Bartlett warehouse fire took 6 days to put out, and officials still don't know what sparked it
It was the sound that made Bartlett Fire Protection District Deputy Chief Brian Becker stop in his tracks.
But he wouldn't be stationary for long.
"I had made it within 10 feet of entering the building and there was some sort of collapse, and there was this tremendously loud noise," Becker recalled. "Then there was this massive gust of wind that blew me out the door I had just come in."
Bartlett firefighters were first alerted to the blaze at the enormous document storage warehouse just 15 minutes earlier, but suddenly Becker found himself being manhandled by air pressure created as tons of water-soaked cardboard boxes and metal shelving toppled to the ground nearby.
Becker remembers being more confused than frightened. "I'm 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 250 pounds, so I'm a big guy," he said. "To have that kind of wind pressure push you through a door was a new experience."
Though disoriented, Becker quickly relayed to the command post outside that any firefighters inside Access Corp.'s 250,000-square-foot warehouse should immediately get out.
Evacuation alarms from fire trucks blared into the frigid morning air.
The nine firefighters who had gone into the building Feb. 3 all made it out safely. So did the five employees of Access Corp. document storage and two HVAC contractors who were inside when the fire started just after 9:30 a.m.
It would be more than six days until the blaze was officially extinguished, requiring 132 firefighters, 13 paramedics and 40 other support personnel on hand throughout the ordeal, according to recently released investigative reports.
Meanwhile, investigators are still trying to determine why a document storage rack system failed so easily and what ignited the fire.
"It was luck, but also a lot of skill that kept those firefighters from getting killed when those racks started falling," said Bartlett Fire Chief William Gabrenya. "I've gone on record saying those racks came down way too fast."
"There was a lot of opportunity for people to get hurt," Becker said.
Point of ignition
Scores of investigators from an array of insurance companies are still sifting through the rubble at 1200 Humbracht Circle, trying to determine what happened that caused an estimated $36 million in damage and property loss.
Every day, dozens of vehicles ring the charred remnants of the warehouse, where a few temporary tents have been erected as well.
Attempts to reach officials from Access Corp. and employees who were there that day were unsuccessful. Company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The cause of the fire that felled the massive warehouse last month is listed as "unintentional" in the Bartlett Fire Protection District's investigative reports, which means it was accidental, Gabrenya said.
What sparked it, though, remains "undetermined."
"There's a 40-foot area inside we were interested in where the fire started," Becker said. "We were sifting through the debris to find items of interest."
Within that debris field was one of two heating units hung from the ceiling to keep water in the sprinkler system from freezing.
The day of the fire, contractors from a Tinley Park HVAC repair company were replacing parts in the units that had outlived their life expectancies.
According to the report, fire investigators interviewed an Access employee named Marco Lopez who was replacing document boxes on the top shelf of the 12-shelf racks, estimated to be roughly 40 feet tall, near one of the contractors when he saw a "spark" drop from the heating unit nearby.
A few minutes later, Lopez told investigators, the contractor shouted "fire or flames or something like that."
Lopez said he looked down and could see embers.
"It almost looked like you put out a fire and there are still red flakes in there, kinda like that," he told investigators. "Like almost it was barely starting."
Both men lowered their scissor lifts and fled the building, investigators reported.
The contractor told investigators he never saw a spark or flames, just smoke about 50 feet southwest of where he was working before he alerted Lopez.
Investigators note multiple times in the more than 50 pages of reports that before the fire, the contractor "removed a 24-gauge hot wire" from the thermostat instead of "using the breaker or the switch that was located above the unit."
"They would have made note of that if that wasn't the proper procedure," Gabrenya said.
Calls to the HVAC company were not returned.
From bad to worse
The first arriving crews encountered moderate smoke inside the warehouse.
As firefighters made their way deeper into the warehouse, they encountered flames and upgraded the alarm as the building's overhead sprinkler system activated.
Gabrenya said he believes that as the water soaked the boxes of documents stored floor to ceiling on the 40-foot-tall racks, the weight from the additional water compromised the rack system, causing it to collapse.
The collapse of the racks also took out the sprinkler system when the ceiling caved in. The outside air fed oxygen to the fire, allowing it to spread with greater ease.
Soon, the walls started collapsing, too.
Gabrenya said they initially moved personnel and vehicles more than 100 feet away from the building when the walls started tumbling.
When he discovered "a big piece of metal wrapped around my car, we knew we had to increase the collapse zone." That drove firefighters back even further, making it hard for water to reach the blaze.
During the more than 150 hours spent fighting and containing the blaze, only two firefighters suffered injuries, both due to icy conditions throughout the week. Neither required hospitalization, according to the reports.
"That was one of our biggest challenges, because for several days it was below freezing out there and with heavy winds," Gabrenya said. "We had to deal with freezing pumps and keeping people warm and hydrated. We had to have salt trucks come out to keep the area from turning into an ice-skating rink."
The warehouse blaze was the largest operation Gabrenya has had to deal with in his career. He believes it's the largest most of the firefighters who worked it have had to deal with as well.
He noted years of training can provide some preparation, but "once you're in it, it's a whole new world."
In the aftermath, Gabrenya said his agency lost roughly $10,000 in equipment, mostly from initial crews fleeing the collapsing building. Bartlett firefighters alone racked up more than $75,000 in overtime costs, too.
He said he's hoping to work with safety groups such as Underwriters Laboratories in Northbrook or the National Fire Protection Association to re-examine building codes for these types of warehouses in an effort to prevent the type of infrastructure collapses experienced during the fire.
"This really could've been a different story," he said.