Sunday, May 2, 2004

Stearns & Foster fire pushes crews to the limit

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer


Fire at mattress factory.
LOCKLAND - A massive fire at the former Stearns & Foster mattress factory sent smoke billowing across Interstate 75 Saturday morning and required more than 130 firefighters and equipment from at least 27 fire departments in three counties to combat the flames - a battle they will wage well into today.

The blaze is being called "suspicious," and investigators from the Hamilton County Arson Task Force and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were on the scene late Saturday. Firefighting operations had to be halted about 6:15 p.m. Saturday because of a storm. Building inspectors were afraid rain and high winds could cause walls to collapse.

Fire officials began releasing crews about 7:30 p.m. and planned to have a skeleton crew maintain a fire watch for at least the next 48 hours.

No one was seriously injured in the blaze, although eight firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion during the day. They were given fluids and all later returned to fight the fire. No civilians were hurt.

The four-alarm fire started about 9 a.m. in the 200 block of Shepard Avenue. The smoke plume was visible for miles and flames shot through the roof up to 100 feet high. Fire officials said Saturday evening that they consider it a "24-hour operation at this point."

"This is pretty much our worst fear becomes reality," Lockland Fire Chief Bill Welshans said.

The factory is actually two three-story buildings, separated by Shepard Avenue, and totaling more than 1.2 million square feet. Initial construction on the complex started in 1840.

The fire started in the eastern building. It spread briefly to the building west of Shepard, but firefighters managed to extinguish that part quickly.

Wyoming Fire Chief Robert Rielage said the crews fighting the fire inside the building Saturday morning were lucky to get out unscathed.

Crews initially entered the building with fire hoses to try to knock down the flames in what he called "an aggressive interior attack." Complicating that were huge holes in the floor, which were cut recently so that pieces of machinery could be lowered through them and removed from the building. That left firefighters to navigate through a treacherous floor plan in a dark, smoke-filled room.

Then the unthinkable happened: They lost water pressure.

"The more engines we put on (city water mains) the more water pressure we lost," Rielage said.

Crews inside the building were ordered to withdraw and take up defensive positions with their hoses. Minutes later, an interior wall collapsed where they had been standing.

"That's a pretty bad situation," Rielage said of losing water pressure while inside a burning building. "The only thing worse would be to have a collapse, which we also had."

Officials estimate that more than half of the eastern building - about 30 percent of the entire complex - was lost in the blaze. It is unclear how much monetary damage was done, although the entire complex recently sold at auction for $350,000.

There were no mattresses or other inventory left inside the portion of the building that caught fire, but the floors and walls are made of heavy timber, which provided plenty of fuel.

The building's history also burned.

"At one time, Stearns & Foster used more cotton than anyone in the world," Lockland's Chief Welshans said. "So there is cotton dust and cotton fibers throughout that building that is also acting as fuel."

Adding to the water pressure problems was an accident involving the CSX railroad that could have been fatal. The Reading Fire Department arrived on the scene and stretched one of its fire hoses from a hydrant in Reading, across the bridge into Lockland, and across railroad tracks so it would reach the burning building. About five minutes later, a train came through and ripped the hose apart, dragging a piece of it down the tracks. That caused about $8,000 damage.

Firefighters tried to wave at the train to get it to stop, and tried to pull the hose off the tracks. Both efforts failed, but everyone was able to get out of the way before the train came through.

"We're not sure what happened with CSX," Welshans said. "We requested them to shut down about a half hour before that train came through."

Firefighters then dug holes and laid the hoses under the railroad tracks.

Some apartments along nearby Wyoming Avenue were evacuated as a precaution. It was unclear Saturday night how many people were forced to leave their homes, but all were allowed back in about 5 p.m.

The fire, which caused a traffic jam as northbound I-75 was reduced to one lane and slowed traffic flow from I-74 onto I-75, got a head start on firefighters because of another mishap: The warehouse's fire suppression system wasn't operating because the boilers were turned off. The building has its own water supply and sprinklers - none of which were of use to firefighters.

"We had to carry everything in we needed to fight the fire," Welshans said.


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