Come Hell or High Water: Firefighting Operations

Come Hell or High Water

Surely it would be every firefighter's worst nightmare to watch a young couple burn to death only feet away while you fight for their rescue or watch them drown while you cut them out of a sinking ship with saws failing from melting fiberglass and cascading foam, but both outcomes were impending realities for Firefighter Nick DiGiacomo when he responded with Miami Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) Fireboat 1 to a yacht fire at the Miami Beach (FL) marina in the early morning of March 31, 2008.

On Call

The crew of Fireboat 1 was asleep in a singlewide trailer at the Port of Miami when Captain Mike Parker, who monitored the VHF radio even while dozing, heard a Mayday over Channel 16. Bouncer's Dusky, a charter boat at the Miami Beach Marina, radioed that there was a yacht on fire. Parker woke his crew, and they jumped onboard their 50-foot, jet-driven, custom-designed fireboat and headed out into the dark. They could smell smoke from a mile away and see the glow of flames from Government Cut, a manmade shipping channel between Miami Beach and Fisher Island.

Despite the fact that Miami is the cruise ship capital of the world, is the number one recreational boating community in the nation, and has the largest container port in Florida, Fireboat 1 was the only fireboat in service. Although the United States Coast Guard is trained to mitigate its own vessel fires, it does not perform fire suppression for other vessels. With more than 300 miles of coastline in Miami-Dade County, Fireboat 1 was the only game in town.

The fireboat, powered by 1,000-hp Twin Cat C18 engines, cut across the Miami Channel. The MetalCraft Firestorm can stop on a dime at any speed within one boat length, and as it slowed entering the marina, the crew found not one but three yachts on fire, including the 85-foot Grand Larceny. Auxiliary Crew Member Nick DiGiacomo said that, on arrival, it looked like everything was aflame. The radiant heat was so intense that Fireboat 1 could barely get close to it.

The Miami Beach Fire Department had arrived landside and personnel were pulling hoselines from the marina's dock and moving nonburning vessels away from the burning yachts, which were secured so high-powered water streams wouldn't push them into other boats or structures or out to sea.

DiGiacomo wasn't nervous. In the year Fireboat 1 had been in service, crew members had fought multiple boat fires and trained extensively. They'd even written their own standard operating procedures (SOPs). They knew what to do.

Operator Rinerio Cairo piloted Fireboat 1 to the stern of the Grand Larceny, staying upwind, out of the smoke. Boats are made to shed water, and streams flowing onto the bow will cascade right off the boat. By hitting the boat from the stern, fire crews can direct water into the boat's interior. Often the door to the salon has already failed, but if not, the crew members can blow it open with a water stream.

Everything was going according to plan. Fireboat 1 began to hit Grand Larceny's stern with five-inch piped monitors on the bow and roof when a voice rang out from Bouncer's Dusky, which was not on fire.

Discovering a Survivor

"There's someone inside! Someone's alive!"

DiGiacomo, bunkered out on the fireboat's deck, didn't believe it. Flames were pouring off the Grand Larceny, and its deck was fully involved and collapsing. The salon was engulfed. "There's no way anyone could survive that amount of fire," DiGiacomo says. "It was unfathomable that anyone could be alive." Suddenly, an arm popped out of a small porthole below deck. "That changed our tactics entirely," he says.

Fireboat 1 approached bow to bow, into the smoke, on the downwind side, the crew off book with SOPs scrapped. Black smoke rolled off the Grand Larceny in thick waves. "I thought we were watching someone die," DiGiacomo says, but personnel were determined to extricate that person, even if it meant a body recovery.

While Operator Cairo maneuvered the fireboat to the Grand Larceny's port side, Engineer Dennis Barnett ran two monitors wide open with a 20° fog, creating a water curtain to hold back the fire. Their only choice for rescue was to cut through the fiberglass hull. The porthole, barely big enough for an arm, was steel framed and made with impact glass. The plan was to make a triangle cut around it. But the Grand Larceny was burning up as they worked. Four thousand gallons per minute (gpm) of water served only to hold the fire at bay; it was not knocking it down.

