Excerpts from Fire Engineering

Aged structures that were not up to codes, explosives, and manufacturing processes that involved the use and storage of hazardous chemicals were among the factors that led to disasters that took many lives and destroyed much property during this decade.

This period also brought a change of editorial personnel at Fire Engineering, as well as recognition of the centrifugal pump “for almost universal use on firefighting equipment,” the “significant firefighting advance” of water and rescue towers, and the benefits of using nylon and dacron fiber in hose.


[The following was condensed from a report prepared by City of Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn.]

A tragic flash fire killed 90 students and three nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Roman Catholic School on the west side on December 1.

The first-arriving engine and truck raised ladders and caught children in life nets. The next-arriving unit took over the life nets to permit the truck crew to open the roof. The seat of the fire was in the rear stairwell at the northeast corner of the “U”-constructed school. The fire had a tremendous start and had already reached the second floor of the building when fire units arrived. “It was only a matter of minutes before the firemen realized it would be impossible to rescue each person individually. Acting under orders of Chief Devine, the firemen began dropping the children into life nets and on to the sidewalk below ….”

Within minutes after the arrival of the first fire companies, the portion of the roof directly over the burning stairwell collapsed, causing the ceiling of the second-floor corridor to fall in. “This sent a blast of super-heated air and gases through the building, which snuffed out every ounce of life from those still caught in the building. It also knocked firemen, attempting to reach the second floor with their hand lines, down two flights of stairs …. The heat and smoke were too much for anyone, but the firemen were still trying to push the fire back with fog. We had to back down because of the heat, but we kept trying ….

“The `Snorkle` was able to push the fire out the roof and make it possible for us to get into the classrooms on the North side of the building …. [we] made our way into the classrooms and found the children, some still seated at their desks. All of us, veterans of more than 30 years, had never witnessed a sight so terrible.”

A Class “B” fire door on the first floor prevented the fire from involving the lower half of the building. “The fire, on top of the stairwell at the second floor, traveled down a cockloft just above the hallway …. Fire in the cockloft dropped into the hallway through two registers in the ceiling of the corridor, forcing children in the rear classrooms back. Many panicked and jumped [out the windows]. Some were rescued. The roof collapse was the end.” There reportedly was a 20-minute delay in notifying the fire department. (“Tragedy in Chicago,” Jan. 1959)

The delay in notifying the fire department was later attributed to discrepancies in locations callers gave to fire alarm headquarters. Some of the calls were for the site of the church rectory, located around the corner from the school, “about a half-block distant.” Reportedly, “if the correct address had been given at the outset, the first-in companies would have employed a different route to reach that location.”

There were no enclosed stairwells, and the stairs were not fireproof. (“Incorrect Address Causes Delay at Chicago Fire,” a staff report, Jan. 1959)



Fifteen patients died in the Council Bluffs Convalescent Home fire that occurred on February 13. Fourteen others were injured. The driver of the first-arriving apparatus reported that “smoke was billowing out of the front windows of both stories of the main building and that rescue efforts were impossible …. Involvement was so rapid and complete that firemen were able to assist only a few others to safety before they were driven back by flames.” (April 1957)

On February 17, fire raced through the 65-year-old Warrenton, Missouri, structure that in 1941 has been converted into the Katie Jane Nursing Home. Seventy-two died. The patients were elderly, and many were nonambulatory.

“Flames broke out around the baseboard, beneath a window in the first floor ward containing four beds. Fire engulfed the entire room, spreading from curtain to curtain of the five windows and to bedding, clothing and other combustibles in the congested ward.” The draft created when a picture window broke from the heat caused the fire to spread.

Reportedly, the first firefighters were on the scene within five minutes after receipt of the alarm. By this time, however, the extent of the building`s involvement made interior operations impossible.

“Measured against the approved building exits code and fire prevention recommendations advocated by the National Fire Protection Association, National Board of Fire Underwriters and other authorities, both the Council Bluffs Convalescent Home and the Katie Jane Nursing Home were sadly deficient in the fire safety fundamentals ….” (“Nation`s Worst Nursing Home Disaster at Warrenton, Missouri,” Apr. 1957)

Other Notable Fires Occuring This Decade

Forty-one persons died in the destruction of the St. Elizabeth`s Mental Ward of Mercy Hospital in Davenport, Iowa, on January 7, 1950. A woman patient of the institution confessed to setting the fire. She was judged insane and charged with murder. Many features of the structure, which was “built to burn,” contributed to the disaster. Among them were security window bars and door locks, vent flues that had openings on each story, inadequate enclosure of floor openings and stairs, and an absence of fire doors. (“Second Major Hospital Fire Takes Forty-One Lives,” Feb. 1950) n “A shattering explosion that occurred at 7:17 p.m. on May 19, in South Amboy, New Jersey, involved some 460 tons of explosives aboard a string of four barges and seven freight cars on the waterfront.” Thirty-two were killed; more than 300 were injured. Destruction was estimated at $7.5 million. The shipment was being moved on “special permit.” The Coast Guard had issued regulations on May 3 barring shipment of more than 500 pounds of ammunition in a single loading from the South Amboy area because of the proximity of large ammunition dumps and the growth of residential sections near both loading points …. the International Longshoremen`s Association, A.F.L., opposed the regulations, fearing the loss of longshoremen jobs. The issue was in the courts at the time of the explosion. Smoking was reportedly ob-served on the dock area before the incident. (“South Amboy Blast Mobilizes Fire Forces from Fifty Towns,” July 1950) n Six firefighters–two from the New York City Fire Department and four members of the Underwriters Fire Patrol–were killed on February 16, when the floors of an old six-story paper and twine plant, owned by the Elkins Co., located at 137 Wooster Street in downtown Manhattan, collapsed “with only a preliminary rumbling sound” about 12 minutes after the start of a five-alarm fire, taking with them the roof. Ten other firefighters were hospitalized. Smoking was believed to have


