Click here for a printable version of this article.

July 2001: Sprinkler Protection In High Rise Buildings

One of the largest fires in the history of New York City occurred on Superbowl Sunday, January 31, 1993. Fire broke out in a corporate high-rise office building located at 280 Park Avenue in Manhattan. 280 Park Avenue occupies half of a city block between 48th and 49th Streets and Park and Madison Avenues. Approximately 80 fire department units and 200 personnel were required for extinguishment and search of the building, the equivalent of an eight-alarm fire. The fire resulted in a direct property damage loss of more than $10 million and a much larger loss due to business interruption and secondary effects.

280 Park Avenue has three sections. The east building which is 30 stories high, 200 feet long and 105 feet wide. The west building which is 43 stories high, 200 feet long and 105 feet wide, and a crossover building which is 17 stories high, 80 feet long and 50 feet wide. The crossover building connects the two larger structures. The east building was constructed in 1961. The west and crossover buildings were constructed in 1968 and have center-core layouts.

The fire occurred in the west building on the sixth floor. The above-grade areas of the buildings were not sprinklered at the time of the fire. Each floor contained smoke and heat detectors in a zoned system. The fire area contained 23 detectors on a single zone.

The first fire department was notified at 10:48 pm. At first there was some confusion as to the location of the fire. Once the fire location was confirmed, the firefighters began to work. Since the fire was so large and well advanced, the firefighters could not maintain positions close enough to reach the seat of the fire. The heat was too intense. Most of the fire area had a lot of open space with four to five foot partitions. In addition, it appeared the fire was starting to spread to the floor above through autoexposure, via cracks in the Q-decking created by the fire below.

It became apparent that the fire would not be controlled with a handline attack so the fire departments at the scene decided to mount an attack from the outside using tower ladders. All firefighters located on the fire floor and the five floors above it were ordered to evacuate. The streams of water coming from the tower ladders would drive heat and smoke into uninvolved interior areas of the building so the firefighters who were evacuated were instructed to close as many doors as possible to prevent or delay horizontal extension.

This approached proved effective. This prevented the fire from spreading to the east and crossover buildings and limited autoexposure to the seventh floor (the floor above the fire floor). The fire was darkened in about 20 minutes. Handline crews moved in from some of the stairways on the fire floor to extinguish the remaining fire. Crews on the floor above quickly put out the fire that had extended vertically. Vertical extension was limited primarily to 15 feet into the perimeter office space due to autoexposure.

The fire was declared under control at 3:25 am on Monday February 1st. An inspection of the building during the overhaul phase revealed that the fire compromised structural stability in a few areas. The fire also caused significant cracking in the Q-deck, which provided an avenue for vertical extension but did not compromise structural stability to a significant degree. The building's steel columns and large girders held up well.

In addition, it was discovered that the fireproofing material used on all the structural elements in the building was asbestos.

Investigation by the fire marshal's office determined that the fire originated in the ceiling plenum at the southwest corner of the sixth floor in the west building. The cause of the fire was undetermined but is believed to have been electrical in nature.

Investigation by the fire marshal's office determined that the fire originated in the ceiling plenum at the southwest corner of the sixth floor in the west building. The cause of the fire was undetermined but is believed to have been electrical in nature.

The fire had burned undetected in the plenum for a considerable period of time. There was enough fuel, electrical cable insulation, to keep the fire going. The depth of the plenum was approximately 4 feet. Since the fire started on a weekend, the HVAC system was shut down so there was not enough air movement for the smoke to activate the three detectors in the plenum area right away. One of the detectors finally activated but at that point the fire had broke through the ceiling and therefore well advanced.

The major destruction was limited to the sixth and seventh floors. The contents on the fire floor were completely destroyed; the only things that remained identifiable were the file cabinets. Structural damage to the steel I-beams was significant. All 3 buildings sustained heavy smoke damage. A very small area of the seventh floor had heavy fire damage. Luckily, there were no fatalities.

This fire is particularly significant as an evaluation of the effectiveness of Local Law 5, the retroactive requirements that were enacted for all high-rise office buildings in New York City, after a series of destructive fires in the 1960s and 1970s. It suggests that the compartmentation option offered by Local Law 5 may be inadequate to prevent fires from growing to extremely destructive proportions and placing both occupants and firefighters in danger of death or injuries. Although the extent of the fire was not as great as similar fires that occurred in other major U.S. cities, it could have equaled or exceeded their magnitude if it had originated on a higher floor. This result reinforces the opinion of many fire experts and authorities having jurisdiction that automatic sprinklers should be required in all existing high-rise buildings, as well as new construction.

*For more information on this topic, go to www.fema.gov and do a search for the article entitled "New York City Bank Building Fire: Compartmentation vs. Sprinklers."