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Central Library Fire

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    Central Library Fire

    Los Angeles Public Library
    The Los Angeles City Fire Department has a wide array of special services to handle any type of major emergency, including emergency Emergency Air (EA) units, Rehab rigs (RATS), HazMat rigs, helicopters, Heavy Rescues, and so on. On April 29, 1986, a major emergency fire at the Los Angeles Central Library was so challenging, it required more than 350 firefighters and nearly every facet of the department before it was knocked down. The tough firefight used 60 fire fighting companies, 1 arson unit, 9 paramedic rescue ambulances, 3 helicopters, 4 salvage companies, 1 squad, 2 emergency air units, a heavy utility company, and more than 40 staff and support personnel.

    Originally constructed in 1926, the Central Library is a downtown Los Angeles landmark. It is the third largest public library in the United States (volume of book and periodical holdings). Originally simply the Central Library, the building was renamed in honor of the longtime president of the Board of Library Commissioners and President of the University of Southern California, Rufus B. von KleinSmid.

    Architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue designed the original Los Angeles Central Library to mimic the architectural style of ancient Egypt. The central tower is topped with a tiled mosaic pyramid with suns on either side with a hand holding a torch representing the "Light of Learning" at the apex. Other elements include sphinxes, snakes, and celestial mosaics.

    Although the library had undergone several renovations, it was considered a difficult building, as less than 20% of the collection was on display to the public. Internal stacks were packed very tightly and had very little headroom, the internal stack areas included many shelves of only six-foot height, stacked internally, so that while the public access area was about two floors plus the Science and Technology alcove, the internal stacks were approximately six floors. A plan was considered to resolve the problems, the the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 and other factors caused the city to decline to fund the project. It created an ideal scenario for fire, as the building was literally stuffed to the ceiling with combustible materials.

    On April 29, 1986, at approximately 10:52AM, an audio smoke detector alarm in the library began sounding. The LAFD's Operations Control Dispatch (OCD) received a "bells ringing" alarm and a B-assignment was dispatched, including Task Force 3, Task Force 9, Engine 10, Squad 4 and Battalion 1 (Chief Cate).

    Five minutes later, Engine 10 arrived on scene and went to the main entrance on 5th Street. The initial size-up to OCD was, "nothing showing." Other units continued through, with the unusual side note that Light Force 3 had to respond non-emergency, due to a non-functioning siren.

    Engine 9 shortly thereafter reported light smoke from the east side of the roof. Moments later, Engine 10 noted light smoke on the third floor in general, with heavy smoke in one room near the northeast corner. As a result, Chief Cate requested additional resources and was given Light Force 10, Task Force 11, Task Force4, Engine 6, Task Force 15 and Engine 2.

    Initially, firefighting efforts were focused in the northeast stacks. Firefighters discovered fire in the walls and the concrete and dense design of the building allowed heat to build up rapidly. Bureau Commander Chief Anthony responded with Assistant Bureau Commander Schnitker responded from City Hall East. As was his style, Anthony notified OCS at 11:25 that, "Chief Anthony is on scene and in charge." He asked for five additional Battalion Commanders and three Salvage Companies.

    As the heat and fire crept through the building, fire attack companies were forced to withdraw and be replaced every 15 minutes. Every time a hose line was opened up inside, super-heated steam pushed the fire attack company back. As a result, reaching the seat of the fire became a challenge.

    By 12:30PM, the fire had spread and the department was faced with three major problems: fire attack, ventilation, and salvage to protect the array of published works and other artifacts below the fire floor. Using sledge hammers and axes, the Ventilation Division is able to breech the roof, but are unable to open a hole large enough for effective ventilation. Inside, the heat continues to build and commanders express concern about flash over conditions. By now, the fire has been burning for two hours. There are now 34 fire companies, 12 command and staff officers, 1 air ambulance, and 7 rescue ambulances committed to the fire.

    Chief Anthony, realizing his expertise related to fire attack is where his talents lie, allows Chief Drummond to take over as Incident Commander, reassigning himself to Operations where he can coordinate all firefighting operations.

    It is now nearing 1:00PM and fire is now visible in the west windows of the "Patent Room" which was located on the west end of the building on the mezzanine level. The fire extended almost 300 feet on the second floor through the building, and from the northeast stack through the connecting hall into the northwest stack and out the window on the west end of the building. Chief Anthony and Chief Rojo entered the library and toured each floor, working to develop a plan to attack the fire while protecting the library's valuables.

    The firefight becomes more complex The fire in the northeast stack area was being controlled, but the hallway connecting the northeast stack to the northwest stack was too hot for firefighters to enter, even in full turnouts. It was estimated that temperatures were well over 2000 degrees F.

    By 3:00PM, firefighters begin to feel they're getting the upper hand. With more than 50 companies on scene, a wide array of tactics have been used, including master streams from the exterior of the building to knock down visible fire and to cool the building, dewatering activities to protect valuables, interior fire attack, aerial observation, plus coordinated management of logistics and support, including a wide array of replacement batteries, radios, air, and related supplies. The fire is now contained and salvage efforts are stepped up.

    Using jackhammers, the ventilation division opened up at least 18 hoes in the building, breaking through more than six-inches of concrete and steel reinforced material. As each hole was opened, large volumes of heat and smoke were released under pressure. A series of blowers were used for cross ventilation and to help keep the smoke and heat away from the jackhammer crews. In addition, hose lines were used to protect the jackhammer crews. The floors were so hot that when water was applied to cool the area, the water would actually boil. By this time, the 6th and 7th tiers collapsed in a large area inside of the northeast stack.

    Chief Anthony and Chief Drummond alternately made visits to update the Chief Engineer and the Mayor. Chief Anthony resumed as IC and Chief Schnitker was reassigned to Operations (Ops). The fire fight was now moving one row of books at a time in the northwest section of the building.

    Logistics continued to be a major issue as more than 60 companies were committed to the incident by 5:00PM. Relief companies began arriving and other companies were rotated out, with many firefighters being sent to the Bonaventure Hotel for dinner. The majority of the effort by this time involved salvage with only the northwest stack containing uncontrolled fire.

    Finally, at 6:30PM, Chief Anthony called a knock down after touring the building with several of his command staff. Two Battalion Commanders and six fire companies remain on scene to manage the overhaul, while also working to protect the scene for arson investigators. After an intense investigation, which also included the department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire Arms, it was determined that the fire was intentionally set on the 5th tier of the northeast stack. 400,000 volumes - 20 percent of the library's holdings were destroyed, with significant water and smoke damage done to the surviving works.