The call came in to meet the Fire Department (FDNY) for a manhole fire at a location in an underground network area, made up of mostly multi-family homes and large apartment buildings.
It was the morning prior to the start the high holy days, in a neighborhood with a predominantly Orthodox Jewish population.
When I arrived, the Red Wagon (Underground Troubleshooter) crew was already venting the manhole (a secondary service box). The hole was smoking heavily, with the adjacent structures relatively quiet. Due to the heavy concentration of smoke and type of cables and ducting involved, we realized that CO levels could be hazardous. The FDNY team was already checking the larger buildings for possible CO (carbon monoxide) danger and that the elevators were working.
As the troubleshooter and I were assessing the job, a pleasant elderly woman came walking up and asked us if the lights would be affected. She stated that she was on her way to go shopping and needed to be able cook the holiday meal before start of the holy days that afternoon. After reassuring her, she went on her way.
Checking the three-family building in front of the box, the CO readings in the first-floor hallway were well over 100ppm, with the landing on the second floor not much lower. I asked the Lieutenant to have his firefighters start checking the adjacent homes while I began evacuating the building.
The apartment door on the first floor was answered by a young dad, holding a baby that looked to be about one – two weeks old (tiny). Looking past him, I saw a couple of other young children in the apartment. I explained the situation and told him that he, and whoever was in the apartment with him, would have to leave until we cleared the CO. He refused! I tried to reason with him, telling him to, at least, get the children out because it was dangerous. He gave me a disinterested look and closed the door.
I requested a police presence to help and returned to the building. The tenant on the second floor was a bit more agreeable. Though hesitant at first, they agreed to leave. Going up to the third floor, there was no answer at the door and the CO levels were in the hazardous level.
When the policed arrived, I explained the situation and my concern about the first and third floor apartments. With the building’s levels of carbon monoxide, this could be a matter of life and death. The police officers spoke to the man on the ground floor as the lieutenant, a firefighter and I went up to check the top floor again.
With no one answering the door, we were concerned that someone could be unconscious inside. Looking at each other with a shared sense of agreement, the younger fireman smiled, took a step back and crashed through the door, splintering the door jamb.
The two of them searched the apartment and thankfully found it empty.
As we left the building, I saw the woman who had spoken to me earlier. She asked me what was happening and about the evacuations. As I explained, I asked, “Why where do you live?” She replied, “Right here. On the third floor.”