As more than 200 firefighters battled the deadly blaze that raced through the Barclay Friends nursing home in West Chester last month, they quickly realized they were facing a heavy and dangerous fire. Their task was compounded by worries about water.
"There is no water pressure at all at the scene," one firefighter is heard warning over fire radio.
Said another as he called in a new alarm: "I know this will be tough. We have heavy fire throughout the structure, still have plenty of residents unaccounted for, all hands working."
Communication among firefighters and dispatchers, captured on audio files reviewed last week by the Inquirer and Daily News, paint a somber picture of how difficult it was for the firefighters to attack the fast-moving and fatal Nov. 16 fire. The blaze quickly escalated to five alarms, gutting the south wing's two-story personal-care unit for residents with memory issues. Four elderly residents died of smoke inhalation.
While fire commanders have been reluctant to talk to the media since the blaze, the struggle to obtain adequate water is a theme on the fire radio audio, provided by RadioReference.com/Broadcastify, which offers online audiotapes from police, fire, and EMS feeds across the country.
The water pipes in the area also appear to have been less than optimum. In late October, about three weeks before the blaze, Aqua, the water company that serves West Chester, announced that it would replace the main water pipe in front of the nursing home. It unveiled a $469,000 project to install a larger water main – in part, it said, to "improve firefighting capabilities in the area."
The work to replace the existing six-inch pipe with an eight-inch main has not started. It is scheduled to be finished next year. On the night of the fire, firefighters had to tap into the existing line. At least three hydrants dot that main line in front of the senior citizens home.
In response to questions from the Inquirer and Daily News, Donna Alston, a spokeswoman for Aqua, said Friday that the company believed water was sufficient to fight the fire. "Our monitoring of the available system pressure during the fire indicated that there was no deficiency," she said in a written statement.
She also said the company informed firefighters during the blaze that it could provide additional water if needed and took other steps to ensure an adequate water supply. She said the main suffered no breakdown during the blaze.
Aqua, a for-profit firm based in Bryn Mawr, serves three million customers in eight states, most of whom are in Pennsylvania. In its Oct. 24 letter to customers around Barclay Farms, it advised them to prepare for inconvenience as it tore up the roadway to bury 2,500 feet of new iron pipe underground on North Franklin Street between East Marshall Street and Goshen Road. Franklin is the main road in front of the facility.
Aqua told customers that the new main would "increase service reliability, reduce the potential for discolored water and improved firefighting capabilities in the area."
In her statement Friday, Alston said: "Larger mains carry more water, which increases water flow. Greater flow satisfies greater demands, including those for firefighting."
In the tapes, firefighters repeatedly question the water supply. Nearly an hour into the fire, one firefighter tells a dispatcher: "Totally losing water pressure here."
The dispatcher answers: "OK, I'll call it in now."
The firefighter replies: "Tell them it is a priority of urgency."
Nearly an hour after that, a firefighter declares: "We need more water pressure, if you can. We are not really getting anything."
Another official replies: "Alright, see what I can do."
Firefighters are also heard discussing running hose lines lengthy distances to attack the fire, including one that apparently stretched about 4,000 feet down Franklin and up Marshal to Chester County Hospital.
"We need to lay a line to the hospital," a firefighter said 90 minutes after the blaze was first reported. "The best water is going to be near the rear of the hospital near the helipad."
In an interview, Richard Skinner, an expert on fire protection who has listened to the fire radio tapes, said the remarks of firefighters, coupled with the plan to replace the main, suggested that water was indeed an issue.
"They had such bad water pressure because they were sucking the hydrants dry," said Skinner, a former firefighter who inspects New York City high-rises to see if their fire-protection systems are adequate. "That's why they headed over to hit that grid over by the hospital."
He added: "There had to be a reason they were replacing the six-inch pipe to begin with."
Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the leader among many agencies investigating the fire, have called the blaze accidental and said it started on a patio at the rear of the sprawling complex.
Charlene Hennessy, an ATF spokeswoman, said Friday that the specific cause − a tossed cigarette, electrical fault, or something else − remains undetermined. Hennessy said she was unaware of any water-pressure issues with the fire.
Officials with the three local fire companies that serve West Chester — Good Will, Fame, and First West Chester — did not return calls. West Chester Mayor Jordan Norley and Michel Perrone, the acting borough manager, could not be reached.
"The staff, [lead fire] chief and borough manager, who happens to be the fire marshal, are all waiting on ATF," said William J. Scott, the town councilman who heads the public safety committee. "They don't have any information for us."
Scott said he was not aware there was any problem with water the night of the fire, which he called the "largest fire in the history of the borough" and the "most damaging."
In all, 133 residents – 50 from the section for those with memory issues and the remainder from adjacent one-story buildings offering skilled nursing care – were driven from the facility by the fire on a cold, windy night. Fifteen staffers were working at the time.
The fire killed Mildred Gadde, 92, Theresa Malloy, 85, and Thomas Parker, 92, and his wife, Delores, 89. Twenty-seven people were treated at hospitals.
Barclay Friends is working to restore utilities and other vital services to the skilled nursing building left undamaged by the fire. It hopes to return residents to that section shortly, according to Linda Sterthous, Barclay Friends' executive director.