16 January 1980
20-Year Veteran of Engine Co. No. 3 Provides First-Hand Look at Fighting Wednesday’s Fire
Fire-fighting is both an art and a‘carefully-learned skill. You don ’t just turn on a hose and point.
William Karch, 20-year veteran of Princeton’s Mercer Engine Company No. 3 – the one on Chambers street — Princeton’s fire chief in 1976 and one of the fighters at Wednesday’s fire, talks about fighting a fire.
He wonders how many of the hundreds who watched the fire know that all of Princeton’s fire-fighters are volunteers. “People are amazed when they learn,” he says.
About Wednesday night…
“When the alarm went in, it was about 8:00. Most of your firemen probably just finished their meals and there goes the alarm. In my own case, it took me a few minutes to get my coat, hear the announcement of where the fire was, go out and get in the car and go up the street to the fire station -1 live on Jefferson Road – get aboard the fire apparatus and get to the fire.
“‘Somewheres, oh, maybe five-ten minutes’ time had elapsed. Some men, of course, live right near their firehouse. The response is real, real good.”
Water and Cold Air. Firefighting in winter … It was around 20 degrees Wednesday night… The Benson fire, January 20, 1977, was colder, Mr. Karch says.
“Big fires occupy the manpower for a long period of time. You had several of the large aerial ladders spraying water down, and the men trying to get in, get soaked. It’s one thing when you’re in, where the heat of the fire does something to keep you warm. You come out – many of the men’s coats were literally covered with ice.
“Once a man gets chilled, it’s a tough situation. You can get, you know, bad colds and quite sick. Some of the men have to go back home and change clothes, they’re that wet. Water cascading in there, and pouring down on everything, there’s just no way you can stay totally dry.”
When water freezes, streets are a rink of ice. The Borough sent in a sanding truck ‘‘and kept that situation well under control.”
Fire Pickets Remain. In two hours, the fire itself was under control. But then begins the much longer period of “mopping up” where there are still pockets of fire.
“It’s a lot of physical work, lugging the two-inch hoses, when you have to hook three hoses to an aerial truck to feed that water tower, then you have you other lines you’re taking into the building. ’ ’
Once inside, there’s the heavy work needed to “ventilate” the fire.
“They went up and opened the roof up. Once you ventilate, you can begin to see where the source of the fire is, to get at it. When the area is just jammed with smoke, you don’t know where the fire is. When you get in, you pull the walls down with all kinds of hooks and things — it’s a rather strenuous physical activity. We’re fortunate we have some young members who are very strong and able to do this.”
Masks Are Vital. Inside, men wear Scott Air Pack masks.
“With so much plastic today – you inhale a lot of that, it’s possible to spot the lungs and there is nothing medical treatment can do. A man would be very foolish to go in, without putting a mask on.
“One of the men inside came out and said it sounded like Korea in there – all those things popping and exploding! From the drug store, things like ladies hair spray, aerosol cans.”
Bill Karch operated a pump. Chief and officers talked to him with walkie-talkies, asking for more pressure or a switch from pressure to volume, “so you’re giving them a lot of water when they want to saturate something.” They were also telling him which lines to shut down, if the chief decided on some adjustments.
“It’s a matter of turning some knobs. If the chief says go out of pressure and give me some volume, it’s a matter of switching some levers. The equipment is so designed that response time is very short.
Keeping in Touch. “You have to listen very closely – the airwaves get a little full at times! Talking to the police, for them to make calls, plus the inter-talking necessary to direct operations at a fire.
At the start of a fire, chief and officers must decide whether they need mutual aid, or stand-by. Wednesday, Lawrence Township stood by at the Chambers Street firehouse, Kingston on North Harrison, in case Princeton had another fire.
As the fire grew, calls went out for help. Every company in the area supplies neighbors with an inventory. If you need more pumping, Lawrence has the size you need. Ask Slackwood if it can send its snorkel. Another ladder in the rear? Call Lawrence.
Lawrence’s pumper was feeding Mr. Karch extra water. He was hooked to the hydrant across Nassau. Lawrence came to the Karch pumper, dropped a pair of
two-and-one-half-inch lines, then went back to Nassau and Witherspoon and hooked into the hydrant there.
Pumpers in back, near Lincoln Court; were bringing water from Spring Street, Mr. Karch assumes. Pumpers on the east used Vandeventer
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hydrants. There was one across from Cox’s Store, also.
Pressure Essential. As water is used, pressure drops. First thing, when there is a fire, police call Elizabethtown Water with a request to increase pressure as much as possible in those mains.
Because the fire was in a populated area, officers called in neighboring First Aid Squads, in case there were smoke victims in the restaurant. There were none, luckily, but there might have been.
Help came from another kind of neighbor. Nassau Oil sent a diesel fuel truck, and Trenton its special tank truck with gasoline. It even went back to Trenton for more diesel. (Yes, it’s safe to refuel with gasoline, even at a fire, and it’s hard to set diesel on fire, Mr. Karch says.)
“You always worry about wind – but it was rather still Wednesday – smoke went straight up. If you had a strong wind blowing the smoke, you’d have to work around that – the smoke and fire are so heavy, coming at you, that you can’t stay in that area and work because you can’t see what you’re doing.”
Men who fight the fire are under the officers’ direction. They have diversified skills, learned at Mercer County’s fire-fighting school and in regular, summertime drills, and they can operate nozzles, hoses, hooks.
“You can only hang onto a hose for so long, then you change off. We have a two-and-one- half-inch hose. You can go to 100, 150-pound pressure – I was up to about 150 – and that’s pretty good pressure. Takes a couple of men to hold it, and a series of men to drag it in.
“It’s wonderful, the way Princeton responds. Restaurants sent out coffee, hot soup that tasted awfully good in that cold, came from somewhere. Lots of ladies, wives of firemen and members of auxiliaries, handed around coffee. How much you appreciate it, when you’re chilled and some gal with a smile comes along with coffee!”
Above all, Bill Karch wants Princeton to know that many, many fighters – including, he thinks, one woman volunteer – tamed Wednesday’s fire. It was 3 a.m. when he went home, showered and turned in. Others were at the scene well into the morning. He was one member of a very important team.
-Katharine H. Bretnall