Captain Jahnke and his engine company were dispatched to a report of a fire in a 40-story residential high-rise. Upon their arrival, Captain Jahnke reported a working fire on the fifth floor of the building and requested a second alarm. While Captain Jahnke’s driver attached lines to the building’s fire department connection, Captain Jahnke and his firefighter climbed the stairs to the fire floor. Upon their arrival on the fire floor, Captain Jahnke and his firefighter were joined by the captain and firefighter from a ladder company. The four firefighters entered the fire occupancy and began to apply water to the fire. The two firefighters ran low on air and exited to change their cylinders, leaving the two captains to fight the fire. When the firefighters opened the stairway door to exit, conditions in the fire occupancy worsened dramatically. The captains decided to leave the apartment by following their hoseline but soon became separated. Captain Jahnke became separated from the line and disoriented. The other captain was found in the stairwell by other firefighters and removed from the building. Captain Jahnke called for help on his portable radio. Firefighters responding to his request were guided to his location by the sound of his PASS device. Despite their efforts, Captain Jahnke died of asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation. There are a number of Jahnke’s that serve the Houston Fire Department. The department’s training academy is named for Captain Jahnke’s uncle. A full report on Captain Jahnke’s death may be downloaded from the Houston Fire Department website – www.ci.houston.tx.us/hfd/index.html
BY RETIRED HOUSTON FIREFIGHTER BOB PARRY
The shift of October 12 / 13, 2001 will stay with me until I get the call to go the ‘”second floor”. It started off as a typical Friday at 60’s with some lawn duties and other cleanup. The staffing included a typical three-man ride for the pumper and our box had two. The SCBA man came by the station on his “inspection” and found everyone’s air pack and mask acceptable except mine. The straps on top were a little loose when tightened so I received a new one. After putting my name and payroll on it, I also put the date on it (a date I will never forget) so I could see how long this one would last. It had taken a beating from 68’s and 1’s. After breakfast and knocking down a few runs, we heard the weatherman predicting a storm sometime after midnight. By the afternoon, we heard some chatter about an incident at 2’s, which involved a female falling down the pole hole. Playing “Rockford”, I found out a Public Works employee came to the station to use the bathroom. She mistakenly pushed open a pole hole door and fell. I believed she broke an arm and a couple of ribs. An investigation was being done so we did not want to bother Jay and the troops. Later on that day, and a few more runs, we (Dave Zawada, Robert Pecina, and me) stopped by 28’s for some fuel and to look in their refrigerators for some Blue Bell Ice Cream sandwiches or bars. We talked about the incoming storm and how it may be a busy night. The Valor Awards was also being held that night and there was some talk about people we knew that was getting some recognition. I had started the Local 341 Valor Awards back in 1985 because the HFD had never had a ceremony recognizing the dedicated and heroic acts of bravery of our members and was glad it was still around.
About 11 o’clock that night, FF Randy Walcik walked into 60’s and said he just left the Valor Awards and was told to report to 60’s that night. I called Sr. Captain Robert Green at 28’s and asked if we should keep him or send him home since he was on debit-day. Green said it was my call but heard that an assistant chief gave every awardee a holiday. I told Randy it was his call but did add in it might be a busy night with the storm coming in. He took his gear and put it on the left side of the “Westside War Wagon”. We made a couple of runs after midnight and when we came back, I would turn on the Weather Channel and saw a big red glob of weather heading our way. It was predicted to be in town by sometime after 4 am. I heard Engine 2 have a couple of runs along the 610 area, one that included a response by Haz-Mat. It was about 0330 and I was hoping for a few hours of shut-eye. A loud banging on the door a few minutes before 5 startled the crap out of me. FF George Kantis opened the door and said “they’re pulling a second on a high rise, you’re going and it doesn’t sound good”. I was putting on my clothes when the lights kicked on with the assignment. I heard the location and thought ” those are our twin towers” and I gave my rosary beads in my right pocket a little extra pat. It was steadily raining as we pulled on to Westheimer and listening to the channel. As we were approaching Voss, the wind and rain increased dramatically. Dave was doing his best though there was little traffic on Westheimer. We heard Jay on the radio and it sounded like he was calling for help. Dave and I looked at each other and I was quietly going through my head what I was going to take up.
