Firefighter’s Practiced Maneuver, Five Stories Up, Ends in Fatal Fall
It was a routine operation at a routine apartment-building fire using a piece of equipment that was tailor made for this vertical city.
And yet somehow, a veteran New York City firefighter fell to his death.
The equipment is called a tower ladder. It is a familiar sight, a telescoping ladder mounted atop a fire truck with a walled platform or “bucket” that hoists firefighters up onto roofs and other high places so that they do not have to climb up and down.
On Thursday in Ridgewood, Queens, Firefighter William Tolley, 42, was lifted to the roof of a five-story building in a tower ladder to ventilate the roof and allow smoke and hot gases to escape. One moment, witnesses said, he was in the bucket, suspended near the roof parapet. The next moment, he was plummeting to the street.
The Fire Department and federal officials are investigating the cause of the accident, a process that could take months. But experienced fire officials and equipment experts said the accident underscored the dangers inherent in working high above the street.
“For a painter, for a roofer, for a firefighter, leaving a roof and getting to a ladder, whatever type — there’s always the danger of falling,” said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College.
Still, deaths in falls from ladders remain rare. In 2007, a firefighter in Brooklyn was climbing down a ladder while holding tools in both hands when the heavy saw slung across his back shifted and knocked him off balance, federal investigators found.
A former deputy chief, Charles R. Blaich, said that the most recent firefighter death in New York City that he knew of involving a tower ladder was 40 years ago, in 1977: A firefighter tried to jump from a fifth-floor fire escape of a burning Manhattan building to the bucket of a tower ladder and missed.
The tower ladder had been developed only about 10 years earlier, at the request of John T. O’Hagan, a department chief who eventually became fire commissioner.
Professor Corbett said that Chief O’Hagan was inspired by similar devices used by utilities to raise their workers to poles and wires. The Chicago Fire Department was already using a ladder device known as a snorkel that extended like an elbow unbending. Chief O’Hagan wanted a device like the tower ladder instead, because it extended by telescoping, allowing it to work in narrower spaces, Professor Corbett said. Today, 60 of the 143 Fire Department ladder trucks use tower ladders.
In the case of Firefighter Tolley, witnesses have offered differing accounts. Mayer Weber, a former volunteer firefighter in Fallsburg, N.Y., who was working on a construction site near the Queens fire on Thursday, said that he saw Mr. Tolley in the bucket signaling something to the firefighter below on the truck who was controlling the ladder. The door of the bucket was open and the bucket moved.
“It looked like he was trying to get out onto the roof,” Mr. Weber said on Friday. “It’s possible that what might have happened is that the bucket hit the parapet roof, and since he was halfway out of the bucket on his way out, it bounced him right out.”
Also on Friday, fire officials announced the cause of the blaze: religious incense that residents left burning in their second-floor apartment when they left the building.
“Compounding the tragic loss of Firefighter Tolley’s life is that the fire he responded to and fought bravely could have been prevented,” Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said in a statement. “You should not leave objects such as incense or candles burning while unattended.”