Who forgot the line?


At Bethnal Green, we’d been out on a call to a fire in Harriet House, In Jamaica Street on Shadwell’s ground, close to where I lived when I was young, before we moved to Poplar. In fact, when I was very small, naughty and adventurous I was walking back from shopping “Down the Waste” (as Whitechapel market, opposite the London Hospital used to be called) with my Mum one day and I managed to convince her I wanted to run through Harriet House which is on the corner of Jamaica Street and Aylward Street and meet her the other side. Reluctantly she agreed, off I ran, but I was a bit too quick and got there before her, panicked and ran back through the flats, by now my Mum had got to the other side, didn’t see me and chaos ensued. Like a terrifying game of peekaboo, we kept missing each other until I ran around screaming and she ran off home thinking I’d gone all the way home to Dunelm Street. Several long minutes of panic ensured but an older schoolboy, around 13 I guess, saw me with a face full of snot and tears and took me home, somehow, I managed to guide him there.

Anyway, we’d been called there one night on what turned out to be a small fire and Dave, sitting next to me on the pump ladder wistfully reminisced about “What happened to the good old days when we used to turn up to fires with flames out of the windows… we haven’t had anything like that for ages”. I sunk a little, thinking my busy start at Bethnal Green had been a fluke, what Dave said played on my mind for a few months but I soon forgot it. A year or so later, the bells went down around 3am one morning. I was on the back of the pump, I can’t remember who was riding on the back with me that night, but blinking the sleep out of our eyes, the air was charged with excitement as we jumped onto the machines… sometimes you can just feel it in the air.

“Fire with a number…. 19 Johnson House, Roberta Street. Off of Squirries Street” The driver breathlessly shouted as he jumped up into the pump where we were desperately rigging in our fire gear on the back. Shaking the sleep out of me I shuddered at the shock of being forced awake and into instant action. The pump braked hard as we slowed briefly to cross the junction with Cambridge Heath Road, the radio letting us know further calls were being received, less than a minute later, we had turned a hard right off Bethnal Green Road into Squirries Street and on our left flames roared from the third and fourth floors of a maisonette in a wide eleven storey block, Dave’s words immediately coming back to me.

The PL made a hard left into Florida street, which would take us into Roberta Street where the front entrance to the block was, we turned in behind them and were thrown forward to a violent stop. “FE from Foxtrot two six two priority” the Guvnor spat into the radio mike, “Foxtrot two six two go ahead with your priority over” the voice from the other end replied, “Foxtrot two six two, at Johnson House, make pumps four persons reported over”.

It was a tight turn, I remember looking out of the window, I was now parallel with the block and noticed Whitechapel’s PL had driven on stopping behind the block adjacent to the burning maisonette, their crew running to the back of their machine to slip the 13.5m ladder from the top. We’d been stationary for too long, my eye drawn from Whitechapel’s crew by shouting at the front, peering through the cab, the PL had made half a turn and had halted again… sirens and muffled shouts filled the cab. Seeing the PL crew dismounting, I opened the door, grabbed a sledgehammer and was assaulted by multiple sirens, shouts and screaming. Jumping down and running to the block, I noticed several police cars blocking the narrow road, all with their sirens on, a familiar voice, the Guvnor I think, booming “GET THOSE FUCKING CARS MOVED, WE NEED TO GET ALONG THERE”. 

Running around to the front of the block it was chaos, numerous families in night clothes running from the entrance, there were flames coming from both levels of the front of the maisonette as well, it was absolutely going like a train, God help anyone in there. The shouting was coming from numerous Police Officers knocking on doors all over the block to try to evacuate everyone. It was pointless, the block was built of reinforced concrete, that fire could be left to burn itself out and apart from a little risk of some smoke and heat damage to the dwelling above, the fire was going nowhere, especially with open balconies serving each floor. The Police with the best of intentions had absolutely stymied us, not only could we not get the fire engines, with our equipment, hoses and water to the entrance to the block, we were now going to be fighting a tide of panicking residents running down the stairs we were trying to get up. 

In a few moments I was on the third floor landing, The Guvnor was running ahead of me, I saw that a couple of the Police cars had bumped up the pavement and the PL at least was now outside the main entrance. Paul the Sub Officer was with him along with Mark & Stuart who were starting their BA sets. “Where’s the fucking line” The Guvnor called out. “Who has brought up the line….” Everyone looked at each other.

“Dud, where is the fucking line” The Guvnor spat at me accusingly. “I brought the sledge” I answered defiantly, noticing I’d been the only one to grab something, my young mind well trained knowing full well never to go into a fire empty handed. Whoever was on the pump with me hadn’t grabbed anything, I felt a little smug, having often previously been shouted at for minor errors… but not on this night. Amazingly Whitechapel’s pumps crew also come running along the landing, four of them, not a thing in hand. With this open landing style of block the quickest way to get a hose up to the fire floor was to throw a long line, a 30m general purpose rope in a yellow rubber bag down to the ground to allow them to tie the hose to it, so we could then haul it up the outside of the building. The hose line being short and direct up the outside instead of the frictional losses due to kinks and bends in the hose had it have been run up the stairs.