With Fireboat 1 aside the Grand Larceny, DiGiacomo realized the fireboat's deck was too high to access the Larceny's porthole. He was in effect above the victims and could not cut his way down to them. There were fuel lines, refrigeration lines, air-conditioning systems, and inverters powered at 120 volts to contend with. He'd been shocked multiple times on boat fires and preferred to avoid the experience.


They would need another boat, so Bouncer's Dusky, the civilian charter boat that had called the Mayday, jumped into action. The smaller boat picked up DiGiacomo and a Miami Beach firefighter and then squeezed between Fireboat 1 and Grand Larceny.

Bouncer's Dusky's deck was the perfect height. It put the two firefighters at the right level to access the victim. DiGiacomo peered in the porthole to see two teenagers huddled in the bathroom with a narrow door their only protection from fire. There wasn't one victim now but two. And superheated water was filling the yacht, running down into the lowest part of the vessel where the young couple waited on the verge of drowning.

It's an interesting paradox of marine firefighting that while you extinguish the flames you are actually sinking the vessel. Boats are made to keep water out, not take it on, which is why a fireboat must dewater the vessel at the same time it is attacking it. So while Fireboat 1 flowed two master streams and 4,000 gpm of water to simply hold back the flames, the Grand Larceny began to sink.

DiGiacomo and the Miami Beach firefighter had two saws: a chain saw and a K12. While they went to work cutting through the fiberglass hull, Captain Parker, incident command, was on the radio with the Coast Guard, the MDFR Fire Alarm Office, the Miami Beach Fire Department, and the Fish and Wildlife Commission. Pilot Cairo was holding Fireboat 1 in place against nozzle pressure, wind, current, and the weight of the other boats to which it had tied off. Engineer Barnett operated the twin Hale 3,000-gpm pumps, directed streams, and supplied DiGiacomo with equipment.

Fireboat Challenges

All Fireboat 1 crew members have a United States Coast Guard operator uninspected passenger vessel captain's license, and the pilot has a minimum 50 ton rating. They are department certified marine firefighters, MDFR scuba rescue divers, and paramedics. At a fire, they each have very specific tasks and, as is common in special ops, understand that backup is usually not coming. There is no rehab, no rapid intervention team, and no two-in/two-out.

With a boat fire, nothing is static. The fireboat is in transition. The vessel on fire is in transition. The deck beneath your feet is moving. Water streams can push their target away. With a house fire, you don't have to worry about pushing a house into another house. Often the fireboat crew works in rolling seas that toss them around the ship in low visibility. Getting shocked from power running through a boat is common. If they fall overboard with their steel-toed boots and bunker gear, they are most likely going down. Plus, they don't have an air truck standing by full of fresh self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottles, so they save theirs for entry. MDFR has one of the few fireboats in the nation that actually makes entry on a burning vessel but, as DiGiacomo explained, if a boat is on fire at sea, there's a high chance someone is on board—the boat didn't get there on its own.

Space was a luxury DiGiacomo didn't have aboard Bouncer's Dusky. The deck was cramped and DiGiacomo and the Miami Beach firefighter took turns cutting while foam and water poured over them. The saws began to fail from water, foam, and fiberglass resin melting onto the blade. They were basically cutting through glass. "It's very hard and tedious, very slow. You have to use a lot of water to keep the substrate cool and hope you make entry and cut through before the blade is destroyed," DiGiacomo says. When a saw bound up, they switched it out. It was ferried to the dock, where personnel blew out the carburetor and got it running again.

Limited Time

Meanwhile, time was passing. Inside the yacht, boiling water was rising, forcing the teens to climb onto the vanity. Smoke filled the bathroom, choking them. DiGiacomo handed them his mask through the porthole and secured his bottle, which wouldn't fit, to the railing. But Grand Larceny was sinking faster than they could cut. He couldn't imagine it going down with the couple trapped inside. If it sank, they'd have to send in divers. It would be a nightmare. It wasn't an option. They were going to get them out.

DiGiacomo continued to cut, breathing in smoke and glass. Resin burns off fiberglass first, followed by particulates of glass in the smoke that settles on you. The fibers were black from the soot and they flowed onto him in delicate sheets, down his collar, into his eyes, seeping through his bunker gear. Everyone else was masked up, but there wasn't time to track down a spare mask. Grand Larceny was on the verge of going down, and fire was breaking through the bathroom door.

