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Fire and structural collapse in a multi-storey building in São Paulo

Category: International Firefighting Team of the Year

Fire department: Corpo de Bombeiros da Polícia Militar do Estado de São Paulo (Brazil)

Operation: Fire and collapse of a building

Intervention time frame: 01/05/2018 at 1:30 a.m. to 13/05/2018 at 10:30 a.m.

The 25-storey building Wilton Paes de Almeida was located on Antonio de Godoi Street at Rio Branco Avenue, in downtown, São Paulo. Total area of 11,669.83 m² and height of 72.41 m and 25 stories. It was an old and unsafe building, formerly used as a federal police facility and then inhabited by approximately 150 squatters. Originally, the building had a fire protection system designed & approved for this building -classified as D-01; due to its occupancy by squatters however, this was changed to A-02 which demands a different fire protection system.

In March 2015, the Fire Department made a technical inspection and verified a high risk of fire situation due to the irregular inhabitation. This report was sent to São Paulo’s City Hall and District attorney’s Office, so actions could be taken to remove squatters and a new purpose would be given to the building once it had been remodelled.

On May 1st, the building collapsed after a fire raged through the edifice and spread to two other structures nearby. After the structure collapsed, the Fire Department began to fight the flames in the rubble and started the search for survivors. The first emergency response-team arrived on the scene around 01:37 a.m. together with 25 vehicles and 84 Firefighters. 

A total number of 170 firefighters were involved in the procedure until the structural collapse of the building. All firefighting and rescue activities in the collapsed structure was coordinated and operated by the São Paulo State Fire Department (CBPMESP) and executed through its teams.


Interventions sequence report:

On May 1st, around 01:30 a.m., Fire Department Team was contacted through emergency line "193" and warned about the fire. First response emergency team was immediately sent to the location of fire. Upon arrival, the second fire brigade’s team encountered a large fire. The tactical phases of firefighting began:  a) Initial situation analysis, b) rescue, c) isolation, d) confinement, e) extinction f) conclusion.

Three service areas were set-up: hot, warm and cold, with the help of CET (company responsible for traffic engineering) who interdicted several streets.

a) Situation analysis

The Incident Commander made the following evaluations:

  1. Building construction: 25 floors, only one access to the interior of the building, through a stairway. Unclear whether the building would resist the fire without collapsing.
  2. Fire’s characteristics: high probability of existing fire loads inside the building and irradiating heat to two other nearby structures.
  3. People at risk: the building was irregularly used by squatters.
  4. Potential risks of the emergency: a real risk of structural building collapse added to the fact that there were many people still inside of the building whom need to be removed fast. 

In regards to the Firefighters, human resources and equipment, there was a high risk of human lives as well as materials goods losses.

  1. Fire department resources:  25 fire engines and 84 firefighters working on the scene. Water- supply conditions were not ideal.

b) Coordination of Rescue Teams

While some teams began acting against the fire, other teams started searching and exploring inside the building. According to residents who had already left the fire scene, there were several people missing and it was highly possible that they were still inside.

Residents of neighbouring buildings were evacuated because of the high heat radiating from fire. Around 20 firefighters inspected the whole building and found some people who refused to leave. They were then, removed by force to join the remaining residents in a safe place. 

A search team located a victim, who was outside the building, hanging from the lightning arrester’s wire on the 12th floor. To rescue this person, the search team had to access the neighbouring building and create several accesses (forced entrances) until reaching the closest point where the victim was, approximately 10 meters. 

The team divided the tasks: while a firefighter talked to the victim, other firefighters set up a rescue system using ropes and accessories. No physical point was available in the place for a safe anchorage system, needed in order to execute the rescue of the victim. The team decided then to use a human anchorage to access the victim, using a firefighter on the base. A rescue chair was set up and thrown to the victim, because there was no way to physically reach the victim using only ropes. With the guidance of the team leader, the victim was able to put the rescue chair. While rope protection was taking place, to avoid rope breakage, the building collapsed taking the victim down. 

During interview by a local newspaper after building’s collapse, the search team chief who was in the rescue told the press: "We needed another 30 seconds to save him." After the structural collapse, the number of people to be located by firefighters varied greatly due to the inaccuracy of information, ranging from five to 44 people.


b) Isolation

One of the concerns was to avoid the spread of fire to the two nearby structures. For that, firefighting vehicles, auto-platform and turntable ladders vehicles were used. However, it was not possible to avoid the spread to the nearby building, across the street.


c) Confinement and Firefighting Operations

There were two goals in fighting the fire:  

  1. To avoid the spreading to the other two nearby structures 
  2. To avoid the structural collapse of the building 

For that, firefighting vehicles, auto-platform and turntable ladders vehicles were operating full time. Due to the fast spread of the fire, a defensive strategy was adopted with external fire combat and direct attack by firefighter teams. After the fire spread to the building across the street, firefighting teams were moved and started internal combat with direct attack on some apartments. 

The fast spread of heat and intense thermal energy emitted by the fire, made a lot of metal structure and glass fall, damaging equipment and cutting firefighting hoses. It was necessary to reallocate some teams to a safer place without affecting firefighting efficiency.

After the structural collapse of the building due to the fire, the Fire Department began to act by cooling rubble, conducting searches for victims, removing materials.

The hypotheses raised about the origin of the fire were: criminal act, pressure cooker explosion or P-13 LPG cylinder, followed by fire; electrical short-circuits; among others.


e) Conclusion 

As a result, on May 13, by the end of operations:

  • 01 collapsed building;
  • 07 resident -people that died due to the fire were located and identified;
  • 03 damaged neighbouring buildings;
  • 1,700 firefighters, taking turns on 12-hour shifts;
  • 298,5 working hours;
  • About 3,000 tons of rubble that were removed from the scene;
  • 248 people were homeless;
  • 17 firefighting companies worked involved.