Under Fire

Mike Estrada was supposed to be ordered away from a burning building by his superior. It was just one of many mistakes that put him in harm's way.

Estrada remembers little from his journey to the hospital after the collapse, except for the part where he woke up in the ambulance begging for morphine. He had what's called a multisystem trauma, so medics couldn't risk slowing his breathing to a standstill by administering narcotics. Estrada had been trained as a paramedic, so he understood this perfectly well. But he begged for it anyway. Then he passed out.

During the following week, while Estrada waited to find out whether doctors would have to amputate his leg, many of his fellow firefighters visited him in the hospital. One visit, he says, was particularly memorable. Battalion Chief Charles Crane had been supervising Estrada and his crew at the time of the collapse. At Estrada's hospital bedside, Crane took full responsibility for what had happened. Estrada says this confession was confusing at the time — it wasn't until later, when he was looking over the incident reports, that he began to understand.

Investigators believe that the warehouse caught fire when faulty electrical wiring went haywire. The wiring was connected to grow lights feeding an illegal marijuana farm of 80 to 100 plants. The department's Assistant Deputy Chief, Barbara Schultheis, mentioned Estrada's injuries in a recent press conference highlighting reasons that grow houses pose particularly dangerous fire hazards: "One San Francisco firefighter was seriously injured in an illegal warehouse operation fire this year when a part of the structure collapsed onto him," she said.

Although it wasn’t clear at first how many firefighters were trapped under the debris after the collapse, those working closest to Estrada knew they would have to pull him from the wreckage.
Video stills courtesy of a San Francisco resident
Although it wasn’t clear at first how many firefighters were trapped under the debris after the collapse, those working closest to Estrada knew they would have to pull him from the wreckage.
Firefighters manning the ladder hose pointed their stream downward to put out the fire on top of Estrada, while others swarmed to his rescue.
Video stills courtesy of a San Francisco resident
Firefighters manning the ladder hose pointed their stream downward to put out the fire on top of Estrada, while others swarmed to his rescue.

But it wasn't pot farming that almost killed Estrada in the early hours of May 21. It was the wall facade at the front of the warehouse, which had appeared unstable from the start. In their reports, officers identified the building as a single-story warehouse with a wood roof and concrete parapet wall — a continuation of an exterior wall beyond roof level. Just the presence of these walls should be considered a collapse warning sign, according to fire safety expert Vincent Dunn.

Fire had already engulfed three-quarters of the Revere Avenue warehouse by the time firefighters arrived. Most of them gathered at the incident command post, which acts as the fulcrum of a fire scene, where firefighters are required to check in with their superiors to get their assignments. The post was set up across the street from the front of the warehouse, just outside the periphery of the building's collapse zone.

Designated safety officer Bryan Rubenstein checked to make sure firefighters would be safe by conducting a 360-degree examination of the fire, looking for hazards like parapet walls before they claimed lives. He wrote in his incident report following the fire that he was in the midst of his examination when the wall collapsed. Before he made his rounds, he wrote that he advised crews to stay away from the sidewalk next to the building, but that he "did not pull crews back [one to one and a half] times the height of the building."

Gardner, who took over full command of the fire scene when he arrived 10 minutes before the collapse, said that he gave clear orders to establish a safety zone. He believes that firefighters awaiting their orders at incident command had begun creeping slowly toward the building without realizing it. Although Gardner's orders may have been given verbally, they were never dispatched over the radio to other officers at the scene, according to incident reports, radio transcripts, recordings of radio communications between officers and incident command, and sources in the fire department.

It wasn't until Estrada began reading incident reports that he learned Crane had received a verbal order from Gardner to clear the safety zone a few minutes before the collapse. Crane wrote in his narrative of events: "Gardner ordered me to pull back the crews from the front of the building and reaffirmed the fact that no one was to enter the building." Crane didn't indicate whether he relayed this command. Instead, he wrote, he instructed crews — including Estrada's — to continue working:

"We continued to fight the fire for several minutes and I kept monitoring the status of the building."

Crane's original report, dated May 21, doesn't mention that he had received orders to get the crews back. But in an addendum dated May 23, he gave a far more detailed account of events that included Gardner's order. Estrada says that when he read this part of Crane's report, the hospital bedside confession began to make more sense.

Although Crane preferred not to comment for this story, he wrote in his report that he turned briefly from the warehouse just before the collapse to order firefighters to stay away from a spot where he knew power lines attached to the roof were about to come down. Then he heard a large crash. When he turned back, he saw that the wall had fallen on Estrada.


Estrada wiggled his toes with pride. His right foot was puffy, like it had been overstuffed, and tissue on the front of his shin appeared to be bulging out from under a sheath of hard, scaly skin. Above that, darkened burn scars the shape of T-bones ran up the entirety of his right leg. But that day, propped on the exam table at St. Mary's waiting for his doctor, the fact that he could wiggle his toes was enough for Estrada to praise God.

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