5-Alarm Fire Burns for 56 Hours
NEW YORK CITY firemen experienced one of the worst battles they have had to contend with in many years, when fire raged for two and a half days, in a warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront at the foot of Clark Street, East River. The location is fifty feet below the fashionable Old Columbia Heights section of Brooklyn, with the Hotels Bossert, St. George, Margaret and the Towers overlooking the warehouses. The first alarms was at 12:01 p.m. Saturday, April 20 and the first due engine company “took-up” on Wednesday, April 24.
Description of Building
The warehouse was one of a series along the waterfront between Fulton and Montague Streets, each divided by party walls. The fire was in Warehouse No. 3S, which is 56 x 169 feet in area, extending from a belt-line wharf street hack to Furman Street. The building was of brick construction, five stories high, windows and iron shutters on front and rear, and had unprotected wooden floor beams and sleepers. It was occupied on the ground and second floors only. The occupied floors contained 9,239 cases of crude rubber packed in burlap sacks, encased in wooden boxes, and weighed 245 pounds each. The warehouse also contained 700 rolls of porous or absorbent paper—the kind used to insulate the interior of freight cars. There were no doors or companionways from adjoining warehouses. The warehouse was not heated. No electric lights were burning nor was any one within the building—not even the watchman. His job was outside. The weather was unusually balmy for that time of spring and it was one of the most inviting out-of-doors days of the season.
No goods had been received or shipped that day. The rubber had been stored there eighteen months and the paper for several months. The warehouse was minus sprinklers, thermostatic alarm, and a cellar.
The warehouses, built about seventy years ago, are owned by the New York Dock Company. The watchman had been in the employ of the company for a year and a half. He was one of sixteen watchmen who had been notified two days before of a lay-off due to economy. The dock company had a total of seventy watchmen. This is mentioned only for its incidental news value and is not to be taken as in any manner reflecting on any of the watchmen.
The watchman on duty had several warehouses to guard. One of the warehouses (No. 42) contained the furnaces or boilers with which the dock company heated its properties. At about 11 :30 a.m. the watchman had to leave his post to slice the fires. At about 11 :45 he started to lock up for the day. His recollection is that he locked No. 38 at about 11:50 a.m. His immediate boss was with him when he locked up. This watchman is about 37 years old.
While locking up another warehouse 100 feet away from No. 38, a dock hand yelled to him that smoke was issuing through the doors of No, 38 (there were three doors). With another boss or superior, he ran back to No. 38, but in his excitement be gave the keys to his boss who opened the door for him. The two men were met with acrid smoke and heat and were unable to enter.
They were likewise unable to tell just where the fire was located. The point of origin and the cause are still undetermined. Then somebody yelled “close the doors until the firemen come.” This was done, while a workman snapped an N.D.T. box on the outside wall of the warehouses at 12:01 p.m., or about ten minutes following the closing and locking of the warehouse doors at which time, the watchman relates he observed nothing unusual.
The alarm brought three pumpers, two trucks, a salvage company, a Battalion Chief and a Deputy Chief. When the firemen opened up the heat was terrific and they advanced their lines no further than fifteen feet inside the doors. This position they held for a comparatively short time and all hands were ordered to “back-out.” The second alarm was at 12:11 p.m. In the interim other companies were opening up the rear on the Furman Street side. A backdraught then occurred and scores of fire fighters were painfully burned and temporarily blinded. All hand lines were lashed as the attack continued. Firemen were mystified by the rapidity with which the fire traveled through the building. The third alarm was at 12:13, the fourth alarm at 1 :01 and the fifth alarm at 1:15 bringing Fire Chief McElligott front his home in the Bronx.
At 2:30 oclock, a master alarm was sounded by Assistant Fire Chief David J. Kidney to call help from across the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan. The signal looks like this: 5-5—482—1. When sounded in Manhattan, it looks like this: 7-7— 5-5 — 482 — 1. (The 7-7 means that the call is from Brooklyn.) This brought four pumpers and a truck from lower New York. At 3:26 the second master alarm was sounded, to wit: 5-5—482-2, or as it appears on a Manhattan register: 7-7 —5-5—482-2. The fight was waged under severe handicaps of heat and smoke. The fire burned through the third, fourth and fifth floors and the roof, all of which collapsed.
In the rear, Clark Street runs toward the river, hut is suddenly dead-ended on the Columbia Heights level overlooking the warehouse. The end of the street is supported by a wall of granite and a coping which is at about the level of the third floor of the warehouse.
This parapet formed a natural fighting deck equivalent to a water tower level and from that point many heavy streams were directed into the Furman Street windows. It was difficult to get these windows opened because of the security of the iron shutters. Many firemen were precariously perched atop extension ladders while attempting to open these shutters.
Immediately behind the parapet, the vacant area is used for the advantages of its light, air and access. In the midst of this area is a ventilating shaft leading down into the Clark Street tunnel of the Interborough-West Side (7th Avenue) subway. The normal function of this shaft and its fans is to draw air into the tube. In this particular instance considerable smoke was drawn into the subway tunnels. Subway operating officials were notified by Chief Kidney at 1:04 p.m, to shut the ventilators, but several trains had dashed through the smoke forty feet under the river with the result that many passengers were affected, most of them from panic.
