Trapped! Parallels between domestic abuse and the true story of a warehouse fire
Six firefighters died in a warehouse fire in Massachusetts in 1999. An abandoned cold-storage facility was accidentally set alight by a homeless couple who were squatting there for shelter. The fire resulted in “the first loss of six firefighters in a structure fire where neither building collapse nor an explosion was a contributing factor to the fatalities.” It was a very serious and pretty unusual event, and it therefore provoked a lot of soul-searching, so to speak, in the Fire Services.
This post is written by our longstanding reader Charis. Many thanks to her!
I was a firefighter/paramedic working in Ohio at the time and I remember that night. In the days and months that followed we began to unpack what went wrong and the subsequent lessons learned. The US Fire Administration (USFA) wrote an analytical report about the disaster: Abandoned Cold Storage Warehouse Multi-Firefighter Fatality Fire, Worcester Massachusetts,
Now, 16 years later, I find myself reflecting upon the tragedy – this time learning lessons and seeing similarities through the lens of an abusive relationship. Here is what I have observed:
The fire started when the homeless couple, a boyfriend & girlfriend, got into an argument and accidentally knocked over a lit candle. Not only did some of their belongings catch fire, the construction materials used to insulate the refrigeration units were found to be 18 inches thick — and highly flammable. The fire rapidly spread beyond control. The couple tried to smother the fire but were unsuccessful. They quickly left with some of their belongings and failed to report the fire to authorities. The fire was allowed to burn undetected for 90 minutes. Such a long unobstructed burn time was one of the major failure points in this tragedy. The cold storage fire had a tremendous head-start before the first crews ever arrived on scene.
The homeless couple was brought up on six charges of manslaughter – for not reporting the fire. The Superior Court Judge dropped the charges, indicating it is not illegal in the State of Massachusetts to fail to report a fire.
There are parallels here to domestic abuse. In an abusive relationship there is often a long unobstructed burn time — years during which the victim has not yet identified the mistreatment as Abuse. And the oppressor minimizes what he is doing, refusing to acknowledge the severity of his behavior. He looks out only for himself. He claims that what he has said or done isn’t really all that “bad.” He doesn’t take responsibility for his actions, nor does he take steps to correct his behavior. The homeless couple looked out only for themselves. They didn’t want to be fined for squatting. And they didn’t give a thought to the firefighters who would eventually come to fight the fire. They minimized the out-of-control fire by failing to alert the proper authorities. Lives could have been saved if they had taken responsibility for their actions.
The judge is also guilty. He minimized the couple’s negligence, the fire, inter-departmental use of resources, loss of property and loss of life. He failed to invoke consequences consistent with the severity of the tragedy. Too often, we victims experience similar treatment in family court during the divorce process as we interact with lawyers, custody evaluators, and judges who do not “get it” and who actively minimize the abuse and its lasting damage to us and our children.
The six story warehouse had been abandoned for 10 years; it occupied a full city block. Each floor of A-Building provided 7,000 square feet of floor space. Each floor shared a party wall with B-Building made accessible by a narrow door. The buildings were so integrated into one another (and the fire/smoke so dense) that many firefighters couldn’t tell when they left one building and entered the other. Nor were many firefighters certain which building they were in at any given moment. The USFA report mentions firefighters that never recalled having walked through the door in the party wall and into the next building.
We see this same characteristic in an unhealthy relationship; it is called enmeshment. It is part of isolation and control. The abuser expects his wife to agree with him on everything. He works at systematically disassembling her personality. Constantly forced to walk on eggshells and trying to avoid trouble, she becomes unsure where she ends and her husband begins…and certainly, she has lost most if not all of her identity or many distinguishing characteristics of her former self. Who is she? Who was she? Who has she become? Just the Stepford wife that the abuser tries to mold her to be? It’s hard to tell anymore.
Approaching from the west, Engine One reported heavy smoke, but upon arrival saw no indication of fire in the warehouse from the street. This was largely due to the lack of windows, and the smoke column was blocked by the 80 foot walls and the elevated interstate highway. The warehouse revealed virtually no details about its interior. (my emphasis)
There were no windows in either building above the 2nd floor, and the windows in the first two floors were covered with plywood. It wasn’t just dim inside, it was an impenetrable darkness. As a refrigeration & cold storage unit, the inside was a literal maze of room-sized refrigeration lockers with unconventional handles that sat flush to the door – different than a standard door knob – these handles would be impossible to find in the dark. Much of the structure was in disrepair with rotted floor joists and other integrity issues. It was a death trap waiting to be sprung.
One of the failure points listed in USFA’s report is that firefighters were unfamiliar with the interior of the building and, thus, were unprepared for its hazards. Although the department knew the building existed, where it was and that it was abandoned – no one had been in it, toured it, or knew the floorplan. This building had secrets. Scary ones.
