I just spoke with Clarence Center Volunteer Fire Company (CCVFC) Chief Dave Case, who was the incident commander at the scene of the Continental commuter plane crash
near Buffalo, N.Y. Despite it being difficult to digest everything that has happened in the past 12 hours, Case was able to offer FireRescue
and FirefighterNation.com some initial reflections on the event as well as a play by play of the response.
Case, who has been with the CCVFC for 17 years, was at home reading e-mails when he heard a loud “thud”: “It was a very weird noise so I got up to went to look out the window, thinking there had been some kind of bad car accident,” he says. “That's when the pager went off for a report of a plane into a house.”
En route to the incident, Case was expecting to find a single-engine Cessna—a two- or four-seater—but not a commuter plane. He met up with his first assistant, Tim Norris, who had been at the station, not far from the crash site, and immediately started putting together a game plan.
“Engine 2 was on location first with a full crew,” he explains. “We deployed large-diameter hose and secured a water source, which was a hydrant at the corner. Once we got water flowing on the structure, realizing the magnitude, we dropped back and protected the two closest exposures, which were about 20 feet from the wreckage.”
One of the first priorities was shutting off the natural gas. In an interesting twist, Case grew up on Long Street, about five houses from the crash site, and he used to work for a man who lived in the house where the plane crashed. “I knew that house well,” he says. “I thought I knew where the gas shut-off was, but it was long gone.” So they called in the local gas company to dig up the line and shut it off at the curb. It was impossible to access the gas meter due to the huge fire.
Case described the scene as something you’d see in a movie. “It was one of the biggest, hottest fires I’ve ever seen,” he says. “Flames were 50 to 60 feet in the air with heavy black smoke. You don’t think this is really happening in your town. Growing up on that street, you see planes come in and out, and you never expect something like this.”
Based on the volume of fire, it was immediately clear that there would not be survivors, Case says, so suppression was the major priority, along with protecting the exposures.
Considering the amount of jet fuel, he immediately called for the airport crash truck as well as all area fire companies under Amherst Fire to standby, and then started the incident command system. Additionally, Erie County Emergency Services started to show up and set up command. “We started our span of control from there,” he says. “I knew the EOC was set up by the Clarence Town Hall, and I knew my resources were being filled in that area.”
As for law enforcement, New York State Police and Erie County Sheriff’s Department set up a perimeter and cordoned off a two-block area. This perimeter was later expanded to a 2-mile radius.
Case says they received a report from airport that the plane was carrying approximately 3,500-5,000 gallons of fuel, which fueled the huge fire. “We made a very good effort to extinguish it,” he says. “We blackened it down in about 45 minutes to 1 hour. This gave us time for the airport crash truck to get there and start suppressing the flames with foam. That really darkened the fire down.” He adds that crews have been extinguishing hot spots throughout the day in order to cool off the scene for the NTSB.
Case was on scene for about 12 hours before he relinquished command to Assistant Chief Tim Norris.
As for lessons learned, Case offers this: “I need some more time to digest everything that has happened but one thing is you must always be prepared for the worst. Don’t think it can’t happen to you? It will.”
Case adds: “To all who responded, I want to say thank you as an officer and as a friend. Everyone here did a fantastic job. The span of control was flawless. There was no freelancing. The scene was secure. We went in and did our jobs to the best of our abilities. I am super proud of the responders.”
For more on the crash, check out my earlier interview with another first responder
, as well as FirefighterNation’s continuing coverage
Janelle Foskett is senior editor of FireRescue magazine.