The burnt out Maisonette on the third floor of Johnson House, taken after the fire.

The Guvnor was apoplectic, he was shouting into his radio, the drivers now running a jet out across the small, grassed area at the base of the block, ready to give us water, but we had no way of hauling the hose up to us. It was actually the Leading hand from Kingsland who had arrived on the Hydraulic platform, hearing the abusive entreaties over his own radio as he arrived, who brought a line up, it was thrown roughly at me and I threw the bag over the edge making sure for all I was worth to keep a vice like grip on the end of the rope, can you imagine if I’d let it go, and the whole thing fell to the ground? 

I blew hard as I hauled the 45mm hose with nozzle attached up the 30 odd feet to the landing, pulling it over the edge, I handed the nozzle to an unseen hand behind me and tied the line over the balcony using a knot formed on a bight in the rope to secure the hose that would soon be heavy with water and prevent it from slipping back down to the ground. I was ducked down below the flaming kitchen window, Paul the Sub officer in front of me, the Guvnor behind me as Mark and Stuart crouched low and entered the home with the hose. Hot steam and white smoke soon enveloped us as the pair in BA opened the powerful jet of water up onto the fire, the burning gases consuming the two-floor maisonette now being rapidly extinguished as Mark and Stuart made their way in.

Another two BA wearers from Whitechapel joined them and made a search of the upper floor, thankfully the home was empty, the couple living there having made their escape through the smoke and flames before it had really taken hold. The battle was soon won, the noise subsided apart from the scream of the PL’s engine revving to power the fire pump, bring water up to the fire. People stood around in huddles, the building slowly refilling with disturbed residents once it had been explained to the Police that they’d be safe. Just those on this half of the third floor and immediately above remained outside.

A couple of hours later, exhausted, dirty and wet we all sat in the quiet room at Bethnal Green, a round of teas had been poured and a handful of the watch were taking long drags on their cigarettes. The post-mortem had started, how had everyone managed to forget to bring a line up, one or two eyes fell my way, as the Junior Buck, but I hadn’t committed a cardinal sin, I’d brought the sledgehammer, which was then used to smash open the door, I was vindicated. The Guvnor was furious that it took the leading hand who was riding the HP to bring one up to the fire floor. Mark and Stuart rightly argued that they were in BA and as both machines were there, they’d expect the Pumps crew to do the donkey work, it really fell to whoever was with me on the back of the pump, I’m sure it was felt that I should’ve got the line as well, but I knew I was in the clear. 

The weeks that followed were filled with scenario based drills in the station yard, not necessarily as punishment, but to make sure that schoolboy error wouldn’t be repeated again. Some older hands began to get a little irritated by it, but kept their opinions to themselves and it had been a bit of a moment, especially for a well drilled and busy station. Call after call, everyone eyed each other suspiciously to ensure the line had been brought along with the sledgehammer, an extinguisher or other breaking in gear.

In fairness, it has happened several months before, I remembered it, but didn’t want to venture an opinion. An unusual late morning call to a fire in a flat in Approach Road in Bethnal Green just near Victoria Park. As we arrived, everyone piled up to the flat with an array of equipment, I had a water extinguisher that time and it was quickly put to use on a mattress smouldering away on a bed. It was decided, as the water extinguisher had doused the flames, to drag the mattress out of the flat to get it onto the landing so it could be thrown down to the ground to be dealt with. As the two in the room lifted the mattress and dragged it toward the door, it had the effect of fanning air into the mattress and it promptly caught fire again, a healthy puff of flame enveloping the middle of the mattress.

I was in the middle of a melee of people pushing and pulling the mattress which was now burning quite well and smoking up the previously untouched hallway of the flat. I backed out onto the balcony with the others on the safe side of the burning mattress, the others cursing and swearing caught behind it, another comical display ensued, we had a temporary station officer at the time as my original station officer had been promoted. Usually a calm well manned man, he vehemently shouted down to the drivers to get a hosereel up to us, but we had no line to haul it up with. In a moment of madness, he actually pulled his small 10ft personal one out of his pocket and threw that over, I looked at it as it dangled uselessly still ten feet or so from the ground.

I think I got another curse laden order to run down and get a line, which I did, not fancying being blamed for what ever else might unfold up there. When I got back with the line the mattress was now burning happily on the landing, the occupant looking on aghast, still being held up by my colleagues. They managed to heft it over the railing and it burst fully into flames landing in a flourish of sparks and flames at the feet of the drivers, trying hard not to laugh at the free show that had played out upstairs.

Thinking back, these two anecdotes may make the watch seem a little unprofessional, but they weren’t, they were an older experienced watch in a time when we were attending fires on a very regular basis. We drilled often and hard, the officers knew their jobs well, between the two station officers who were there during my time and the long serving sub officer and leading hand, there was always a measured calm on the fireground with only clipped tones when a bit of urgency was needed. The firefighters themselves, the majority having between ten and fifteen years service also knew their game, perhaps the routine of regular fires had caused a sense of complacency to set in? I don’t know, but for the remainder of my time on that watch, never again was the line forgotten.

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