No Way Out

Fighting a fire a mile and a half inside Northfield Mountain

By Chris Harris

“Going down into that tunnel was probably the hairiest situation I’ve ever been in because we were going into a complete unknown,” recalls Assistant Fire Chief David Quinn, Jr. “I also knew that, once we got down there, we were totally committed. If it became a very large fire, we weren’t going to get out.”

Two summers ago, Quinn, Jr. led a six-man crew into the tunnel of the Northfield Mountain Pump Storage facility, where a major bus was on fire. “A bus is like a huge electrical plug that connects the power to the grid,” explains Quinn, Jr. “When you’re fighting fire, you always like to leave your back door open a little bit so that if things go to the devil, you can always follow your line out. We got half-way down the tunnel that day and the smoke was so thick you just couldn’t see. We still had another three-quarters of a mile to go. I had five guys with me and I said to them, ‘If things start going badly for us,’ and I probably used more decorative language than that, ‘there’s only one way out and that’s back up this road. It’s a mile and a half, up-hill.’ Quite frankly, if it had been really bad, we were done for, and we all knew that going in there.”

Waiting anxiously up at the top was Chief Floyd M. “Skip” Dunnell, incident commander who, along with Dispatch and everyone else, was incommunicado with his men once they entered the tunnel. Radio waves go through the air, but they don’t go through a mountain, explains Quinn, Jr. “I told the dispatcher once we went into the mountain that we would be out of radio contact. I knew that was the last time we were going to talk to anybody until we returned.”

Topmost in Quinn, Jr.’s mind was the safety of his men. “You’ve got to protect life. Life safety is the number one thing in the fire service.”

Feeling their way down the tunnel, guided only by reflective markers, Northfield’s finest reached the fire scene and swung into action. “We were met by two of their employees, who stayed right with us through the whole situation and helped us extinguish the fire. We did get the fire out relatively quickly. I don’t think it took us more than twenty minutes.”

Coincidentally, the previous week Quinn, Jr. had toured the tunnel. “I knew there were some heavy-duty fans in that powerhouse, so once I felt reasonably comfortable that we had the fire knocked down, I said to one of the guys from the power company, ‘Let’s turn those fans on and get this smoke cleared out of here so we can take our masks off.’ So he turned the fans on and it cleared right up.”

Up above, Chief Dunnell and his incident command team watched as thick black gooey smoke rose out of the tunnel. “We’re relaxing,” says Quinn, Jr., “and they’re thinking that we’re in deep, deep trouble. He couldn’t talk to us, of course, and that made him very, very nervous. Afterwards, Skip came to me and said, ‘That scared the living daylights out of me.”

“So we put it that one out quite easily once we got down there,” reflects Quinn, Jr., “but I have never been more apprehensive about a fire in my life.”