Ithaca, N.Y. — Ithaca crews arriving at the scene of a multi-building fire on Stewart Avenue early Tuesday morning faced a daunting task.

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With flames erupting inside an apartment building, they had no time to waste in making sure all the residents safely made it out.

But they also had to make sure that the fire didn’t spread — if not contained, it could have jumped to other buildings and even engulfed much of the block, according to Lt. Thomas Basher.

“The first crews have to make hard decisions,” says Basher, of the Ithaca Fire Department.

As crews arrived around 4 a.m., they initially only had 11 firefighters, including the ones who had to run the truck and run the ladder. (Three volunteer fire departments and many off-duty IFD officers would later also be called to the scene.)

Firefighters entering the smoke-filled building had essentially no visibility, according to Basher.

The lieutenant turned to a comparison to convey the difficulty of their task: Imagine walking from your front-door to your bedroom with no lights. Hard, but not impossible. Now imagine doing it in a house you’ve never been in before.

“It’s usually zero visibility when they’re in there,” Basher said.

The firefighters went in with a hose, wearing thermal imaging cameras and “self-contained breathing apparatuses” — which are like scuba tanks, Basher says.

Ithaca firefighters would later discover that everybody had made it out OK, probably thanks to the alarm. (One person was unaccounted for but later discovered to be out of town and fine; two buildings — including the one holding The Chapter House — have been declared total losses.)

But at the time firefighters scoured the burning building, putting themselves at risk, they didn’t know what the damage would be.

“We always want to go for the victims first,” Basher says.

Then there was another obstacle: The buildings had multiple stories, meaning firefighters went up and down different floors on the burning Stewart Avenue building.

Firefighters are trained to walk along the side part of the stairs — according to Basher, it’s the section least likely to cave. “We stay wide because it’s the strongest part of the steps,” he said.

Could there have been a risk of the fall collapsing below them? “It’s an absolute concern,” Basher said.

That didn’t stop the firefighters from doing what they could to search for possible victims.

“They did a great job,” Basher said. “Searching the building with the building on fire is very, very difficult.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Mayor Svante Myrick, who said he watched fire fighters work for five hours on Tuesday morning.

“I can’t overstate how well they performed — efficiently, quickly and professionally,” Myrick said. “When the fire was at its most involved, they went in and searched the building.”

The most visible sign of damage on Stewart Avenue remains to the buildings, with whole chunks sheared off by the flames. But Myrick, in an interview, pointed to a smaller — but no less powerful — detail.

“Some of the firefighters’ helmets down there,” Myrick said, “are just covered in black.”


Full round-up of Ithaca Voice’s Chapter House fire coverage


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.