October 1916 Fires

Issue 10 and Volume 11.

In this month’s column, I present historic fires or significant events in the fire service from October 1916. A reminder: Readers are encouraged to share information from their departments.

October 5, 1916: Yonkers, New York: Early morning commuters waiting at the New York Central Railroad station were surprised to see flames burst through the windows of the huge grain and hay warehouse only half a block from the train station. The warehouse, owned by John J. Wiffler & Sons, occupied the entire block on Dock Street. The flames lit up the Hudson River as the general alarm brought seven fire engines to the scene. Several firefighters were overcome battling the fire; 17 horses burned to death.

October 5, 1916: St. Louis, Missouri: A fire broke out on the fourth floor of the central building of the Christian Brothers College at King’s Highway and Easton Avenue at about 7:20 a.m. A brother saw the flames, turned in the alarm, and warned those gathered in the basement dining room. Thirty members of the faculty and 105 boarding students were able to escape the burning building, but several members of the staff were trapped by the dense smoke and spreading flames. The fire extended upward through a freight elevator shaft and soon was blazing on two floors.

On arrival, firefighters were faced with a large, 80- × 200-foot-deep building with heavy fire on the top two floors. A man was seen trapped at a top-floor window. A scaling ladder rescue was started and a life net was called for. Before the firefighters could open the life net or reach him with the ladders, the searing heat forced him to jump. The fatally injured man was rushed to a nearby hospital. It took more than two hours to bring the fire under control. Despite the intense flames, they were able to keep the fire in the original wing of the building, saving the other large sections of the school. When they gained control of the fire, most of the firefighters were withdrawn from the building. Members of Truck Company 19 and Engine 43 were working on extinguishing the small remaining pockets of fire when suddenly above them a wall collapsed and fell on them. (Heated I-beams had expanded then contracted, pulling the southern wall in.) Sadly, this fire took a terrible toll on both the college and the fire department. Two elderly religious brothers being cared for in the top-floor infirmary, another employee (the jumper), and five St. Louis firefighters were killed by the flames.

October 7, 1916: Washington, D.C.: President Woodrow Wilson issued a statement to “The People of the United States” declaring that Monday, October 9, had been established in 40 states as “Fire Prevention Day.” He suggested, “Let the people observe Fire Prevention Day by a general cleanup and removal of all debris, rubbish, and inflammable materials; also let all chimneys be carefully gone over and placed in proper condition for winter use.” He further requested that public and private institutions, hotels, asylums, factories, and theaters be inspected for fire safety. He also called for better building regulations, fire protection and prevention, and more and better apparatus for fighting fire. The president also called for fire drills and fire education in all schools and a campaign of education in every factory, public building, theater, and place of public assembly.

October 13, 1916: Hoboken, New Jersey: Flames broke out in a lumber yard and spread to a 500-gallon gasoline tank, which exploded. Within minutes, the fire had spread to a large chocolate plant at Seventh Avenue and Clinton Street. The growing pillar of fire shot upward over the city, filling the afternoon sky with smoke and flaming embers. The Hoboken Fire Department responded and then requested two additional engines from Jersey City. More than 100 workers, mostly women, were able to escape the blazing plant as the firefighters moved in. A worker suddenly appeared, trapped at one of the factory windows. He was able to remain where he was until a ladder was thrown to his window, and he was rescued by a firefighter. Despite the wind-whipped flames, showers of embers, and strong radiant heat, the firefighters were able to protect a huge bakery next door.

October 25, 1916: New York, New York: A spectacular fire swept through a seven-story loft building at 21-23 East Houston Street. The burning loft building adjoined a tenement at the front but about 20 feet back from the street an airshaft, 15 feet wide, separated the walls of the two buildings. This gave the loft the shape of an “L” if viewed from above. Seven men and seven women were trapped on the roof of the burning loft and others were at windows waving and crying for help. Firefighters burst onto the roof of the adjoining building and sized up the situation. Acting Chief Farley ran to the front parapet and called to the street for portable and scaling ladders to be brought onto the roof of the exposure. The outline of a man began to take shape at a smoke-filled window in the fire building. The man, at a fifth-floor window, climbed out onto the iron window shutter to escape the scalding heat. He clung there, looking back and forth to the roof of the building next door, only a dozen feet away, and the five-story drop below him. Stammering for help, he sized up a possible jump and realized he would not make it. Firefighter Thomas Kilbride reached the roof and glanced left; two firefighters and a fire chief were 20 feet away, at the front of the building, leaning over the edge trying to pull heavy wooden fire ladders up from the street below.

Kilbride turned back to the trapped man. “Hold on!” he yelled as he dashed toward the rear of the roof where he found an old water tank ladder abandoned near some construction debris. Hurrying back to the shaft, he placed the butt of the rickety ladder on the coping tiles of the parapet and lowered it toward the shutter and the trapped man. The ladder bridged the shaft between the fire building and the adjoining structure, resting precariously on the iron shutter perpendicular to the building’s windows.

Kilbride stepped up onto the ladder and climbed carefully, edging his way upward to the trapped man as a swirling cloud of smoke enveloped them both. He shouted to the man through the smoke: “Keep your arms straight ahead, straight ahead!”

Shifting his weight, Kilbride grabbed up blindly through the smoke and latched onto the man with all his might. He helped the man take hold of his shoulders. Straining, Kilbride lifted the man from the shutter and lowered him to the ladder. Eyes tearing from the hot smoke, he guided the man down, stopping only when their vision became totally obscured. Carefully, they stepped onto the roof, and Kilbride pointed the way to the stairs.

As other firefighters made the roof of the adjoining building, a series of unbelievable scaling ladder rescues began. Members of Rescue 1 fired a line of rope from the rope rifle up and over the roof of the blazing structure; then a larger rope was pulled up. Several people were able to escape using this rope.

For his actions at this fire, Thomas Kilbride found himself on the steps of City Hall on July 17, 1917, where Mayor John Purroy Mitchel pinned a second Department Medal on his chest. This was the first medal awarded to a member of Rescue 1.

October 28, 1916: Oyster Bay, New York: When a fire broke out in a pharmacy with apartments above at about 2:00 a.m., the man working in the Chinese laundry across the street sprang into action. Ughong Chee raised the alarm, then single-handedly located a heavy wooden ladder about 50 yards away and carried it to the fire. Still alone, he raised the ladder and entered the apartment where the Heenan family was sleeping. Entering the smoke-and heat-filled flat, he found the husband, wife, and three children semiconscious and still in bed. Chee saw the stairs already filled with smoke, so he picked up the eight-year-old girl and carried her down the ladder. He made return trips for two boys, ages 11 and 15. Then he carried out the mother and, on his final trip, rescued the father just as the fire department arrived on scene. The fire was now in complete possession of both floors and was threatening to ignite nearby buildings. The quick work of the firefighters held the fire to one building. And the sharp eye and bravery of Chee saved an entire family.

October 5, 1916: Ten people lost their lives, including five firefighters, when flames tore through the Christian Brothers College. Exceptional firefighting held the fire to the front portion of the large building. (Photo courtesy of the Paul Hashagen collection.)