Image Grooming or Impression Management is the process by which the abuser polishes the contrived exterior he shows to others while keeping the deadly secrets of his inner, true self far from being known — to anyone. He is largely an unknown entity, keeping outsiders at arm’s length. The impenetrable darkness of his mind is hard for the victim to grasp or believe, even though she’s been hurt by it many many times.
Once the truth of his real nature is revealed, the damage has been done and escape is difficult at best if not impossible, costly and sometimes dangerous. Others watch the disaster from the outside and simply cannot believe such a mess could exist inside. If they only knew….
Psychological Abuse (Gaslighting/Crazymaking)
The maze-like layout of the room-sized refrigeration lockers only existed in B-Building while A-Building was largely open space with minimal interior walls. Indeed, the USFA report says that while the cold storage facility was still under regular operation, even seasoned workers sometimes got lost in the lockers!
There were three stairwells. One stairwell in B-Building only serviced the first two floors and another serviced the first three floors. A-Building had one – and only one – stairwell that accessed all floors. This was the primary means of egress for the entire building. If a firefighter was on the fourth or fifth floor of B-Building he would have to find his way to A-Building’s stairwell to get out.
While it might seem logical to assume such a building would simply be razed to the ground when such dangerous hazards exist, unfortunately, it is not within the purview of the Fire Department to enforce nor seek demolition of property.
One can draw a similarity between the mind of the abuser and the dim, maze-like existence created in the relationship by psychological abuse (gaslighting & crazymaking). Listen to Lundy Bancroft as he explains this:
I came to realize, through my experience with thousands of abusers, that the abusive man wants to be a mystery. To get away with his behavior and to avoid having to face his problem, he needs to convince everyone around him — and himself — that his behavior makes no sense. He needs his partner to focus on everything except the real cause of his behavior. To see the abuser as he really is, it is necessary to strip away layer after layer of confusion, mixed messages and deception. Like anyone with a serious problem, abusers work hard to keep their true selves hidden. (Why Does He DO That? — Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men*, p. 18)
These tactics serve to cast doubt in the mind of the victim so as to make her think she is going crazy or that history has been re-written. It becomes easy to get ensnared and lost in the labyrinth and oh, so difficult to get out. There are few escape routes and illumination is lacking. Just when you think you have him figured out, he reveals another twist, a hidden hazard and *poof* what you thought was fact becomes fiction and you are now upside down and inside out…or are you?
Lack of Accountability
One of the failures listed in USFA’s report was the outstanding building violations. Built in 1906 with an addition in 1912, it was out of Code and had never been forced to comply. When compared to residential construction from the same time period, most buildings boasted two stairwells – this commercial warehouse lacked multiple means of egress. Additionally, in B-Building a partition was erected that spanned from wall to wall across each floor, cutting off access to one of the only two stairwells and/or the cargo elevators. A solitary door in the middle of the wall provided access.
Many of us can attest to the fact that our oppressor was not held accountable for his behavior. Instead, his chosen Safe Men or pastor embraced him in love and grace, took him to lunch, accepted his tears and pleas of false repentance as real (without evidence of change) and allowed him to continue on in full fellowship. Who asked the hard questions? Who checked with the victim to find out her perspective and her level of fear? Who held the checks and balances and refused to be fooled when things didn’t quite add up? No one. The abuser skated. Every time. No reform in his behavior. No true change. His “code” was not up to date.
Also out of date — uneducated and naive to the dynamics of domestic abuse and risk assessment/safety planning for the victim — was the “code” of the pastors, elders, Bible Study leaders, Women’s Group leaders, and many marriage-book authors, counselors, health workers, legislators, court officials and police officers. And the result – an unsafe environment at home, at church and in the community.
The official USFA report says initially two firefighters became disoriented and trapped while searching for the homeless couple. The report indicates that they became separated from one another during their original sweep. This should never have happened. Firefighters are taught not to abandon one another upon entering a building; it’s simply too dangerous and the risk too high. After the demise of these two firefighters was discovered four more firefighters were sent in to rescue them – and eventually all six became lost and died.
We sometimes see this when our oppressor seeks to divide and conquer by seeking allies or simply by stirring up strife. They can do this overtly or in less obvious ways as the abuser begins to cast doubt in the mind of friends we thought understood our situation. Like the four firefighters who as well-meaning helpers went in to the building to rescue their brothers but were trapped, our friends and supporters are often disoriented and trapped by the abuser’s fiery smoky labryinth.
As safety deteriorates, a choice must be made and boundaries set. Unfortunately, the oppressor usually gets to keep those he worked to gain as allies, and our once Safe Friends are “lost” to us as we seek safety, peace, healing and life outside his reach & influence.
