OSWEGO, NY – “This must be what hell looks like.”
That thought raced through the mind of at least one Oswego firefighter 10 years ago as an inferno threatened to destroy an entire west side city block – and perhaps more. [See videos of the fire, below.]
“My shift, B-Group, was on duty and in training when the call came in around 11 a.m. We ran to the engine and could see the heavy black smoke across the river blowing northward; so we knew that we had a ‘worker.’ Engine 5, my engine, was the first on the scene, followed by engines 1 and 3 from the Eastside Station. I called in a confirmed working fire to dispatch,” recalls Deputy Chief Mark McManus.
“The fire call came in late morning. I was the duty officer at the Eastside Station. When the call came in, hearing the location and nature of the call, it put everyone working on high alert,” said then-Deputy Chief Dick Drosse. “An off duty firefighter who was in the building volunteered to stand by and bring any additional fire apparatus over as needed.”
“As soon as we were out of the building, smoke was visible, seen coming from across the river. As we came up West Bridge Street, the fire was visible at the west end of the taxpayers (A taxpayer is a multiple story building, with a business on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors), with flames impeding on the east side of the residential home adjacent to the taxpayer (Oompa’s),” Drosse continued.
“Arriving at a fire like this, multiple requirements are scrolling through your mind a mile a minute. The number one priority, above all else, is life safety,” the now-retired deputy chief said. “Firefighters and EMTs were sent to check on occupancy of the buildings. Calling to dispatch, I requested an all hands call in, and for the Water Department to be notified of the fire due to the water usage. Making contact with the off duty person at the fire station I requested that he bring the snorkel truck to the fire scene.”
They pulled a 1-3/4″ attack line and prepared to enter the upstairs of the Oompa’s building, according to McManus.
There was heavy fire visible from the second floor window facing Bridge Street.
Off-duty firefighter Gary Richardson helped rescue a tenant who jumped from a balcony on the back side of the building just as fire crews were arriving.
Drosse’s engine was positioned on Bridge Street, near both the taxpayers and the residential home.
Immediately, firefighters took a handline to attack the fire that was “blowtorching” due to high winds, on the west end of Oompa’s, he said.
A hydrant by Fourth Street was determined to be the best hydrant to take initially, he added.
“At that time, a person came running from around the corner of The Sting on West Third Street. He was shouting that a person was trapped on an upper floor at the back of the taxpayer, assuming Oompa’s,” Drosse recalls. “Engine 4, which was a ladder and aerial truck, wasn’t committed yet, so I sent the truck to the back of the building. Although the person would have been safe until the truck arrived, he jumped from the window. Ambulance personnel had to transport the person to the hospital for injuries suffered from the jump.”
“A couple of OPD officers (I know that George Lundy was one of them) had been inside the building evacuating the upstairs apartments,” McManus said. “So, as far as we knew, everyone was out of the building.”
Lundy, former deputy police chief, was among the very first on the scene.
He remembers going inside with then-officer (now sergeant) Shawn Burridge to make sure everyone had gotten outside safely.
“Sure, it’s a really dumb thing to do, but you can’t just stand by and let someone burn to death, either,” he told Oswego County Today.
Once inside, he said he could feel the heat and there was a strong smell of smoke.
“We made it up the stairs and he went to the left and I went right, knocking on doors,” Lundy said. “There was a point when I didn’t think I’d make it out. We lost our way. The smoke and fire had gotten so bad.”
Every 17 seconds, he said, a fire like that doubles in size.
“Someone opened the bottom door and we could see the light. I dropped down and crawled out on my hands and knees. A firefighter had to give me some oxygen when I finally got outside,” he said. “A minute can be a long time. You walk down the hallway and turn around and everything’s on fire.”
“I had firefighter Mike Knight, my driver, charge the attack line so that firefighters Al Chase, Brooks Hourigan and myself could use it to go upstairs. I remember having to put out fire on the stairs so that we could go up them. As we ascended the stairs, pieces of the burning ceiling were dropping on top of us,” McManus continued. “I looked up and I could see that the under-side of the roof was already fully involved, and that heavy smoke was banked down almost to the level of the second floor. I decided that we were going to have to back out and fight the fire from outside.”
McManus had Knight open up with the deck gun from Engine 5 to try to “darken it down” a bit – when you put water on a fire it generally reduces the amount of flames. Flames give off light; hence if you reduce them it gets darker.
He also had firefighter Ron Nelson ladder the front of the building and take out the glass from the large picture window on the second floor.
“Once he did so, flames shot out past the curb and thick black smoke poured out,” McManus said. “I remember thinking, ‘That must be what hell looks like.’”
