragedy.
Routley, 70, has been an assistant director at the Montreal Fire Department in Canada for almost 13 years. Then a consultant, he arrived about 36 hours after the fire and spent six months preparing his
“It’s one of several similar incidents that became a body of knowledge. I think firefighters, in general, have a lot more awareness of that kind of fire,” he said. “Over 30 years, we’ve made a lot of improvements. I like to think a lot of them came from the lessons of that incident and a lot of other incidents.”
While he’s done between 25 and 30 firefighter fatality investigations, the Brackenridge fire has stuck with Routley.
“It’s important to go back,” he said. “The fire service is big on tradition and honoring the people we lost. That’s important.
“But it’s also extremely important to recognize what happened, what went wrong and what we need to learn from it so it doesn’t happen again.”
Local | Valley News Dispatch
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