Ignoring and Silencing the Victim
In the USFA report, it is noted that a key failure in this tragedy was the fact that there was too much radio chatter at the time when the first two men issued their distress call. In other words, their cries for help fell silent and they had “no voice.” They tried, several times, to be heard and failed. It was not until they demanded “radio silence” that crews were even aware that personnel were in danger. Even then, there was confusion about who was in trouble, where they were and how to effectively get help to them. By this time, there were two emergencies: one was to evacuate everyone off the 2nd floor and out of the building, the other was to try to locate who had issued the distress call and find them before time ran out.
As victims, we are often silenced by the “noise” around us. We are silenced by churches whose pastors think they know better, by poor theology, by church members who simply don’t understand and offer meaningless platitudes. We are silenced by the community: by those who minimize our distress or who don’t understand it, even worse, by those who support the abuser and his mindset. We are silenced by the culture – especially the media as it promotes a lifestyle that embraces entitlement, narcissism, deception, and control. As survivors, we pray it isn’t too late to raise awareness and get the attention of those who can truly offer help to those who need it – in a timely manner.
After all rescue attempts had failed, all units were evacuated from the building. The fire chief called for a Five Alarm, units from neighboring departments responded to the scene and over 20 hours was spent trying to put out the fire. The crews “dug in” for the long haul trying to save what they could of the property; to no avail. It took days with massive streams of water directed at the building to address flare-ups and hidden patches of smoldering fire.
Rekindle is a known phenomenon to fire departments everywhere. It is akin to relapse in the world of the addict/abuser. The crews have expended every available resource, made secure the scene, written up the report and left the premises. Thinking their job done, they feel hopeful that the property is salvageable to some degree. Like abusive marriages where pastors and friends simplistically suggest couples counseling, more prayer, or for the wife to simply “try harder” – these misguided individuals offer a no-mess, drop in the bucket solution where deep investigation and heavy deluge are required. Then the dreaded rekindle. Hours or sometimes days later, a pocket of smoldering embers hidden in a wall restarts and fans into a flame. All it needed was a little fuel, some air and time. The second ignition and resulting burn is often worse than the first and the damage is complete: total loss. The same is true of the “newly reformed” addict/abuser claiming transformation of former ways. When relapse occurs, and it typically does, the damage wielded is significant. In any event, the resources expended in recovery work are enormous and exhaustive.
After the Worcester incident, fire departments acknowledged that we needed better training in how to save ourselves and ”Save Our Own.” Programs were revamped and revitalized because of lives lost. We had to learn self-rescue. When and how to enter on behalf of a brother – when it was safe to do so and when it was not. Most importantly, we learned how to break through walls, to create a means of egress where none previously existed, to share air tanks between partners so that both might live, to carry the wounded when they cannot take another step, to search through the twisted mazes and cavernous darkness to discover the lost – and find our way out together. It is much the same when we seek help in an abusive relationship, whether for ourselves or on behalf of another.
Not Your Fault
There is always an investigation into a line-of-duty death. The Cold Storage Fire was a multi-fatality incident. It wouldn’t have been unusual for USFA to discover failure on the part of the department, its procedures, the equipment, or the firefighters involved – although to do so would have been incredibly difficult to swallow on the heels of such loss. But USFA didn’t. The report is thorough in its investigation. Worcester Fire Department did nearly everything “according to the book.” There were very few failure points discussed that could have been improved upon by the fire department – and those lessons learned likely would not have changed the outcome. In short, the blame falls almost entirely on the building: its floor plan, state of deterioration, construction and the combustible material used in its interior, the lack of escape routes and the unobstructed burn time (90 minutes) that existed from failing to report the fire. In short, the men got lost in a hazardous building, fully ablaze with zero visibility, in a state of structural deterioration with almost no means of egress.
It is a small measure of comfort to know that abuse is not our fault. That we did our job, did the best we could – and still must grieve our losses, our trauma, our pain and wounding. We can learn from the past to be healthier in the future. To understand that so much pain was not because of anything we neglected to do but because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, lost in a maze of life, trapped too long in a relationship that unraveled before our eyes, smothered by false beliefs with limited escape routes – friends, hear me please, it was not your fault.
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Photo #1, #2, #5: “Six Career Fire Fighters Killed in Cold-Storage and Warehouse Building Fire – Massachusetts” FF9-47 by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Access the report here.
Photo #3 USFA Report.
Photo #4: Paula Ferazzi Swift formerly of Worcester Telegram & Gazette
Photo #6: “15 years since tragic Worcester Cold Storage warehouse fire”, WWLP-22News in Chicopee, MA. Access the story here.