We missed the left turn on Sage due to the rain and having our minds on the radio. We made a left on Post Oak where we heard Jay give another help call, which was muffled and broken up. We pulled behind Rescue 11 that was behind another vehicle at the traffic light. We were about to jump out and run the block when 11’s suddenly moved up or around the staged vehicle and we got closer to the building. We did not have time to change out our bottles from 30 to 60 minute ( we had 1-hour bottles in the brackets but not on harnesses. The Command Staff would later criticize us during their district presentations for not changing them on our arrival. They must have forgotten we had at least one Brother trapped up there. We followed R-11 into the front lobby, through the lobby, and up the back stairwell. I remember seeing DC Broussard (D-6) who was pointing and saying “5th floor, 5th floor” and seeing Mike Phillips from 2’s in the lobby with a desperate expression as he was getting another bottle. We hit the steps “light” meaning no tools or bottles. We were there to rescue not only a brother but a friend to many of us. When we hit the third floor, I saw Dan Mott from 28’s on the landing. He must have been waiting for some more bottles but the smile and laughter he always displayed at “the Big House” was not there. He looked at me and I knew the look. We took 2 steps up when suddenly light became black. The smoke was not heated but we had to put on our masks. Before I hit another step, I ordered FF Pecina to get some bottles. He looked at me with surprise but I stated: “we are going to need them here when we get down”. FF Walcik was now behind me. If their positions had been opposite than Randy would have gotten the bottle. We clicked on our bottles and stuck close to the inside railing. We could feel people coming by us. We counted the landings to make sure we got to the right floor.
The stairwell door was closed when we got to the 5th floor. Before we climbed the steps from the lobby, I remembered when I went up, the fire was on my left side so I should walk left to get to the door. I did that on five and walked about 15 feet until I bounced into an elevator door (the same one some of 11’s crew would find later on). We turned around and though the smoke was somewhat heated and dark, the fire floor was different. It was steamy, hot and with nearly zero visibility. You could hear a PASS device blaring away somewhere in front of me. I was confident Captain Eddie Mathison and his crew E/O Jim Mockler, FF Todd Kahney and FF Eileen Connelly were on the floor. I crawled along the wall and could hear voices when I was hit by some water, either a sprinkler valve or a broken line. I backed up and came upon 11’s crew. I looked down and put my flashlight up to the downed member. Though it was Jay, I would swear it looked like Robert Green from L-28. I kept thinking “where the hell is Jay”? We moved around to try and pull Jay toward the exit door. The weight was tremendous. Later, we found out the sprinkler had soaked his gear and added his weight. We could only drag him a few inches at a time. It really became tight when the elevator lobby we were used to was narrowed down to the narrow hallway going toward the exit door. My mask had been rattling for a few minutes but I thought we would be out of here soon and down the steps. Unknowingly, other companies began to block up the stairwell and try and come on the floor not knowing we were a few feet from the door and we halted in our efforts. Suddenly, I began to suck air. My bottle was empty and I began a little panic crawl through some legs or whatever I had to do. Sucking hot steamy air through your mask brought a moment’s cuss when I thought about the good old days when we had MSA’s which had masks with hoses you were trained to stick inside your coat for some air when you ran out. I made it to the floor stairwell lobby but could not get past the crowd. I crawled along the wall and began coughing pretty good. I caught the attention of DC Harvey Yaw from 5’s who was telling me through his mask to come back his way. With the help of Sr. Capt. Roger Bobo of 16’s ladder, I was tossed down the steps to make way for others. It happened so quickly that I was actually crawling down the steps until I hit a clear patch at floor 3.