“The Chicago Fire Department recently added three new types of water and rescue towers which the Fire Commissioner … believes `will revolutionize fire fighting and rescue methods` … these towers have been responding to fires since October 1958 and have repeatedly proven themselves one of the most spectacular fire fighting machines since the invention of the pumper itself. What began as a trial experiment last fall, has developed into what may well be one of the significant fire fighting advances in more than 20 years….” (“Chicago Proves Value of Aerial Platforms for Fire Fighting”; Neal Callahan, Chicago Fire Department, and Hal Bruno, The Chicago American; July 1959) n “Outstanding among the synthetic fibres to find their way into the fire service in one form or another, is nylon. Nylon rope has demonstrated its great strength and toughness in rescue and fire fighting operations. Nylon cord in synthetic tires is speeding fire apparatus on its way. And now, nylon fibre cord is further lightening the load of the fire fighter–literally and figuratively by its introduction into better grades of fire hose …. Nylon and dacron fibre hose weighs 15 to 18 per cent less than premium standard cotton hose. In bulk, the nylon and other accepted synthetic types occupy 30 to 40 per cent less space than standard high grade cotton hose.” (“The Place Of Nylon In Fire Hose,” Nov. 1956) n “More than ten years of field experience with fire-retardant paint has proved its vital part in minimizing loss of life and property by fire. The wisdom of applying retardant paint in both new construction and as standard maintenance practice is becoming widely recognized for homes, hospitals, schools, industrial plants, and for smaller buildings such as dry-cleaning firms, paint stores and lumber retailers ….” (“How Effective Is Fire-Retardant Paint? Edward W. Dwyer, Nov. 1959) n ….” “What is significant about all civil service promotion tests throughout the country, however, is the in

“End of an Era–And a Beginning”: Rural Fire Departments Modernized

“The Worcester Protective Department, the Chicago Fire Insurance Patrols and the Underwriters Salvage Corps of Cincinnati will discontinue operations on or before June 30, 1959. In addition, the Boston Protective Department is studying a plan for similar action.

“In making this announcement the National Board of Underwriters stated in part: [This] marks the passing of an era; but, as in so many other developments, it reflects improvement in the municipal services which afford scientific fire protection.”

A few months before this action, the New York Fire Insurance Rating Organization had issued a new set of regulations that would give rural policy holders a special rate credit “if their farm is located within five miles of an approved fire department that is legally protecting the area and additional credits if the buildings are within 1,000 feet of an approved water supply.”

The general manager of the Rating Organization told insurance agents at a meeting that the revised rates reflected a “modern approach to fire fighting in rural areas–improvements in rural fire fighting equipment and techniques, often augmented by well-designed farm ponds or other sources of water ….” (Editorial, Donald M. O`Brien, editor, Nov. 1958)

Fire Service Library

“The nuclear and jet age, with its speed-of-light technical advance, has brought with it such terrifying new hazards that the fire service is given a tremendous challenge of continuous research, study and writing … a fire library … should have on its shelves a comprehensive selection of technical works, academic textbooks, fire protection handbooks and manuals, historical records and current publications of the fire service and associated fields. The book racks should include building codes, fire prevention laws, directives for the various municipal and governmental departments concerned with fire control and defense, handbooks of engineering, fire fighting operations, hydraulics, water supplies, first aid, refrigeration, air conditioning chemistry, electricity and physics, works on radio and electronics, books on arson, regulations governing dangerous materials and a collection of training manuals for the fire departments of the country ….” (Clarence E. Meek, honorary battalion chief and librarian, New York Fire Department Library, Mar. 1959) n

The collapse of the roof caused the second-floor corridor ceiling to fall. The resulting blast of heated air and gases killed all students and nuns trapped in Our Lady of the Angels Roman Catholic School in Chicago.

Fifteen died in the Council Bluffs (IA) Convalescent Home fire.

South Amboy, New Jersey, aftermath: shattered railroad yard.

General Motors Corporation, Livonia, Michigan: one section of the gutted plant.

The Centrifugal Fire Pump

“The adoption of the centrifugal pump for almost universal use on fire fighting equipment has been one of the most interesting and illuminating phases of the development of modern fire apparatus. From the booster-tankers to the heavy-duty, high-pressure metropolitan pumper and fire boat, the centrifugal serves them all and has proved its merit in long, hard usage …. The NFPA-IAFC Committee on Fire Apparatus voted to drop the old classification of `Class B` entirely and standardize on the `Class A` specifications for future fire pump performance. (“The Centrifugal Fire Pump goes `Up-Stage,`” Donald M. O`Brien, Oct. 1956)


“We take this means to announce the following changes in the Fire Engineering editorial staff, effective with the October issue. Donald M. O`Brien becomes editor, succeeding Roi B. Woolley, who is retiring …. The newest member of the Fire Engineering family, Frank Hanifin, becomes assistant editor.

“Fred Sheppard and Roi Woolley will continue their association with Fire Engineering. Shepperd, after more than 45 years association with the magazine and its predecessors, relinquishes active work as editorial director to give more time to revision of the “Fire Chief`s Handbook” and other text books which he has authored, and will become advisory editor.

“Roi Woolley, who joined Fire Engineering in 1943, is retiring. He will become contributing editor.” (Sept. 1958)

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