The Waldbaum Fire Collapse FDNY 1978 Remembrance

The Waldbaum’s Supermarket Fire and Collapse FDNY 1978  

The Waldbaum Super market fire, Brooklyn, New York occurred on August 2, 1978. Six firefighters died in the line of duty when the roof of a burning Brooklyn supermarket collapsed, plunging 12 firefighters into the flames. The fire began in a hallway near the compressor room as crews were renovating the store, and quickly escalated to a fourth-alarm. Less than an hour after the fire was first reported, nearly 20 firefighters were on the roof when the central portion gave way.  


Thirty-four firefighters, one emergency medical technician and one Emergency Services police officer were injured in the fire and the tragedy is remembered as one of the worst disasters in the New York City Fire Department’s 143-year history.  

The FDNY members killed in the Waldbaum’s fire included:
• Lt. James E. Cutillo, Battalion 33
• Firefighter Charles S. Bouton, Ladder Company 156
• Firefighter Harold F. Hastings, Battalion 42
• Firefighter James P. McManus, Ladder Company 153
• Firefighter William O’Connor, Ladder Company 156
• Firefighter George S. Rice, Ladder Company 153 

The fire started at 8:40 am in Waldbaum’s supermarket located at 2892  Avenue Y and Ocean Avenue in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. Nearly 23 electricians, plumbers and contractors were renovating the building when the fire was discovered in mezzanine area. Box 3300 was transmitted at 08:39 hours and the All hands transmitted at 08:49 and subsequently a 2nd alarm at 09:02 hrs. Shortly after 09:20 with 20 firefighters operating on the bowstring truss roof a crackling sound was heard and the center portion of the roof fell into the smoke and flames. Some of the firefighters were seen running toward the edge of the roof; some made it, others nearby fell into the gaping hole. The third alarm was transmitted at 09:18 3rd alarm and subsequently escalated to a Fifth alarm assignment during the rescue and recovery operations.  

Roof Operations prior to collapse


Laborers and firefighters managed to pull out some who were near walls, some crawled out. Several holes were made into the wall to pull out injured survivors and victims.  

The Building  

The approximately 120 ft.  x 120 ft. primary building was originally built in 1952 as a supermarket and at the time of the fire was undergoing extensive renovations and was open and operating. Constructed with exterior masonry bearing walls of  with  timber roof trusses with a 100-foot clear span, supported on pilaster columns embedded in the exterior walls, it was classical Type III construction. The truss system supported an ornamental tin ceiling and 18 inches below that concealed space a conventional suspended acoustic ceiling tile panel system was present. Reports indicated the tin ceiling was attached directly to the bottom cord of the truss system.  A two story mezzanine and machine room was located at the north wall of the original building. Access through the truss loft area was accessible through man-doors at the plane of each truss.  

Waldbaum Supermarket FDNY Box 3300 1978


The heavy timber bowstring arch roof consisted of seven (7) truss units constructed of 4-5 bundled 3 inch x 12 inch attached assemblies.  Two factors contributed to the collapse of the bowstring arch truss system; double roof (rain roof) alterations with concealed spaces and the extent and severity of the fire within the concealed spaces affecting the assembly’s structural stability. The presence of the double concealed ceiling systems; the truss system supported an ornamental tin ceiling and 18 inches below that concealed space a convential suspended acoustic ceiling tile panel system was present. Reports indicated the tin ceiling was attached directly to the bottom cord of the truss system. The failure of  operating companies and command personnel to recognize the signs of an unchecked concealed fire that was propagating at a rapid pace impinging upon critical structural assembly points was a significant contributing factor in the incident outcome. 

Typical Heavy Timber Bowstring Arch Truss Configuration


This roof collapsed 32 minutes after the initial units arrived. The immediate collapse occurred approximately 85 feet inward from the Alpha side (Ocean Avenue) and approximately 50 feet from the Bravo side (Avenue Y). The immediate failure and loss of structural stability and collapse of truss unit #5 was followed with the subsequent collapse of truss units #6 and #4 that were interdependent on the roof rafter and purlin system to maintain thier structural stability and vertical orientation. This type of interdependent structural system of structural trusses, rafters and roof deck (membrane) result in large area collapses since the primary truss will usually cause the adjacent two truss systems (on either side of the primary compromised truss) to fail by pulling downward.  

The effects of direct flame impingement on the truss assessmblies, thier connection points of bearing at the outter masonry walls, coupled with the tactical trench cut that had been comopleted by the operating ladder companies resulted in 4,000 sf section of roof to collapse in the truss #5, 6 and 4 bay areas. Rapid and progressing fire travel within the concealed spaces and the degradation of the roof assembly and structural support system, failure to recognize the inherent opertaional risks associated with roof and interior operations on heavy timber truss roof systems and the failure to correlate continued interior suppression operations with simultaneous roof ventilation operations with no significant change in operational progress or mitigation contributed to the tragic outcome of the incident.  

A short ten years would pass and the lessons from the Waldbaum Fire would soon be forgotten when on July 2, 1988 operations in a Type III building consisting of an auto dealership would lead to the deaths of five (5) Firefighters in Hackensack, New Jersey when operations were being conducted in the truss loft storage area when an 80 foot heavy timber truss collapsed trapping the firefighters. The Hackensack Ford Fire occured less than four weeks short of the tenth anniversary of the Waldbaum Fire right across the Hudson River. More on the Hackensack Ford Fire HERE.  


Bravo Side View


Additional References :  

Fire Investigation: An Analysis of the Waldbaum Fire, Brooklyn, New York, August 3, 1978. Quintiere, J. G. NISTIR 6030; June 1997;=18676&  

NFPA Fire Command Magazine, Brooklyn Roof Collapse Claims six Lives. Demers, David P.; December 1978  

Waldbaum Fire Facebook page, HERE with numerous photos and recollections honoring those that lost their lives and those that operated at FDNY Brooklyn Box 3300.

Rescue efforts on the Bravo Side



2892 Ocean Avenue Today


The lessons learned in the years following the Walbaum’s fire in 1978 and the subsequent Hackensack Ford Fire, NJ in 1988 focused on understanding building construction systems, occupancies and structural assemblies, in both of these cases the timber bowstring truss systems. Over the years the foundation of knowledge necessary to build competencies and knowledgeable firefighters, fire officers and commanders cognizant in the science and technology of building construction has waned and at time has been less than an area of focus.  

Take the time to learn about the FDNY Walbaum’s fire, its history repeating significance as a major fire service LODD event, the lessons learned from the Hackensack Ford Fire (July 2, 1988) and other related case studies that can be found on the NIOSH, USFA and NFPA web sites.  

Look at your buildings within your response areas and jurisdiction. Understand how they’re built and more importantly how they are affected by the exposure and impingement of fire and its byproducts. Understand key building performance indicators and appropriate strategic and tactical actions based upon building profiles, occupancies, fire loading, construction features and fire service resources. Take the time to honor the brave brother firefighters from FDNY who made the supreme sacrifice thirty two years ago, and gave a legacy to learn from in this and in future fire service generations.  




1 Comment

  • Very interesting artical. Truss roof construction in a fire, either wood or metal can have the same results in a fire. June 13, 2010, 81 Two Bridges Road, Fairfield, NJ Structure fire 30,000 sq.ft. Two storey office bldg. fire started second floor. Middle of the bldg. metal truss roof failure. No firefighter injured do to the roof callapes, mainly because the command new of the truss roof construction.

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