I kept thinking about the others and how they would get out. I managed to crawl out and not to long afterward, they brought Jay down. It was frustrating because nothing had been set up under the canopy in the back of the tower, only the front. Brothers began working on a good friend to many. One was Brad Stewart, one of Jay’s best friends. I was sitting next to Captain Mathison on a bench when he heard some of his crew lost on the fifth floor. They got out by looking at the diagram showing the location they were at next to the elevator door and followed the instructions to the stairwell. That’s how good training and keeping a cool head (no doubt taught to them by Capt. Eddy) kept them alive and got them out. After getting a little oxygen, I took a few steps back and looked up to see fire rolling out of the fifth and sixth floors. I wondered “who the #$&(@! would build a high-rise residential building with sprinklers only in the common area but not in the rooms. What should have been a single-engine and ladder cleanup was turning into a disaster”. After loading Jay, I tried to find our crew. Dave Zawada was helping with bottles and other duties, Robert Pecina assisted several residents down the stairs and Randy Walcik went in the ambulance with Jay. After walking around a little bit in a daze, I helped out downstairs but never went back up. I went over to Chief Taylor and asked if they heard about Jay. He put his hand on my shoulder and stated “Jay didn’t make it”. I could only sit down by others and watch dozens of other members, not saying a word, get their assignments and leave the lobby. I patted the rosary beads in my pocket and thanked God for getting me out but why not my buddy Jay and began to cry.
We went back to 60’s around 0800 and were told to get cleaned up and go to 2’s for a debriefing. We were there until 2 pm. We went back to work on Sunday and spent a lot of time at 2’s and 28’s. The station life was quiet except for the alarms we responded to during our shift. No fun and games, no complaining about the cook, no rumor mill activity. I learned about the conversation that Jay and our DC, Gary Taylor had at 2’s earlier in the day. Jay was concerned about “downtown” coming down on him about the Public Works employee who fell down the pole hole. After Chief Taylor gave Jay some reassuring advice and “backup if needed”, Jay thanked Chief Taylor and said ” I’ll always call you when I get in trouble” and Chief Taylor, with a straight face, told him ” You always call me when you need help”. Who would have believed those were the last face to face words between one of our most dedicated officers and his Chief. Like I said on my opening line, this is my account of the entire day, not just the fire. I will always remember hearing how a rookie FF at 28’s was boasting how they were going to a “big one” that night. During one of our debriefing lessons, he stated he would never wish for another fire again. I remember how I was pressured and damn near begged by some command staff to comment about how manpower was not really the issue at the fire. As you know, the HFD report did not mention manpower as an issue, but the NIOSH report which I testified to did. I shed a tear when Dawn Jahnke, Jay’s widow, and spoke at the funeral about the importance of staffing and we gave her a standing ovation. While leaving for our cars from the church after the funeral, I saw Mayor Brown and Councilman Boney walk through the “sea of blue” uniforms and I cut them off. I asked Mayor Brown if “he heard the message from Captain Jahnke’s wife” and he replied ” loud and clear” . Only a few hours after Jay was buried did the Mayor (in a close mayoral campaign) and the Fire Chief announce” they found” $ 17 million dollars for overtime to staff all apparatus with four. When the Assistant Fire Chief, who was put in charge of the HFD investigation of the fire, refused to speculate that manpower was not an issue at the Four Leaf Tower Fire when asked by the Command Staff and media just a few days prior to the run-off election because the report was not completed, he was demoted soon after Brown won his re-election bid. I’m not going to talk about the other events that occurred afterward but I will always cuss out and have lost any respect for those so-called Command Staff officers who put their names on the HFD’s Four Leaf Tower Report and clearly put politics and their pension over the truth.
Only a few weeks before, Jay spearheaded the “Fill the Boot” for the FDNY and their great tragic loss of 9/11. Always with a smile, always with a pick ya up if you were down. I, like many of you, will never forget him. May Jay Rest in Peace!…Bob Parry (Retired in Pittsburgh