Firefighters injured in New Orleans mansion fire

Copyright 2006 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company 
Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

Three minutes after arriving at an Old Metairie mansion fire Monday, Lt. Glenn Artego and firefighters Kevin Saltalamachia and Clay Taylor rushed into the foyer of the vacant, 10,000-square-foot house and began to climb a staircase, balancing over the exposed joists where the floorboards had been ripped out for flood renovations.

Suddenly, the entire room ignited in a "flashover," enveloping the men in flames that shot 12 feet out the front door.

The blast knocked them from the staircase to the ground, where they became wedged between the exposed floor beams, in a room swirling with smoke under temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees, officials said. The fall had cut the oxygen hose from one firefighter's mask, ripped the masks from the faces of the other two and knocked the helmets off all three.

"This had the potential for us to have three fatalities," said Superintendent Jack Collier of the East Bank Consolidated Fire Department on Tuesday.

Rescuers dashed inside and removed the three, but no other crews were allowed to enter the house. As a result, it took firefighters more than five hours to snuff the flames.

All three men had inhaled smoke and suffered burns to their faces, necks and ears. They were treated at East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie and released, but Artego might require plastic surgery, Collier said.

"One of the firefighters told me it was like having fire from his feet to above his head," Fire Department spokesman George Rigamer said.

No one else was injured in the blaze.

Rigamer said no one has been living in the house, at 15 Englewood Parkway, since Hurricane Katrina pushed four feet of water into it. Efforts to reach the owner, Robert Weinmann, were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Investigators from the East Bank fire department, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are trying to determine the cause of the fire. There were no utilities connected to the building, Rigamer said.

"Anything is possible. We haven't ruled anything out," he said.

The property, including its two-story house, was valued by the Jefferson Parish assessor's office at $1.6 million in 2004 and, after Katrina, at less than $1.1 million in 2005.

Next-door neighbor Carey Hammett reported the fire Monday at about 8:30 p.m., after seeing large amounts of black smoke coming from the roof. Nearby oak trees prevented firefighters from using ladders or helicopter water drops, and low water pressure hampered their early efforts from the ground, Collier said.

After the firefighters' rescue, crews confined their attack to the outside the house, at one point mounting Hammett's garage to keep the flames from spreading.

Five engines, two ladder trucks and two rescue squads finally snuffed the fire about 1:48 a.m., Rigamer said. By then, the second floor had partially collapsed, and some of the brick walls had crumbled to the ground.

Collier said he's concerned about fires in homes under renovation. Most homes are compartmentalized, with finite amounts of oxygen inside. But when a house has been gutted in preparation for reconstruction, gaps and holes in the walls, ceiling and floor can give a blaze unlimited access to oxygen.

"That can make a fire grow more rapidly," he said.

Firefighters injured in New Orleans mansion fireFirefighters injured in New Orleans mansion fire
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