| On the morning of Aug. 4, 1986, Trenton awoke to the smell of smoke and the sad word on the streets that two city firemen were killed overnight when trapped in a burning downtown bar.
The deaths of Robert Mizopalko and Joseph F. Woods Jr. were only the 16th and 17th in the then 94-year history of a city fire force regarded among the best in the nation.
Still, the question on the lips of nearly everyone was why did it happen? How come they were inside the burning Shenanigans Saloon when flames flashed over and sent them running toward a phantom exit?
Whatever the answers, one firefighting rule written in the blood spilled that day was the requirement that all city businesses keep a floor plan on file with the fire division.
Mizopalko, 33, a world-class bicycle racer, and Woods, 25, who seemed to have firefighting in his blood, could have used a map after they and three other firemen rushed into Shenanigans, on South Warren Street, at about 1 that morning.
They and three other firemen — Capt. James Augustyn, Frank Dombroski and Michael Cseremsak — entered the front door wearing airpacks and saw only smoke and darkness. In seconds, they stumbled over barsstools, which fell down and became entangled with the water hoses.
Within minutes, Battalion Chief Francis Szmutko was sounding the horn on a fire engine outside five times, the signal for all firemen to get out of the building.
But the order came seconds after the temperature inside the bar reached about 1,000 degrees, which created a whoosh of flames that flashed over the heads of the firemen.
A movie made a few years later, "Backdraft," showed what flash-overs looked like, as well as how disorienting they can be to a fireman.
After the Shenanigans flash of flame, three of the firemen scrambled out of the building to safety. But Woods and Mizopalko took a wrong turn.
Lost, disoriented and running out of oxygen, they groped along a wall and found an open vestibule that they might have thought an exit. Unfortunately, it was a stairway leading to a dining area.
One of them — it's unclear to this day — fell down the stairs. The other, either trying to rescue the partner or still trying to find an exit, entered the dining room after him.
Investigators suspect the men ran out of oxygen and suffocated minutes later. Although they may have placed their clothing over their mouths to filter the air, this would prolong suffocation for only about 20 seconds.
Other members of the department continued to venture into the building to find the men. But they also were unfamiliar with the layout of the bar and couldn't find their colleagues.
With flames that spread quickly, forcing three residents of upstairs apartments to jump out windows early on, Shenanigans burned out of control for more than two hours. It was 3:45 p.m. before colleagues spotted the reflection of the markings on the helmets of the fallen firemen.
What followed was perhaps the saddest scene in the history of the Trenton fire force: While firemen pumped futilely on the chests of Mizopalko and Woods, trying to bring them back to life, the revered veteran Szmutko collapses onto the front bumper of a fire engine, dropped his head into his hands and cried uncontrollably.
Woods was considered a rising star, one of the young geniuses of the fire force. He has started working as a firemen at age 16 as a volunteer in Mercerville. By age 25 he had been certified as a fire inspector, medic, and hazardous material handler.
The Aug. 9 funeral procession for Wood, who was engaged to marry, was one of the largest in Trenton history. It extended more than mile and included 500 firemen from 80 towns in New Jersey and Bucks County, Pa., plus 65 fire engines and more than 200 public safety rigs from all over the country.
"It was such a sad time for the department as a whole that it's hard to actually remember the details of it," said Dennis Keenan, a deputy chief in those days who today is Trenton's civilian fire director.
"I can remember the funeral and the long lines of firefighters standing at attention. It's something you hope you never have to face, but we know it's there and we have to deal with it."
A volunteer at Trenton's Anchor House who worked part time as a chef at the fancy old LaGondola Restaurant, Mizopalko was best known as a top bicyclist. Three years earlier, colleagues had raised money to send him to France for an international race.
Mizopalko was buried the day before Woods following an invitation-only funeral at St. Gregory the Great Church in Hamilton.
Many of the firemen were young and had never seen a colleague die in the line of duty. As a result, said the fire chief at the time, Dan George, the memory of Mizopalko and Woods still haunts some city firemen.
"They made a valiant effort to rescue their ‘brothers' and didn't give up. Even when the smoke got so thick they kept going back in to look for the men,'' said George. "Many of the men that were there that night felt guilty, like maybe they could have done more, but they just couldn't get in there."
The firefighters present at the scene that night were treated by St. Francis Medical Center for traumatic stress, George said.
"The firefighters were great about it, trying to counsel each other the best they could. There was this release of pent-up emotion, like the loss of a family member," he said.
"It was just so tough for those guys going back into the firehouse to work the next shift and all of a sudden [Mizopalko and Woods] weren't there any longer." George said the entire city was similarly affected.
"You could feel this great weight on the shoulders of everyone in the city," he said. "They were two good fellows, both devoted firemen who involved themselves in furthering their education. They had a deep and abiding interest in firefighting, which was another reason it hurt the guys so much."
Still, there were plenty enough repercussions from the deaths. Battalion Chief Ralph Candelori, for instance, submitted a report charging a "criminal lack of personnel" at the fire that morning.
In a memo to George, Candelori suggested the firemen "could have been saved'' if more personnel had been at the scene. Regulations required a five-man crew to operate a fire company, Candelori noted.
But six of the eight engines that responded that morning were manned by only three men and the others carried only four, Candelori charged. Three ladder companies also responded with only four men.
Keenan said the deaths had nothing to do with the number of men on the scene of the fire.
"There were plenty of people on the scene at the time and everybody knew they were trapped once the flash over occurred," he said. "There was a great effort made to try to get in to rescue them. I don't think a lack of manpower on each engine really came into play.
"I remember that there were a lot of questions surrounding the incident, but the overwhelming fact that no one recognized at the time was that they had no previous knowledge of the layout of the building,'' said Keenan. "They could have found their way out if they had been more familiar with the building."
It should never happen again. After the deaths of Mizopalko and Woods, city shops and restaurants were required to submit to fire inspectors floor plans showing the aisles and obstructions in the businesses.
If renovations are made, new plans must be submitted. When firemen head out to blazes in downtown businesses today, they take the maps with them.
|1986: Tragedy at Shenanigan's|
|LAUREN M. BLACK and PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian|