I had the opportunity to speak with Chief Jim Quigley of the East Amherst Fire Department, a 100 percent volunteer department, which responded as mutual aid to the scene of the Continental Airlines commuter plane crash last night. He recalls his first thoughts upon arrival at the scene and discusses some of the fire-suppression effort during his 6 hours on scene.
Janelle Foskett: Did you hear the crash?
“No, we had just returned from a reported structure fire less than 1 mile from the crash. We were back in quarters, changing out bottles and readying the apparatus when we received a report of a plane crash into a home in a residential area, and that the home was on fire with person trapped. There were about 18 or 20 of us at the house. We dispatched mutual aid to assist the Clarence Center Volunteer Fire Department within 2 minutes of the original dispatch, primarily for manpower. I responded in my command vehicle with a paramedic, Michael Morris, who, ironically, is the retired chief from the Buffalo International Airport.”
JF: Please describe the scene.
“We approached from the West. You could see the glow in the sky and we knew immediately that it was a fairly serious incident. I have 31 years in the fire service, and I have never responded to a incident involving an aircraft, especially a commercial plane that crashed into a home. We could tell by the gravity of the dispatch that this was very serious.
“As we approached the scene, within three-quarters of a mile, we could see the glow of fire and billowing black smoke. It was 25 degrees and the roads were somewhat snow-covered. The scene was actually just a stone’s throw from the Clarence Center headquarters. The scene was chaotic. People from nearby homes were out in the streets and they were distraught.”
JF: What was your immediate concern?
“We knew it wasn’t going to be a rescue, so our immediate concern was to limit the target site and prevent exposures from catching fire. The fire was in close proximity to two other homes. All you could see in the fireball was the tail.
“In terms of structural fire damage, the house on the north side had no fire damage whatsoever, which was remarkable. The exposure to the south had an attached garage. The garage roof on the north end had collapsed. When I checked this area for extension, you could see damage to the first-floor ceilings. The tail rudder was within 30 feet of the structure.”
JF: Tell me about the fire-suppression efforts.
“We advanced several large-diameter lines and deployed master streams and attempted a foam application. We also summoned the crash tender from the Buffalo airport. It was probably 6 or 8 miles from the crash site and was escorted by the transit authority police to the scene. Surprisingly, our initial attack was within 50 feet with large-diameter lines. Our objective was to quell the initial flames that were 50 to 60 feet in the air and to protect the exposures.”
JF: What about the reported natural gas leak?
“We contacted National Fuel, the local provider for natural gas, to locate the source of the leak. The fire was just feeding off that. The leak was from the basement of the wreckage of the home struck by the plane—a two-story, wood-frame home.”
JF: Did you know the size of the plane?
“You could tell immediately that there was a lot of carnage. We wanted to determine what type of plane this was and how many souls were on board. We receive communication and intelligence from airport managers that told us the type of plane. Thoughts started running through my head like, ‘Were there children involved?’ We just tried to get as much information as possible from FAA officials. Any intelligence was beneficial, but we still knew that it was going to be a recovery effort.”
JF: How many personnel were on scene, and how did you handle rotating crews?
“There were at least nine departments from the towns of Clarence and Amherst. Most were in service until well after 3:30 a.m. Crews were rotated in and out on a 3 to 4 hour basis. I would say there were in excess of 100 personnel on scene. The Command Post was set up at Clarence Town Hall, where briefings are being conducting about every 4 hours.”
JF: Do you know the condition of the two victims who were in the house and survived?
“There was an explosion and from what I know they were ejected from the home. They were treated immediately and transported to Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital in Williamsville, N.Y. I don’t know the severity of their injuries.”
JF: When will you return to the scene?
“I’ll get back down there around 3 p.m. today to assist with the removal and recovery process. They’re still working on hot spots now.”
Note: In addition to being chief of the East Amherst Fire Department, Quigley is a senior investigator with the Amherst Police Department. He handles accident reconstruction in fatalities and serious accidents.