Answering the call: Bradley Air National Guard Base firefighters’ mutual aid response to B-17 crash

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jennifer Pierce
  • 103rd Airlift Wing

The morning of Oct. 2, 2019 will forever remain a significant day for the firefighters of Bradley Air National Guard Base, East Granby, Conn. At approximately 9:56 a.m., a B-17 Flying Fortress participating in the “Wings of Freedom Tour” crashed into a de-icing facility at Bradley International Airport. Bradley Air National Guard Base firefighters, working as mutual aid responders for Bradley International Airport’s Fire Department, answered the call.

“I was on duty when a radio call came in from airfield ops telling us to standby for a box,” said Louis Manfredi, Bradley Air National Guard Base firefighter.

He thought this was unusual because tones typically sound off first for a box alarm, indicating an aircraft emergency. Airfield operations, however, had been watching the B-17 as it took off and observed the plane flying too low as it began returning to the airport for landing.

“We started walking to get ready, then we hear ‘pull the box, pull the box’ on the radio and then the tones go off,” said Manfredi. “We get out to the bay and the doors are up, and all you see is the cloud of smoke from the fire. At that point we are all in the bay getting into our gear, and that was one of those moments where we are all just looking around at each other thinking this is the real one, this is the big one. We are all telling each other to calm down, let’s do this right, then we took off.”

By the time the firefighters left the bay in Engine 54, the airport had been shut down to air traffic; commercial flights were delayed and cancelled over the next several hours. Being proximally located to the flight line, the firefighters at Bradley Air National Guard Base were able to quickly cross the flight line at Bradley International Airport, and they were first to arrive on scene. Immediately, the four-man team went to work with Captain Anthony Authier, officer in charge on Engine 54, calling in a scene size-up via radio.

“The scene size-up paints the initial picture for the incoming units,” said Authier. “On our arrival, I was confirming that it was an aircraft into a building with heavy fire. This let the incoming chief from Bradley International know that it’s not an assumption, it’s emergency personnel saying, ‘yes, this is an aircraft into a building.’”

Providing this vital information allowed time-critical processes to begin taking place.

“Now he [Chief John Duffy, Bradley International Airport’s Fire Chief] starts the second alarm assignments, and gets the additional resources on the air started that much sooner as opposed to waiting the extra minute or two for everyone else to get there,” said Authier.

While Authier was providing the size-up, the rest of the crew on Engine 54 were already in action. The driver of the engine was getting the pump in gear so the water could start pumping whether water was required on its own or to be mixed with the foam that helps blanket and extinguish fuel fires. The other two firefighters on the engine began pulling hand lines off the crash trucks that had arrived.

During this process, however, Authier had noticed people walking around the crash site that appeared wounded. He told the crew of Engine 54 to drop the hand lines and follow him. The three of them were able to guide three of the walking wounded away from the crash site, then grab a fourth person lying on the ground and physically drag them to the casualty collection point Authier had established.

“After we dragged [the victim] out, we went back a second time to look for other survivors,” said Manfredi. “After we determined there were no other victims in our sector, we transitioned from rescue to fighting the fire. We went back to get the hand lines stretched and were fighting the fire.”

Victims of the crash were transported to area hospitals as firefighters continued to put out the blaze. Several Bradley Air National Guard firefighters who were off duty during the incident also began responding to the scene.

It was really a joint effort, said Manfredi. There were several different pieces to consider, putting the fire out on the aircraft, rescuing the survivors and getting them medical aid, and then searching the de-icing facility for victims.

Bradley Air National Guard firefighters worked hand-in-hand with Bradley International Airport firefighters during this incident.

“The main body of fire was knocked down by the crash trucks from Bradley [International Airport Fire Department] putting foam down from their roof turrets putting the main body of the fire out,” said Manfredi.

Chief Master Sgt. Robert Cross, Bradley Air National Guard Base Installation Fire Chief, who also responded to the crash site in a rescue truck with an off-duty firefighter, attributes Bradley Air National Guard Base firefighter’s and Bradley International Airport firefighter’s quick response to their training.

“We train with CAA on a regular basis,” said Cross, who acted as the Connecticut Air National Guard’s liaison officer during the incident. “We interface with them four to five times a week.”

CAA is the Connecticut Airport Authority under which the Bradley International Airport firefighters fall.

“Over the years of working together we’ve discussed after training and after action reports, to not only identify issues, but we fix them,” said Cross.

Sharing common radio frequencies, compatibility of equipment, and trust are some of the things the two fire departments have built over the years.

“It was comforting knowing we were all together,” said Cross. “Working and training with these guys, it was easy. How well we worked together made a difference on how we stabilized the incident. This event was a really a validation of training up to this point.”

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont thanked the Bradley Air National Guard firefighters for their efforts when visiting the fire department Oct. 30, 2019.

“We owe you folks a debt of gratitude,” Lamont said to the Bradley Air National Guard firefighters. “These are folks who saved lives that day…thank you for all you did.”