At approximately 11:30 a.m. on Monday, March 18, 1996, Chesapeake, Virginia fire fighters responded
to a fire in an auto parts store. They found nothing showing on the exterior of the building at the time they arrived. Two fire fighters entered the building and found a small amount of fire at the rear of the store. The fire fighters extinguished that fire and began checking for fire extension. Approximately 15 minutes after their arrival, the roof of the building collapsed trapping the two fire fighters. They both died of burns with smoke inhalation being a contributory factor.
The building involved was approximately 12 years old. Two of the building’s exterior bearing walls were constructed with unprotected steel frames and two were constructed with masonry block. Light-weight wood trusses with a clear span of 50 feet (15.2 m) supported the store’s roof. Because the facility was an auto parts store, it contained a wide variety of parts made of combustible and non-combustible materials, flammable auto paints (liquid and aerosol), and other flammable and combustible liquids. Most packaging materials and some shelving materials were also combustible.
The fire occurred when a utility worker damaged the electric service drop conductors on the outside of the store. Electrical arcing inside the store ignited wood trusses supporting the roof and electric hot water heater. Though some of the fire was visible to anyone in the occupied area of the building, much of the fire was hidden in the concealed space above the store's ceiling, and the fire was spreading in that area.
The fire fighters who died in this fire were most probably unaware that the building was constructed with light-weight wood roof trusses. Approximately seven minutes after they had arrived on the scene, the crew inside the building radioed their battalion chief and reported that they had found the fire. They asked for a second crew to come into the building and they asked for a pike pole. Approximately eight minutes after this transmission, the roof collapsed intensifying the fire and trapping the fire fighters inside the building. They radioed for assistance but, for an undetermined reason, the incident commander did not understand that transmission. Two other chief officers who were responding to the scene heard the transmission and relayed that information to the on-scene commander. By the time the on-scene commander realized that fire fighters were trapped inside the building, the fire had become sufficiently intense that rescue attempts were not possible.
On the basis of on the NFPA's investigation and analysis of this fire, the following significant factors contributed to the loss of the two Chesapeake fire fighters:
• The presence of light-weight wood roof trusses.
• Fire officers and fire fighters not being aware that the Chesapeake auto parts store's roof was constructed with light-weight wood trusses.
• The lack of a fire attack strategy that could minimize the risk to fire fighters while suppressing a fire involving light-weight wood trusses.
• The lack of automatic sprinklers.
NFPA members can download the full investigation report Fire Fighter Fatalities Chesapeake VA For more information on fire fighterfatalities Firefigher Fatalities in the United States Those interested in more information about mercantile fires can download NFPA's report and fact sheet on Stores and Other Mercantile Properties