3 Philadelphia Piers Destroyed As 4th Survives 6-Alarm Fire
by Robert C. Bartosz
A six-alarm fire destroyed three large piers in Philadelphia, but a fourth pier, between two that burned, survived the holocaust. Its brick and concrete construction was protected by a sprinkler system.
While at a minor grass fire, Lieutenant George DelRossi of Engine 28 radioed to communications that he saw a large fire about eight blocks toward the Delaware River. Communications replied that box 5277 was being transmitted for Pier A at the Reading Railroad Port Richmond yards on the Delaware River. The time was 9:01 p.m. last October 30.
Engine 28 immediately responded to the box.
When Assistant Chief James Skala, who was in his car, heard Engine 28’s report and the transmission of the box, he headed for the fire with the terse radioed order, “Start the other boat around.”
Long run for boat
The fireboat of Marine Company 23, stationed adjacent to the Port Richmond yards, was in dry dock for an overhaul. Skala knew it would take Marine 32 a long time to make the 14 1/2 -mile run from its Schuylkill River dock to the Delaware River pier. He also realized that Marine 15, which responded on the first alarm, needed all the help it could get.
When Engine 6, the first company to arrive, entered the Cumberland Street gate to the yards, Lieutenant William Dell gave his initial report, “Pier A is fully involved from one end to the other.”
Still several miles away, Skala ordered a second alarm at 9:06 p.m.
The Reading Railroad Port Richmond facilities include 225 acres of railroad and storage yards and nine major piers. In the northern corner of the yards is a 3/4-million-bushel, reinforced concrete grain elevator. The only two entrances to the area are at Cumberland Street and Allegheny Avenue. A single, 25-foot-wide road, Shore Road, winds through the yards close to the river. The water supply in the area consists of mostly 4 and 6inch mains in a private yard system supplied by steam pumps.
Pier A, 168 X 869 feet, was of frame construction with steel siding and a crib substructure. There was furniture storage in the first half of its length and several steel boxcars in the other half.
More alarms ordered
Chief Joseph Fortunato of the 10th Battalion, the first-due BC, upon arrival ordered the third alarm, which was transmitted at 9:08 p.m. A minute later, he asked for the fourth alarm and three minutes after that called for the fifth alarm. Meanwhile, Battalion 6 had reported that he was “taking the south end of the fire and the fire is spreading throughout the grass under railroad tank cars.” So in radioing for the fourth alarm, Fortunato requested communications to ask the railroad to move the cars and also to “have all fourth alarm companies enter from Allegheny Avenue and lead off with 3 1/2 hose to protect the buildings on the north side.”
Although the Reading yards were on the Delaware River, there were few points that could be used. Battalion 6 radioed for the Reading Railroad to pressurize the yard hydrants because the companies had found insufficient pressure in them. Further, their capacity was reported to be only 3000 gpm. Companies leading in from city streets found they had to set up relays, using three or four companies.
Fire Commissioner Joseph A. Rizzo, while en route, ordered the communication center to dispatch police to investigate all box alarms throughout the city before dispatching fire companies. The commissioner feared that the combination of the October 30 “mischief night” in Philadelphia and the big fire would overtax facilities. It proved a smart move as police investigated and reported on 61 boxes pulled in 2 1/2 hours with no fires other than embers falling from the pier fire.
While heading for the fireground, the writer saw heavy embers showering down on the streets 15 blocks from the fire.
Pier fully involved
Acting Deputy Chief James Meskill reported upon his arrival, “Pier A is fully involved out to the river end. We are having problems due to the heavy wind. We are dealing with fire storm conditions at this time. Warn all companies responding that we have dangerous conditions on the southwest side of the fire. Wires are dropping into the street.”
Skala arrived on the fireground and walked the last couple of blocks because of the congestion. Throngs of people had entered the terminal after the fire apparatus. Now these people were struggling to get their cars in and out and hindering apparatus attempting to lay lines.
Skala ordered the sixth alarm transmitted, and reported “a large string of freight cars—50 feet from the fire— containing a highly explosive product. Warn all companies to use extreme caution.”
Rizzo, en route, knew the problems that were confronting him—a huge free-burning fire, a high wind, flying embers, falling wires, dangerous tank cars, a massive water problem because of long leads and an inadequate yard system, and the exposure of additional frame piers.
If ever a fire department had three strikes against it, this was the time as the commissioner listened to a report from a second alarm company, “We need two more companies to piece us out to reach the location.”
Rizzo inquired, “Has any fireboat arrived vet?”
Marine 15 reported “on the fireground on the north side of Pier A, attempting to get in close to shore to protect Pier B.”
Marine 32 reported it still had 5 miles to go.
The biggest factor mitigating against the fire department operations was that the fronts of the piers were connected, except for a short break at Pier B by a solid front of frame buildings used as offices and warehouses.
Other piers threatened
Deputy 3 reported “fire threatening piers north of Pier B with embers raining down on these piers.”
Photo by Robert C. Bartosz
Ladder Companies 10 and 12 set up ladder pipes to operate on Pier C, and hand lines were stretched to the roof. Officially, the wind was recorded as 7 mph, but in the area of the fire, it was whipping embers through the air at an estimated 50 mph as the fire created its own draft.
Rizzo and Chief Fire Marshal Edwards Stevens went out on a railroad siding on the north side of Pier B to see if it was possible to move three barges that would enable the fireboat to get in and attempt to cut off the fire in the warehouse section between Piers B and C. Suddenly Pier C lit up along its entire length. The two men ran to safety through withering heat.
As Pier C erupted into flame, units were hard-pressed to clear apparatus to safety without injury to personnel. Pier C was of frame construction with metal-clad sides, 138 X 670 feet. A single deck shed with five depressed tracks was on the pier which was empty of cargo.
Alarms held to six
Rizzo inquired of communications, “How many alarms do you have in?” and was told, “Six …”
He instructed communications to hold up on any additional alarms. The answer to this fire was not to lay on the hook,” as the saying goes, but to intelligently use the forces on hand.
Now, the fire was racing so fast to the north that pumpers using the only good spot for drafting north of Pier D had to be hurriedly moved to safety.
Pier D was the largest of the piers, 185 X 687 feet, with a two-story, metal-clad frame transit shed, two depressed railroad tracks on each level, one set on each side of a brick fire wall that was parapeted at the roof.
Pier D started to burn first on the south side. Marine Companies 15 and 32 were ordered to try to move in and cut the fire off. Although three Coast Guard boats, a fire fighting tug from the Philadelphia Naval base and a Texaco tug, also were in operation, the task proved impossible as C and D were flaming torches.
As if Rizzo did not have enough problems, they were complicated at 10:30 p.m. when the Reading Company lost all electric power and the steam pump at Pier 14 had to be shut down because of the power loss.
Deputy Commissioner Joseph McKenna entered the north side of Pier D with a ladder company to ascertain conditions. He radioed a message to the commissioner, “The fire wall will not hold.” Its integrity had already been breached by 36-inch girders that had pulled out of the wall.
Tied up to the grain conveyor Pier E was the freighter Rio Zaire out of Lisbon, loading grain. Marine 32 was instructed to position itself to protect the ship until it was moved. With the aid of tugboats, the ship was pulled out into the stream to a safe anchorage.
Flames now totally engulfing Pier D were visible in Wilmington, Del., some 40 miles to the south.
Fire fighters working on the front of Pier C were forced to leave as a cresoted railroad trestle leading to the second floor of Pier D caught fire. This fire destroyed several metal buildings between Pier C and the trestle. It also ignited five gondola cars loaded with coal 1,50 feet from the trestle. There was not time for fire fighters to move hose lines track and 750 feet of 2 1/2-inch and 1500 feet, of 3 1/2-inch hose were lost, as well as miscellaneous small tools and equipment.
Philadelphia Police Department photo.
As the fire progressed north, some units working in the vicinity of Pier A were ordered by McKenna to shut down and move to the north side of the fire. This involved leaving the yard via the Cumberland Street gate, going out to Richmond Street and north to Allegheny Avenue to reenter the yard. Despite hard work by police, companies were hampered in their movements by the large crowd.
Engine 59 reported a serious ember problem on the northeast side of the grain elevator and that they were going into service in a scrap metal company yard with a 2 1/2-inch line. Engine 59 requested assistance and Engine 30 was dispatched to its location.
With Pier D fully involved, the commissioner ordered the fireboats to withdraw across the 200 feet of water between Piers D and E and set up on the south side of Pier E to operate streams as a water curtain to protect the grain conveyor. Chief George Drew, of the 4th Battalion, was ordered to take a company up to the conveyor (150 feet above the ground) and check for fire. The men had to haul a 2 1/2-inch line to the top with a roof rope and wye off 1 1/2-inch lines to extinguish several small fires. This was done carefully so as not to disturb dust. They remained on duty at this post throughout the night.
About midnight, Rizzo boarded a police launch to take a look at the inferno from the river side. He was startled to learn that Pier B had survived the holocaust!
Pier B survives
Inspection of Pier B the following morning disclosed that 26 sprinkler heads had operated on the second deck and 15 heads on the first deck. Its brick and concrete construction, sprinklers and wire glass windows were regarded as the saving factors, as well as the fact that the pier warehouse contained canned foods.
The following morning, the entire class of 120 probationary firemen were bussed to the scene to assist in mopping up.
Steel box cars on Pier A were literally melted down. The area for 1200 feet in front of the piers was devastated. The overhead trestle was gone. Quonset huts in front of Pier C were melted from the heat, and 100 feet west of the burned trestle, the remains of the five gondola cars lay smoking. All told, about 13 acres were leveled and property damage was estimated in the millions.
Despite the handicaps of a cut-off area, limited access, excessively long hose leads, an intense fire storm, falling wires, etc., the fire department fought valiantly against great odds and came through the conflagration with no major injuries to personnel.
The fire was declared under control at 11:34 p.m.