Thirty minutes in, they were still fighting to break through the hull. The noise was deafening: boat engines running, firefighters yelling, and saws screaming. The trapped young man came to the window and yelled that fire was at the door. Firefighters scrambled, and DiGiacomo threaded a 1¾-inch handline through the window, explaining how to use it. The young man aimed it at the door, opened the bail, and held back the flames. Meanwhile, the couple's SCBA bottle had run dry. Another was called for, and cutting ceased while the bottle was switched out. Now DiGiacomo and the Miami Beach firefighter had to cut around an attack line and an SCBA hose.

Finally, they completed the triangle cut. The chain saw was plunged through to the hilt but they weren't breaking through; something was holding the fiberglass in place. DiGiacomo jammed a halligan bar into a gap and tried to pry the obstruction out; it didn't work. He'd been working without gloves, changing out saws, and he stuck his bare hands through the gap, praying his fingers wouldn't get pinched off; felt for the obstruction; and, with feet placed against the hull of the boat, pulled with all his strength.

The fiberglass broke free, and DiGiacomo crashed to the deck. The girl squeezed through the hole first, and then the boy, but he was bigger and more muscular, and he got stuck at his hips. "I'm not going to fit," he said.

"Like hell you're not," DiGiacomo thought, and the two firefighters grabbed the young man and yanked him through.

Ten minutes later, the Grand Larceny sank.

Making the Difference

Miraculously, the survivors were uninjured. All the young man suffered was a swollen hand from trying to punch out the porthole. DiGiacomo, on the other hand, coughed up blood for days. "If I get lung cancer," he says, "I'll know what fire caused it." But after the rescue, the crews were ecstatic. DiGiacomo wasn't even tired; he was just thrilled the rescue was a success.

"With special ops, you do all this training and go through crazy scenarios and don't always get to really do it," DiGiacomo says, "but this time all the stuff you train for, it actually goes to work and you pull out a win. It was a big validation." Years later, his voice still hums with excitement when he talks about it. "Without the fireboat, these kids would be dead. There was no conceivable scenario they would have survived. Without 4,000 gpm of water, they would not have survived. It is undeniable, absolute proof this asset saved those lives and probably saved the whole marina from burning," DiGiacomo adds.

And yet South Florida's fireboats are an endangered species. They are the only fire-
fighting, scuba rescue diving, and EMS platforms available on the water. Law enforcement vessels, including the Coast Guard, respond to emergencies, but they do not have fire suppression, scuba, or EMS capabilities. In a single year, MDFR's fireboat has responded to vessels in distress, medical and trauma patients, drowning and missing persons, fires, vessel collisions, cruise ship medevacs, Cuban and Haitian refugees, suicide and bridge jumpers, and down aircraft.

More than four million people pass through Miami's port, and yet both the City of Miami and Miami Dade Fire Departments have had to fight to keep their boats in service. Sometimes, because of budget constraints, Miami-Dade County has no fireboats in service at all. (MDFR's Fireboat 2 is currently shut down.)

DiGiacomo never did know which Miami Beach firefighter he was working beside. The firefighter was masked up and DiGiacomo couldn't recognize his face. Eventually, a second unknown Miami Beach firefighter was ferried over to help them. All three were determined to retrieve the victims even if the young couple succumbed to fire during the rescue. "We would have killed ourselves to pull out their bodies," DiGiacomo says.

It's amazing that firefighters are willing to risk so much, and yet we can't find a way to keep these boats in service.

Stay in Service

Nick DiGiacomo fought aside another firefighter whose face he did not recognize and whose name he still does not know. This is the brotherhood. This is firefighter nation. When we are truly on a life-or-death call, we express our highest nature; everything else falls aside. Rivalries, politics, departments, nationality, and religion—none of it matters when a call comes in. It is simply a human being fighting to save another human's life because somewhere deep down inside we instinctually know that life is worth fighting for.

DiGiacomo never did see the young couple again, but that's okay because he knows they're out there—alive. When I asked him if this changed him as a firefighter, he said, "I'm always an optimist now."

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