"Hmm, pretty clouds," I thought to myself, looking sleepily out of my window. A moment later I did a double-take. What I had taken for clouds was dense smoke drifting down the East River. I looked upstream. Through the cables of the Williamsburg Bridge, I could see smoke pouring from a building on the shore.
"Something is seriously on fire in Brooklyn," I told M. We watched from the window as the smoke continued to rise. A few minutes later, a large fireboat passed under the bridge, heading upriver.
I grabbed my camera and walked down to East River Park. Looking across the river, I could see clouds of white smoke pouring from a large warehouse on the far side. A single truck, ladder extended, was spraying water on it, apparently without a great deal of effect. The fireboat I had seen, the Fire Fighter II, now loitered just offshore, but did not appear to be doing anything. White smoke continued to billow upwards, while a police helicopter circled overhead.
It was bitterly cold, with a fierce wind. I shot photographs until my battery died and then, realizing that I had forgotten to bring a spare, I retreated indoors. Behind me, smoke was still pouring from the warehouse, while the fireboat idled offshore.
About 9:45, I looked out again. The white smoke had now turned mostly to black. As I watched, tongues of orange fire appeared on the roof.
I grabbed my camera again and hurried back out to East River Park. By the time I came abreast of the warehouse, the roof was fully afire, fanned by the wind. Flames and black smoke poured from the western end, exploding upwards in writhing coils. Parts of the roof crumbled, cascading downwards in waterfalls of white smoke. The ladder truck stopped spraying water. Meanwhile, the Fire Fighter II had started its pumps, but the white jet from the forward mount fell far short of the blaze, splashing harmlessly into the river.
A few joggers stopped to look or to take photographs. By the railing, a big man in a parka stared out over the river. "Fire!" he said urgently. "Burning! Fire!" I nodded agreement.
I walked further upstream, thinking that even if the fireboat wasn't going to do anything more impressive than that, I could still use a shot of it against the backdrop of the burning warehouse. As I got into position, a smaller fireboat alongside opened up, a lance of white water arcing through the air to splash against the facade of the burning building. A moment later, the larger boat finally joined in: in moments, a curtain of white water hung in the air. The visible flames struggled for a moment, then vanished. A huge cloud of white steam boiled upwards.
For the next half-hour, I watched as the firefighters renewed their attack. The ladder trucks and the small boats kept up a steady stream of water, but the Fire Fighter II still appeared somewhat uncommitted. From time to time it would pull back into deeper water, the spray from its forward pump dwindling, the jet of water splashing into the river well short of the burning building. But then it would nose its way back inshore and open up again, sousing the warehouse in an impressive torrent of white water, while the cloud of smoke and steam rose high into the sky overhead.
Eventually, fingers frozen even through my gloves, I fled indoors again. I do not envy the firefighters who have been out there since just after six in the morning.
It's now eleven hours since the blaze was reported. Smoke is still rising from the warehouse, and the fireboats are still pouring water onto the building. To a bystander, it seemed strange that the fireboats, which were apparently so effective, took so long to engage the blaze. It may simply be that there was no way for them to contribute usefully until the roof collapsed. The hoses on the ladder trucks were quite precise, spraying water through openings in the building. The fireboats, on the other hand, seemed to work by raining vast quantities of water on the fire from above. While the roof was intact, this tactic would be of limited use. This may explain why the Fire Fighter II, which was on station shortly after 07:30, took almost three hours to begin pouring water on the fire.
It's not yet clear how the fire started, or why it wasn't contained by the building's own fire suppression systems. According to reports, a fire broke out at around 04:30, but the firefighters called to the scene believed that they had successfully extinguished it. By the time they were called back two hours later, a much larger fire had started, and there was little that they could do to bring it under control.