On the Manhattan side of the river a box was pulled which brought firemen at the station nearest to the river front at William and Wall, to assist many persons out of the tubes. The subway ventilator fans were then reversed but it was too late. By that time the train service had been halted. At 1 :49 p.m., Batt. Chief Comiskey, of the 1st Battalion, ordered all emergency exits opened on the Manhattan side from the river front to Maiden Lane. This gave partial relief and helped considerably to allay the apprehension.
Apparatus at Scene
Tons of water seemed ineffectual as the fire raged. Chief McElligott was his old self again and was ably assisted by Chief David J. Kidney, who was in charge of the department that day, and also by Assistant Chief George L. McKenna and Deputy Chief Joseph O’Hanlon, of Brooklyn. The battle was carried on with twenty-nine engine companies, eight ladder trucks, two rescue companies, three towers, four fireboats, two searchlights, two gasoline-oil fuel trucks for apparatus supply, three Battalion Chiefs, two Deputy Chiefs, two Assistant Chiefs of Department, the Chief of Department, and about 350 firemen. Twenty engine companies, nine ladder trucks, one rescue company and three fireboats changed location to cover up.
Foam Powder Used
On Sunday, April 21, most of the Manhattan fire companies were released by Assistant Chief Patrick Walsh and Deputy Chief John Davin, who came on duty. The spectacle continued and furnished a Sunday afternoon sight-seeing matinee for many thousands of motorists and others. It was not until Monday night, April 22, when four and a half tons of fire foam had been dashed from front and rear positions into the blazing and smoking warehouse, that anything like complete extinguishment was accomplished. Most of the foam was supplied by the Standard Oil Company which has an emergency foam truck in readiness at all times at its Greenpoint nil works. The fireboats and the rescue companies furnished about one-quarter of the 4 tons of foam.
Foam Proves Effective
The attack by the foam method had long been deliberated by Chief McElligott, but it was not humanly possible to maintain firemen in the inferno. With the collapse of the floors, the heat subsided considerable. Then four foam lines—two on the waterfront side and two on the Furman Street side were stretched into separate windows and firemen were stationed inside the building.
These four foam lines were directed into the burning mass. It was difficult in places to reach the fire which was covered over by the collapsed stock and fallen floors, but it was two or three hours before the firefoam reached sufficient of the burning mass to call it “out.”
The total length of time recorded before the fire was officially declared “out” is given as 56 hours and 16 minutes. The fire was fought with the aid of three streams from each of three towers; thirteen wagon pipes, seventy-five portable lines and four fireboats with a total of thirty-four lines to towers, deck pipes and hand lines, in addition to the firefoam.
Large Volume of Water Used
Approximately 29,000,000) gallons of water were used. The high pressure pumping station, two blocks distant, opened up on receipt of the special building box with 125 pounds, raised the pressure to 150 at 1:07 p.m. 200 pounds at 2:07 p.m. and reduced it to 185 at 3:23 p.m. High pressure was finally shut down at 8:17 p.m. on Monday, April 22. The high pressure system operated fifty-six hours and sixteen minutes and supplied 8 281,000) gallons to thirteen lines. The low pressure system supplied nine pumping engines which delivered 468,700 gallons. The fireboats delivered 19,995,960 gallons of river water.
The fire never extended beyond the four walls of Warehouse No. 38. The smoke however did considerable damage to coffee cargoes in adjoining warehouses. For some chemical reason or other, it seems that smoke from burning rubber has a peculiar affinity for coffee and it is estimated that the damage to coffee stocks will be heavy.
The building and contents were insured and it is estimated that the loss will be around $400,000. There were approximately 732 treatments of members of the department by Fire Department Medical Officers and hospital internes. These were principally for burns, inflamed eyes, lacerations, bruises, etc. There were no injuries of any magnitude, excepting one fireman who is still in the Holy Family Hospital, Brooklyn, recovering from a fractured skull. He was hoiding a high pressure line with 200 pounds pressure in it. The hose line somehow got loose and gave most persons a hasty retreat. Fire Chief McElligott however picked up a 20-foot ladder and holding it in front of him, he did a “belly-wop” clamping the frisky hose line to the pavement. In this he was joined by Chief Kidney and Chief O’Leary and two firemen who piled on. The line was recovered but Fireman Miller was injured.
About 320 firemen were granted temporary sickleaves. So many firemen were temporarily non-combatant that it was necessary to summon extra men without apparatus. This was done as follows:
At 5 :30 p.m. April 20, thirty men were called from companies in the 3rd, 4th and 5th divisions in Manhattan. At 11:37 that night, forty men were called— twenty of them from the lower end of Manhattan and twenty from the 12th and 13th divisions of Brooklyn and Queens. On Monday morning at 10:35 o’clock, fifty firemen were called from six different divisions. The call for firemen without apparatus is like this: 3-3-3—482—3—10, which means ten men from the 3rd division to respond to box 482.
Chief Fire Marshal Thomas P. Brophy and his staff are still carrying on an investigation. Many witnesses, chiefly the employees of the warehouse company were examined and their testimony recorded.
The Fire Patrol spread 72 covers in adjoining warehouses. The fire drew ambulances from six Brooklyn Hospitals and Police Emergency Squads from five police districts. Smoke caused considerable damage to fire apparatus. The burning rubber melted and in addition to throwing off a carbon smoke that made every fireman look like a minstrel show performer, it blackened every piece of fire apparatus, appliance, tool and device. The water that flowed out of the burning building carried on its surface a film of gum that clung like a leech to everything it touched.
It was the dirtiest, the meanest, and one of the most stubborn fires that this reporter has attended in many years observation of the New York Fire Department.