Crash Responder: "We Knew It Wasn't Going To Be a Rescue Mission"

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?

Chief Quigley: “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.
Chief Quigley: “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?

Chief Quigley: “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.
Chief Quigley: “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?
Chief Quigley: “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?
Chief Quigley: “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?
Chief Quigley: “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?
Chief Quigley: “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?
Chief Quigley: “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.

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Comment by Jim Owens on February 17, 2009 at 3:13pm
As a veteran of 32 years of ARFF and now a chief for a small town fire department, I can sympathize with the responders in these towns. Please remeber that CISD is very important, you have seen things you wont want to describe, things you never could have imagined you would see. Please take advantage of these services. And to every Chief who can look up and see airplanes flying overhead, take this opportunity to train your members on these critical but thankfully rare responses. Talk to your local NTBS investigator to understand how to handle these scenes, remember they are considered crime scenes until cleared by NTSB and the FBI.
Comment by Don Arterburn on February 16, 2009 at 9:37am
Since there wasn't a whole to be done for the victims in this crash, our prayers should be with their families......let's hope those responding firefighters that may need a little help to get over what they saw seek, and find, the help they need! Stay safe, brothers and sisters!
Comment by Tom Aiello on February 14, 2009 at 7:16pm
I was at two different plane crashes involving airliners (convair 580's) in 1968 and 69 two weeks apart at Bradford Airport in Pa. Neither exploded and caught fire but the carnage was terrible. I took two people out of the pane and never realized that they were people that I knew until long after the crashes. My heart goes out to all involved.
Comment by Trevor Wendt on February 14, 2009 at 12:47pm
Our prayers and thoughts are with you guys! Thank you!

Cambria Vol. Fire Co.
Niagara County, NY
Comment by Bob Atkinson on February 13, 2009 at 9:29pm
Our Prayers are with all of the responders and all the families of those on the plane as well as all that live in the area of the crash. Responders please get CISM help right now not later
Comment by Alan on February 13, 2009 at 9:15pm
Reading first hand accounts of the scene was great. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims of the crash as well as the first responders who worked at the scene.
Comment by Buddha on February 13, 2009 at 4:35pm
From A Northern Michigan FF/EMT,

May God's grace be with you all. I have no doubt it was a difficult scene at best. Peace be with you...
Comment by Jeff Garris on February 13, 2009 at 3:19pm
To all at the Crash site, As a First responder to Flight 5191 I send my prayers and thoughts to you. In the many days to come you will need them. I strongly urge you to seek CISD even if you think that you do not need it. It will help. I fully understand what you are going through at this time. Also my thoughts and prayers go to all of the families affected by this.
Comment by Robert St. Germain on February 13, 2009 at 3:18pm
Our Prayers from The Eagle Lake Fire Dept go out to all the friends and Family members of the Victims. And also to the emergency personel that responded.
Comment by Bob Allard on February 13, 2009 at 2:59pm
Our thoughs and Prayers are with all family members in their time of grief.

May your memories bring you comfort.

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