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JANUARY 31, 2005

FATAL THREE-ALARM FIRE

526 Lynwood Avenue,
Hamilton Township


Lawrence Road Fire Co. was one of eight Mercer County fire companies that responded and braved frigid temperatures to battle a stubborn three-alarm fire that destroyed a house, briefly trapped two firefighters (resulting in a mayday being called), and claimed the life of an elderly man in Hamilton Township during the pre-dawn hours of Monday, January 31, 2005.

Lawrence Road’s Engine 22 was initially sent to cover the Colonial Fire Co. firehouse but was then called to the fireground after the mayday was sounded. Station 22 personnel stood by as a rapid intervention team and then took turns manning a 2.5-inch hoseline and a deck gun.

It was 3:37 a.m. when Mercer County Central Communications Center transmitted Box 18-10 and dispatched Colonal Fire Co. (Station 18) and Engine 14-1 from Hamilton Fire Co. (Station 14-1) for a reported structure fire with possible entrapment at the corner of Elizabeth Avenue and Lynwood Avenue.

Township police officers arrived at 3:39 a.m. and reported that they had heavy smoke issuing from 526 Lynwood Avenue, a large two-story brick-fronted structure that also had an entrance on Elizabeth Avenue. The building had reportedly housed a business prior to being converted to a full-time residence.

Neighbors reported the home as being occupied by a 90-year-old man. Even though his vehicle was parked outside, it was unclear at the time if the elderly man was at home or if he had made an overnight trip to the casinos in Atlantic City, which he reportedly liked to do.

Police officers attempted to make entry into the house, but the fire was already so far advanced that they were beaten back by the choking smoke and heat.

Upon his arrival, Colonial Chief Brian Moss immediately requested a second alarm. Dispatched at 3:42 a.m., the second alarm included: Engine 14-2 and Special Services 14 from Enterprise Fire Co. (Station 14-2), Engine 12 from Mercerville Fire Co. (Station 12), and Ladder 13 from Rusling Hose Co. (Station 13).

Colonial firefighters responded with Engine 18-1, Aerial Tower 18, and Special Services 18. The first-due apparatus, Engine 18-1, arrived on scene at 3:45 a.m.

An interior attack was attempted, but it was hampered by heavy fire, fueled by Collyer's Mansion-type conditions inside the dwelling, and also by low water pressure from nearby hydrants. At 3:53 a.m., Moss ordered all personnel to evacuate the fire building and switch to defensive operations.

At 4:04 a.m., Engine 16 from White Horse Fire Co. (Station 16) was special-called to the scene. At 4:46 a.m., Engine 15-1 from DeCou Hose Co. (Station 15) responded to the fireground following another special call from command. (Both units had previously been relocated to cover Colonial's firehouse.)

After progress was made with exterior lines and the fire started to darken down somewhat, personnel again attempted an interior attack. It was during this that two Enterprise firefighters, William Kohut and Chris Petzold, partially fell through a hole in the first floor and into the basement.

A mayday was transmitted at 5:24 a.m. and the rapid intervention team was immediately deployed. Fortunately, both firefighters were not seriously hurt and were both quickly rescued, with Petzold reportedly being removed from the basement up through the hole using a ladder.

Both firefighters were transported by EMS to a local hospital for a precautionary exam. They both later returned to the fireground.

Once the rescue was completed, the evacuation tones were again sounded at 5:29 a.m. A head count was then taken. Once company commanders reported all their personnel accounted for, exterior operations then resumed using multiple 2.5-inch hoselines, portable deck guns, and master streams from Aerial Tower 18 and Ladder 13. Multiple large-diameter supply lines laid to distant hydrants were needed to supply the necessary water flow.

Upon the activation of the RIT, command special-called another engine to the scene, escalating the incident to a third-alarm equivalent. Lawrence Road’s Engine 22 responded at 5:25 a.m. from the Colonial firehouse, where it had previously been relocated to. Engine 22's crew was assigned to stand by as the new RIT.

As thousands of gallons of water flowed on the fire building, thick smoke continued to billow and then, fueled by the tremendous fire load inside, flames broke through the roof.

Finally, however, the blaze started to darken down. It was formally placed under control by Moss at 7:17 a.m.

Shortly before 8 a.m., firefighters carefully ventured into the charred ruins of the building to conduct a search for the victim. Within minutes, his body was located on the first-floor, reportedly about 18 feet from the door.

Because of a partial collapse of the interior and the overall unsafe condition of the building, a full investigation was not possible and authorities reportedly declared the cause of the fire to be undetermined.

Support was provided to firefighters on the scene by a mutual aid canteen unit from the Maple Shade Rescue Service (Station 108) of Maple Shade Township, Burlington County, along with ambulance crews from Robert Wood Johnson Emergency Medical Service, the township's contracted EMS provider, and paramedics from Capital Health System.

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