In the basement
It had been one of those nights, it was sometime just after 4am as we slowed towards the junction of Barking Road emerging from a faceless side street where we had just extinguished an abandoned motorcycle that someone had set on fire after stealing it and using it for a joyride.
The background chatter of the radio came into focus as I heard the callsign Foxtrot four five two among others from the female voice at the other end. That was Plaistow’s Pump, the machine I was riding in charge of on this long night duty. I reached across to the radio handset and picked it up telling the radio operator to “Go ahead” with her message.
“Foxtrot four four one and Foxtrot four five two, order your appliances to smoke issuing from a pub, High Street North, East Ham E6 junction with Kempton Road E.6, Foxtrot four four one acknowledge”? “Foxtrot four four one received, now status two” Another voice called “Foxtrot four five two acknowledge” Pushing in the switch on the radio handset I said “Foxtrot four five two, all received, now status two over”
I knew High Street North well. I’d been there hundreds of times in my life, shopping with my Mum as a child, shopping myself later on and in the past couple of years since I’d been based at Plaistow to quite a few calls there. It was on East Ham Fire Station’s ground, but they only had one pumping appliance, the other being a fire rescue unit, called out to car crashes, chemical spills, persons trapped and much larger fires. So Plaistow’s Pump along with Stratford’s Pump to the North or Barking’s Pump to the East often made up the attendance to fires on their ground.
East Ham having also been called up were obviously also out at this early hour. The Fire Station is in High Street South, less than half a mile from where we’d been called, but I had no idea where they were and with us being right at the junction with Barking Road, we had a straight drive to High Street North, so I suspected we could possibly get there first.
There was no need to ask Steve the Driver if he knew where he was going. He had grown up and still lived in East Ham and as a matter of fact his ‘local’ was another Pub in the High Street, not far from the fire station. Still rigged in my fire kit, I twisted to look over into the back cab. Darren and Chris were riding the back of the pump, making up a foursome with Steve and I at the front.
“Stick a couple of sets on please gents, I fancy we could be there first as East Ham were also out” I got a grunted acknowledgement from Chris who had just taken his coat off and now put his arms back through the sleeves before sliding into the webbing of his BA set. “Come on”!! shouted Darren. “I told you I could feel a job in me water tonight”
“Is it the Denmark Arms, the big pub in the hight street”? I said to Steve. “No, the Denmark is on Barking Road, The Cock is the boozer in the High Street at Kemptom Road, its a derelict, closed a while back” Steve replied without looking at me as his roll up stuck to his lip glowed in the darkness of the cab. He braked hard as he swerved right around a lone car that appeared, by its brake lights, to be slowing as we came up behind it but then apparently panicking braked hard forcing Steve’s reaction and a quick string of expletives to issue forth from the side of the mouth with the roll up glowing brighter in sympathy.
As we made the sharp turn into High Street North, in milliseconds, I made assessments of what I was seeing, or not seeing. Looking down the almost straight road, I did not see the blue lights of East Ham’s machine ahead of us, nor did I see bright flames lighting the street from a blazing pub. I looked harder and did a second level of analysis. I did see some misty smoke hanging around the street lights a couple of hundred yards ahead.
“I think we’ve got something”. I called back behind me as we slowed down and I reached to press the ‘3’ and then the ‘send’ button on the mobile data terminal in the middle of the dashboard in front of me, colloquially known as ‘The button box’. Scanning what was ahead of me, I saw a large Victorian pub on a corner. The middle doors were closed and no were lights on. There were five windows on the first floor above the bar and two windows above that set into gables in the roof. There were no immediate signs of fire, just a perfect circle in one of the downstairs windows where a vent fan had once been housed and from which now a light cloud of brown smoke emitted and rolled up to be picked out by the sodium street lights.
An experienced driver, Steve pulled up on the left on the opposite side of the road to the pub, to allow access for an aerial appliance should it be required and to give us room to work and some wriggle room if things got lively. I jumped down from the pump and walked around the front glancing left to make sure nothing was coming as as I got to the offside of the pump looked right for cars as well as the tell tale signs of East Ham’s Pump ladder. Neither were evident.
I heard the familiar noises of lockers being opened and kit being readied as I approached the pub. A smell of burning wood told me that something was burning deep inside the pub. Walking to the double door, I shook it, it was secured but moving so it wouldn’t take much to open. Feeling the glass with the back of my hand it was cold, so no real build up of heat and a look up again at the smoke coming from the air vent, which was still not very productive confirmed the fire wasn’t getting too busy just yet.
