“COLLYER’S MANSION CONDITIONS” -Tactical Considerations For Hoarder Houses By: Jake Hoffman
Whatever you call them, buildings full of junk present an immense amount of danger to crews operating on the fireground. When faced with Collyer’s Mansion conditions, does your operational strategy change? How do you communicate this as a company officer to the Incident Commander? Fires like these aren’t common, however they aren’t rare either, read below for the background on the term “Collyer’s Mansion Conditions.”
Below are pictures from the New York State Photo Archives from the Collyer Brothers’ home in Harlem.
Homer and Langley Collyer were two eccentric brothers who lived together in their brownstone, with little to no contact with the outside world. They lived for over 20 years with no electricity, water, or heat, while accumulating unbelievable amounts of clutter.
Due to their isolationist nature and pop culture status as eccentrics, they kept all exterior doors locked, windows barred, and set up multiple booby traps to keep intruders out.
On March 21st, 1947, an anonymous caller phoned the NYPD demanding that there was a dead body in the Collyer house. As the police had multiple run-ins with the Collyer brothers over the years, they promptly sent an officer to investigate. The officer could not gain entry to the house due to the fortress like conditions he was faced with. An Emergency Services unit eventually gained access to the interior of the dwelling by laddering the building and digging their way through the clutter that was stacked floor to ceiling. After 5 hours of searching, crews found the body of Homer Collyer. His autopsy identified starvation as the primary cause of death.
It was originally thought that Langley Collyer had been the anonymous caller that had tipped the NYPD off to the body and either skipped town or had died. Various rumors circulated that Langley had eloped to the Jersey Shore or left the New York City area entirely, police performed an exhaustive manhunt of the entire eastern seaboard looking for the only remaining Collyer brother.
On April 8th, over two weeks after the original call regarding a dead body at the Collyer Mansion, the body of Langley Collyer was found 10 FEET from where his brother had been found, killed by a booby trap of his own design.
Throughout the search for the Collyer Brothers, crews removed over 19 tons of junk from the ground floor ALONE, including over a horse’s jawbone, an x ray machine, and a piano among countless other items.
In all, over 120 TONS of debris was removed from the Collyer Mansion including over 25,000 books, the frame of a Ford Model T, human organs pickled in jars, 8 live cats, a horse drawn carriage, and 14 pianos.
Even in the absence of fire and smoke conditions, crews were faced with a daunting task to simply find two bodies. If two people got trapped and died in a house which they had lived in for over 30 years and had perfect visibility, how dangerous would these conditions have been in a fire?
They say that houses aren’t built the way they used to be. While we all know this to be true due to increased use of trusses, lightweight I beams, composite materials, etc., this house maintained a load of 120 TONS WITHOUT COLLAPSING!!!
While petroleum based products weren’t the staple of home furnishings in 1947 that they are today, can you imagine the Heat Release Rate (HRR) that a fire in this structure would create?! Even if the fire could be knocked down by interior lines or reset via transitional attack, would crews be able to go interior and finish the job? What kind of impact might the increased live load of all the clutter being soaked in water have on the structural integrity of the structure?
As a firefighter or company officer, you need to communicate any abnormal conditions (including Collyer’s Mansion) to the Incident Commander immediately and evaluate if you are in a tenable position or if the risk is too great to maintain your current position. If your gut tells you it’s no good, TRUST YOUR GUT!!!
As an Incident Commander, you need to track where all crews on the fireground are operating at all times and you need to empower your crews so that they feel comfortable telling you that they cannot advance. As we all know, appearances aren’t always as they may seem, and what may look as a workable job from the outside may very well turn out to be too dangerous for interior crews. If Collyer’s Mansion Conditions are present, you should strongly consider calling for additional resources early on in the incident. Even if crews cannot make it into the structure and take a defensive posture, these fires will undoubtedly be a long, manpower intensive operation.
Have you responded to a fire where “Hoarder” or “Collyer’s Mansion” conditions were present? What were your conditions upon arrival? Were you able to go interior? What lessons did your department learn that can be of assistance to all of us?
Please comment below, as communicating stories such as these to other firefighters is one of the only ways we can have a successful outcome on the fireground.
About the author:
Jake Hoffman is a firefighter for the Toledo Fire/Rescue Department currently assigned to Engine 13 and is a part time firefighter with Perrysburg Twp. Fire/EMS, in charge of the technical rescue equipment and training program. Jake is a lead fire instructor for Four County Career Center and an adjunct fire instructor for Owens Community College. He is a co-owner of Squad 5 Fire Training, LLP. Jake can be contacted at: email@example.com
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