From the Fire Engineering Vault

Fire Department of New York Chief John Kenlon offers two “blood-stirring” accounts of firefighter bravery involving a submarine fire and a daring rescue at a sweatshop fire in a interview with Fire and Water Engineering from 1919. Despite the significant changes in firefighting since Kenlon joined the department in 1887, one thing hasn’t changed–firefighters are as brave as ever.

John Kenlon joined a department of about 700 members that protected Manhattan Island and served its 900,000 citizens with horse-drawn apparatus responding from 52 stations. Most firefighting was done below 59th Street, an area of about five by two miles. By 1919, the City of New York included the outer boroughs of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, occupying an area of about 42 by 30 miles, and containing six million residents, protected by 304 fire stations. More stringent professional qualifications, the advent of motor apparatus, and the firefighting challenge of skyscrapers were just some the changes Kenlon saw in his 32 years with FDNY. 

He recounts in dramatic detail an emergency response to a hydrogen gas explosion and fire aboard a submarine in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where responders confronted deadly gas, smoke, and fire in a vessel also containing torpedos and other explosives.

 In another account, Kenlon describes several rescues at a 1916 sweatshop fire, including the final–and most dramatic–one.

Yet, despite all the changes in firefighting he has seen, Kenlon insists, “The spirit of the men is just as strong as in the old days when it was the risk, the adventure, the hard, swift, danger loving life that induced the men to enter the department. It is a peculiar sort of enthusiasm the men have to-day, reborn in them from the volunteers of the old days.”

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