Chris and Darren were stood behind me, making some last adjustments to their BA sets and Steve had already made his own assessment of the fire and was pulling the high pressure Hosereel from the drum in the rear offside locker. “I’ve no idea where East Ham are, so you’d better get started up” I said to the two of them. I looked again at the door and rattled it, it seems to open inward so with a large forward step I launched my right foot at the door in an attempt to open it. It didn’t open but I felt it give, another hefty kick and this time the left side leaf of the double door crashed in and rebounded on it hinges and the right door shuddered half open.
A waft of light smoke rolled over me and with my torch on I could see a few feet into the bar but it was murky. Clearly something was burning but it wasn’t yet evident. The building could have been occupied, by vagrants of squatters but it wasn’t my Ground and I’ll leave the decision as to where to go next to East Ham, who’s machine was now fast approaching from Barking Road. Feeling the need to get started I said to Chris and Darren, “Take the Hosereel and do a search of the bar area, there is no smoke from above so I guess it alight in there somewhere”. I took their BA tallies from their sets and noted the pressure written on their tallie’s and the time.
East Ham’s Guvnor Ray came up to me, his usual somewhat troubled and slightly angry look on his face. I knew him quite well and had worked with him quite a bit so knew this was his normal demeanour. “Morning Guvnor” I said. “Alright Steve, what have we got” Came his reply as he stared at me intently. “I’ve just got here before you, apparently the place is derelict, but it looks like a fire down here on the ground floor somewhere. I’ve sent my two boys in with a hosereel to have a look, no idea if anyone is dossing in here and I didn’t want to send anything as I knew you were right behind us”. I said to him by way of a short briefing into my first minute at the fire.
He turned to his Leading Firefighter stood behind him and said “Have a look all around, see if there is any signs of life or any other way in, especially from a yard at the rear”. The leading hadn’t doubled away and I ducked low under the smoke and entered the bar. I let out an involuntary cough as the smoke caught the back of my throat so I breathed a little lighter while I adjusted to the smoke and peered into the gloom, trying to get a sense of what was going on.
I heard crashing and banging as Chris and Darren found their way around the bar area, deep mechanical breaths as they breathed through their BA sets and metallic voices, which I couldn’t hear clearly but the tempo of which told me nothing too exiting was going on and they were simply communicating their actions and next steps.
Shortly after, Chris and Darren were back at the door. Slightly agitated now I managed two decipher that they’d been all round the room and behind the bar where it was quite warm but they couldn’t see anything. Ray, becoming a little impatient I sensed, pushed them harder for an opinion. Seemingly dissatisfied he cursed and backed out looking up at the smoke which was now a little thicker.
“Have you checked the basement” I shouted at the pair of them. “Whaaa”? “Err… n-no, we haven’t” Came the reply. “Get back in there and look properly then will ya”? I implored, myself now getting slightly peeved at the lack of progress. I turned to Ray who’s slight angry look was getting ever darker and said, “I think it’s probably in the basement Guv”. He looked at me, looked back into the smoke then back at me. “Get your set on Steve and go in here with them two and try to find out what’s going on. Seeing as it looks like its in the basement I’ll get a jet aid out for you and I’ll make the job up”.
I darted across the road hopping over the jumble of hose the was now being laid out as the machine was set into the hydrant and a larger jet laid out. As there were only two machines here, it was quite unusual at that point for me as the Sub Officer, effectively the second in command of this incident to be ordered to join up with the existing BA team, but opportunities like this didn’t come often now I was ‘riding in charge’ of a crew, so I grabbed it quickly before he changed his mind.
I quickly rigged in BA, then at the door I got another brief from Ray, which was pretty much a repeat of what I’d told him and then I handed my tally to Paul from East Ham who had now set up BA control and looked pissed off he wasn’t going in, on a job on his own ground. I used the few seconds before I slipped the mask over my face to brief Darren and Chris. “It looks like it down in the basement, I’ll come in with you, take the jet and I’ll lead ahead, Delboy, (our nickname for Darren) you stick behind me with the jet, Chris you feed it in” A couple of grunts and nods of acknowledgement and I pulled the mask over my face, reached behind me to turn the cylinder on and felt a quick blast of cold air as I pulled the straps of the mask tight over my face. I handed my tally to Paul who still looked really pissed off and with a wink, I placed my fire helmet on my head and slipped my heavy firefighting gloves on.