So as not to draw from the same water line, a hydrant on West Third Street was decided to be taken for use, Dosse said, explaining that “Because of the potential need for large quantities of water and so as not to overdraw from the waterline that fed Fourth Street, the Third Street one was taken. It was supplied by a different waterline. If there isn’t enough volume to feed the truck lines then the truck pumps could go into what you call vacuum. Using multiple/ large diameter attack lines and guns a large water volume is needed to maintain the pressure for these lines/nozzles.”
As the firefight continued, water was drafted from Oswego River.
Another building, an apartment house, a few feet west of Oompa’s across an alley, had caught fire from the heat radiating from the main structure.
About this time, then-Chief Ed Geers and Assistant Chief Tom Abbott arrived and assumed command of the fire scene.
“Discussing the situation with him, two decisions were made. Due to the intensity of the fire and the water needed, a draft from the river was decided to be used. In conjunction with that, for the extra personnel needed, a mutual aid request was put in for the surrounding volunteer fire departments,” Drosse said.
Deputy Chief Drosse paged in all off-duty personnel as well as mutual aid companies from Fulton, Minetto, Oswego Town, and Scriba.
“I remember that all but one of the then-64 Oswego Fire Department members showed up to battle the fire,” McManus said. “And, the one who couldn’t show was in the hospital.”
They deployed the arriving OFD and mutual aid units to try to contain the fire, which was spreading rapidly.
“With the arrival of the snorkel, I was assigned to supervising its operation and manning, along with outside attack teams positioned on the north (rear) of the buildings. The snorkel was positioned at the parking lot off of West Third Street,” Drosse said. “The fire had vented itself through the roof of the west end building. Due to the intensity of the smoke on the backside of the building, SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) were worn by the outside attack team.”
The attached taxpayer next to it was separated by a stone firewall. It was thought that dousing the fire at this point would start to knock it down.
An interior attack team was sent into the adjacent building to confirm the firewall.
What they found was that the firewall had been breeched and the fire had continued to spread to the next taxpayer.
That fire spread quickly through the walls to the roof, and since crews were so strapped for manpower then, there wasn’t much that they could do until more help arrived.
There were heavy winds blowing out of the southwest that pushed the heat and flames toward the other attached structures on the block.
Multiple apparatus and handlines were used to douse water on the fire. The strong winds acted as a bellows fueling the intensity of the fire.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t stop the fire from spreading from building to building without endangering the lives of our firefighters. In early afternoon, Chief Geers made the decision to make a ‘last stand’ at The Sting, a tavern at the east end of the row of buildings,” McManus said. “Crews were sent to the second floor and roof of the building to make defensive ventilation cuts in the roof. Aerial master-streams were brought to bear on the gap between The Sting and the building next door. It was touch and go, but by 3:30 or 4 p.m. it was apparent that at least that building would be saved.”
The late Rosemary Nesbitt always festively decorated her home during the holidays.
She lived right behind the businesses that burned on West Bridge Street.
“I am very grateful for the outpouring of concern, not only for me but for my house as well,” she said at an event in June of 2001. “As I was sitting on the other side of the street, watching my house and the fire, perfect strangers came up to me and asked if I was all right and if I needed a place to sleep that night.”
One comment, she added, was extra touching.
“A little girl, who was walking past with her mother, stopped and said, ‘you can’t let anything happen to the Christmas house,'” Mrs. Nesbitt said. “That really touched me.”
“I have memories of the large crowds that gathered to watch the battle against the fire, and of the excellent cooperation between the numerous fire departments who responded to assist the OFD,” McManus said. “The outpouring of support from many local businesses who sent food and drinks to the scene was awesome and greatly appreciated.”
“It was one of the worst fires of my over-25 year career. Everyone that was on that fire scene worked long and hard,” McManus continued. “We were fortunate that no one was seriously injured; but the loss of property – the homes and businesses that were destroyed – was unprecedented in my time on the job. That we were able to finally extinguish the fires after many hours on the scene was a major relief.”
“It is still an open investigation as far as I am aware,” McManus added.
It is still an open investigation, Lundy said, adding, “Everybody did a hell of a job that day. We may have lost some buildings, but nobody lost their lives.”
“It was one nasty fire. But, no one was seriously injured and no lives were lost,” Drosse agreed.
“The Block Fire on the north side of West Bridge Street between Third and Fourth? I remember it well,” said Tony Leotta, city engineer. “Oswego Fire Department did an excellent job preventing the fire from spreading and consuming the entire block.”
“Oswego Fire Department has been busy through the years,” Leotta added. “I consider OFD the best in New York State.”
These three videos were uploaded to YouTube by user Zytaris:
Fire, Part 1:
Fire, Part 2:
Fire, Part 3: