1 MILLION PLUS IN DAMAGES AT LCCC
“I knew we had a major problem early on – Everywhere you looked there was smoke in every building I could see, there was smoke coming out through the ground and through vents. It was not a good feeling.” Assistant Chief Ron BrlasElyria – The fire that broke out on the campus of Lorain County Community College Wednesday afternoon has left many sections of the campus shut down – Authorities say some buildings are without power and could be for an extensive period of time. Officials from the college encourage all students to check the school’s website to find out which classes will be canceled.
The fire started in a tunnel below the business building sending smoke through the tunnels and into the ventilation system throughout the college.
Dylan Trupo of Grafton was inside of the College when the smoke started filling the hallways and they began evacuating. “There were plumes of smoke coming out of every air vent around the business building – new library and old connections center. The smoke got so bad you could barely see in front of you – all of the teachers and security guards were running through the buildings evacuating people.”
Trupo said that when the evacuation process began there was really no panic – just some confusion. “People didn’t seem scared or panicked, just wondering what was happening. The problem for us leaving was the traffic jam – that was absolutely horrible.”
According to Tom Kelley, Director of the Lorain County Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security, Lorain County 9-1-1 Operators began receiving hang up calls from the College at 5:21 pm. “Those calls came in from the area of the fire, and then at 5:40 pm, 9-1-1 received the first call of smoke in the building.”
Assistant Chief Ron Brlas of the Elyria Fire Department was in command through the entire incident. Brlas said that from the beginning there were obstacles to overcome. “We had trouble accessing the area to begin with – we had to stretch a long 21/2 inch line from behind the administrative building to the Business building. We had a difficult time accessing the area and then once they forced open the doors they were met with a big wall of fire.”
Brlas said that the first crew was not making much headway from their entry point so they decided to have another crew make an attack from a different direction. When that crew was also met with a large wall of fire and was not successful making any headway they decided to go back to their original plans. Brlas said Firefighters continued to feed several hundred feet of hose line down into the tunnel system as the fire worked itself through the tunnels at will.
The tunnels were packed, Brlas said, with office furniture and paper products. On top of that drop ceilings were collapsing into the tunnels as well, further hampering access for Firefighters. “The ceilings caved in and then you had wires hanging all over the place – the fire melted the fiber optic cables for the College, it was quite extensive.”
Although it is still too early to determine a cause of the blaze, Brlas said it is suspicious. “We have our Fire Investigators looking into this and the State Fire Marshall has been notified as well. Right now it appears suspicious because of the time of day and the amount of fire we had down there. But at this stage nothing can be ruled out, that is what the Investigators are here for.”
When asked if fighting fires in a tunnel like this, with furniture and other office products packed in along with collapsing ceilings and dangling wires was, on a scale of 1 to 10, close to a 10 in difficulty – Brlas didn’t have to think twice. “It’s a ten. Really, you are going down a concrete tube and there is nowhere for the hot gases and smoke to go other than right back on top of the guys. It makes firefighting extremely dangerous.” Brlas said that unlike in a house fire where Firefighters can cut a hole in the roof to ventilate the smoke, heat and gases you are unable to do that down in the tunnels. “Plus the heat that stays inside of that concrete tube – the concrete itself magnifies the heat. Just think what it’s like standing on hot pavement during the middle of summer how much you feel that heat – now imagine that surrounding you in a tunnel.”
Because of the heat and other obstacles of the tunnels crews would rotate through, usually as their air bottles would empty. “We didn’t want to lose ground with the fire so usually when one crew started to lose air another crew would come up behind them and take over the hose and the other crew would leave the building for rehab, fresh air and fresh bottles. That system seemed to work well for us, the continuity and the pace of the fighting went very well.”
Brlas said that although he knew within 10 or 15 minutes that they had a big fire on their hands, he had no idea in the beginning how far it would progress. “I knew we had a major problem early on – Everywhere you looked there was smoke in every building I could see, there was smoke coming out through the ground and through vents. It was not a good feeling.”
Three Firefighters were injured while battling the blaze; two were treated at the scene while a third was taken to the Emergency Room. “Firefighters Wood and Shannon were treated at the scene for exhaustion and dehydration after rotating through 3 or 4 times. They collapsed on scene and taken into the back of the Ambulance and given I’V’s and rehabbed right there at the scene.”
The third Firefighter was Captain Joe Pronesti; he was taken for smoke inhalation. “The last I knew his Carbon Monoxide levels were quite high so they treated him at EMH for that and then he was released.” Brlas said that Pronesti’s crew was one of the first on scene so when their air bottles ran out and they exited the building there were no fresh crews to return – so they would replace their bottles with new ones and return to the tunnels. Brlas said they had gone through 4 bottles before Pronesti collapsed. “They had come out after their fourth bottles emptied and he stood in front of me to brief me on the situation – then all of a sudden he just went to his knees. A couple of the guys grabbed him and quickly moved him to the ambulance where the Paramedics started working on him before taking him to the hospital.”
Brlas said that even though Pronesti is a close friend he had to continue as Command of the fire. “Joe was always in my thoughts as we continued but of course we had a lot more Firefighters still in dangerous situations so you have to keep your head in the game. The nice thing is that I had Mike Bridge, LifeCare Supervisor, right there with me and he would constantly give me updates on Joe’s condition that he was receiving from the ER.” Brlas said that in the Command area he also had Sgt. Pelko from the Elyria Police Department who oversaw the scene security. Pelko also made sure the ambulance transporting Pronesti had a Police escort. “That was great having him there and he did a great job as did all of the Police Officers and Campus Security guards. Dealing with the evacuations, the traffic and the security for us was a huge task and they were outstanding.”
Brlas said that at this point the damage estimates range anywhere from 1 million to 1.5 million dollars.
Tom Kelley said that in total 14 Departments were involved, 12 at the scene and 2 covering at Elyria’s downtown station. LifeCare and Central Lorain County Ambulance District provided EMS coverage. The Lorain County Chapter of the American Red Cross provided a canteen for the emergency crews.