The difference in temperature, although not massive, immediately misted my face mask. Checking it wasn’t smoke I wiped the condensation off and in my torch light noticed it was smoke and was now thicker. With a muffled shout of “Over there” and a guiding nudge, Darren edged me toward the gap in the bar to get behind it. Using my torch, visibility was now just a few feet, the light was brownish in the smoke and eerie as the outline of the shelves on my left which once housed the optics and glasses came in and out of view, nothing to my right but the vaguest references of lighter and darker fogginess. Feeling ahead, already my breathing deeper and the noise of my mechanical breathing being the overwhelming sense as sight was diminished, feeling was a sweaty warmth and smell did not exist enclosed in the cooled dried medical grade air being pushed into my face mask from the cylinder.
Darkness on my left, the torch beam no longer picked up the shape of shelves but went into the brown muck like a three foot miniature lighthouse beam. At that moment also on my left I felt a wave of heat wash over me. I’d found a doorway with the fire somewhere beyond. I pulled Darren up tight to me and shouted “Door”. He acknowledged. “Tell Chris to pull the hose in so we have a bight of it and I’ll look inside” I shouted through my mask. The sound in my own ears similar to cupping your hand over your mouth and nose and trying to shout clearly, partly heard, partly felt through vibration of words though your head. I tested the floor and moved through the door, it was instantly hot now, not uncomfortable, but several times more noticeable than walking out of an air conditioned building on a hot summers day.
Groping ahead, the shaft of light being more of a hindrance than a help but reassuring in as much as I still had some small sense of vision and wasn’t completely entombed by thick smoke, I felt forward and came across a hollow feeling wall to my right. Sliding my hand across it the torch beam and my hand picked up a door frame, edging my feet forward I pointed my right foot into the gap and felt the floor go…. a staircase, going down, instead of up. I dropped to my knees and felt forward, sticking my arms and then my head forward I felt the first of a couple of steps, the sting of heat told me I’d found the basement and the fire was below us.
I radioed my findings through to BA control and told them we’d go down and attack the fire, calling Darren then Chris with a generous loop of hose like a giant python pulled into this lobby with him, I briefed them that we’d go down in our current order. I asked Darren to pass me the jet and edged myself sliding on my backside into the basement, one step…. a stamp from my prone position as hard as I could, then another. I could really feel the sting of the heat now. I almost opened a cooling spray then thought about Darren and Chris still slightly above me and that the steam from the jet, expanding as water does into steam at a ratio of 1:1700 enveloping them without warning.
I took another few steps and reasoned I was now halfway down, it was bloody hot. Not as hot as I’d been in previous basement fires, which reassured me somewhat, but still hot. I managed to shout for them to join me, happy that the stair we were on, although wooden did not feel spongy in reply to my hard stamping on it. I shouted that I was going to give the atmosphere a ‘toot’ of water and see what happened. I pulled back on the control lever of the nozzle and a crackling cone of water came out. Instantly it got very bright and hotter. “Whoooooo yer ‘eads on fire, yer eads on fire” shouted Darren excitedly. Turning round, I saw a flame disappearing into some cracks in the wooden panelling at the side of the staircase. The rush of water and subsequent expansion of steam had charged the whole atmosphere and briefly livened up the fire, which had now made itself known.
We now had a sense of what it was all about and where we were. Quickly I cleared the last few steps and turning 180 degrees was met by a red glow and at last, a feel of radiated heat from the flames as well as the atmospheric heat that engulfed us. Making sure the boys were tucked in behind me, I handed the jet back to Darren, and crawled back behind them…. they were the ‘Firefighters’ after all and as their Officer I had no right to steal the joy. Once we were all set, Darren hit the fire, we were initially swamped with scalding steam that became noisy and claustrophobic, the dull red glow and brown fog replaced by bright white steam that picked up in my torch beam.
But in a short time it was done, the steam lifted, the atmosphere cooled and the heavy fog became a lighter steamy mist. Now our masks needed constantly wiping as the cool inside constantly condensed against the hot outside. The radio message was sent that “We’ve got it” and once confirmed it all got cooler and the atmosphere much more mobile as the cellar door from the street, used to load beer was opened and fresh air drawn in. In moments we were back in the street, masks off, the instant overwhelming sense is your smell coming back and being assaulted by the smell of burning wood that we now reeked of. We went and had a rest, took the piss out of each other as both Darren and I reached for our cigarettes for that much needed post-fire smoke.
Dedicated to the memory of my good friend Darren Laimbeer…. 1968- 2014. RIP Delboy.