Atlantic City’s Costliest Fire Taxes Army of Fire Fighters

Atlantic City’s Costliest Fire Taxes Army of Fire Fighters

South Jersey Mutual Aid Functions to Help Control Long-Feared Conflagration


Editor’s Note: The following report of Atlantic City’s “most costly fire” is based upon information furnished by the Atlantic City Fire Department, Chief Rudolph J. Farley and Fire Marshal Lester J. Jackson; the National Board of Fire Underwriters, Engineers Donald L. Drumman and Boyd A. Hartley; the Atlantic City Press, and correspondents of FIRE ENGINEERING. Their assistance is gratefully acknowledged.

Special acknowledgment is made to the National Board of Fire Underwriters for permission to quote certain preliminary data from its report on this fire prior to its publication.

Because insurance adjusters have not completed their surveys as this account is written, no final property loss data are available; estimates of losses are quoted from published figures.

A CONFLAGRATION in Atlantic on January 7, 1952, regarded as the greatest fire in amount of property damage in the city’s history, caused property loss variously estimated at from $2 million to $4 million and threatened to wipe out most of the high hazard hotel and resort area in South Jersey’s famed recreation spot.

The blaze, fought for hours by a small army of local and South Jersey fire fighters, followed repeated warnings of fire protection engineers, including those of the National Board of Fire Underwriters, that conditions in the resort center constituted a very high conflagration hazard and “sweeping fires involving large sections of the district are probable.”

The conditions which have combined to give Atlantic City this unenviable distinction among fire protection engineers include: heavy congestion of hotels, rooming houses and other structures, predominantly frame and ordinary brick and frame construction, many more than two stories in height; lack of fire breaks or stops; narrow streets and unusually long blocks; lack of private fire protection; and frequent high winds. Most of the buildings are old, and many individual structures are of small area, but many are grouped or communicate with buildings of large or excessive area. It is said over 300 of these hotels, guest and rooming houses are concentrated within an area of some 48 blocks, 15 of which are of excessive size, covering some 270 acres.

The city’s fire fighting facilities have in the past been criticized, notably the high percentage of over-age apparatus and failure to restore two discontinued engine companies and to make other recommended improvements. However, in connection with the latter, it should be said that the fire department, under Director of Public Safety William S. Cuthbert and Fire Chief Rudolph J. Farley, is being rehabilitated under a seven-year improvement program.

The water supply is reported adequate and is derived from surface storage and wells and is pumped through two force mains. Pressures are well maintained but low, and hydrants are well distributed. The fire department places much reliance upon a high pressure fire service system along the Boardwalk which is fed by six pump stations in hotel power plants on the Boardwalk. Discharge pressure is reported limited to 150 pounds. Alarms are received at all hotels which start pumps on appropriate signals. Unfortunately however, this high pressure system protects only about half the hotel district.

In the fire area, 12-inch mains are installed on S. New Jersey and S. Delaware avenues; an 8-inch main on States avenue, and a 6-inch on St. Charles Place, being supplied at the south end (the Boardwalk) by a 24-inch, and at the north end, approximately 1,450 feet distant, by a 12-inch and an 8-inch main on Pacific avenue, a 60-foot wide thoroughfare that traverses the entire district longitudinally. Six-inch lines are also installed on part of S. New Jersey and S. Delaware avenues from Pacific avenue. A 20-inch main of the high pressure system runs along the Boardwalk, with a 12-inch main extending north on S. New Jersey avenue about 550 feet.

During the progress of the fire, two domestic pumps, with a total capacity of 24,800,000 gallons, were operated. Pressures were well maintained at the pumping station; pressure at hydrants in the fire area was about 40 pounds. Adequate quantities of water were available. High pressure pumps at the six hotels were in operation and furnished ample water at suitable pressures for direct hydrant streams.

The maximum increase in the rate of pumping due to the fire is reported at 10,500,000 gallons a day, with a maximum rate of 22,500,000 gallons at its peak. The total water used on the fire, from 7:30 A.M. to midnight on January 7, amounted to 4,250,000 gallons.

Hot spreading fire consumes frame section of St. Charles Hotel. Starting in Congress Hotel (not shown), fire communicated to wing of the St. Charles Hotel, shown burning, then involved fireproof tower (far left). Note water tank about to fall. View is from Breakers Hotel looking toward St. Charles Place. New Davis Hotel (burning, not shown) to right of picture.

Buildings Involved

The fire, which occurred early on Monday morning, January 7, caused complete destruction or severe damage to 18 buildings and slight damage to 13 others, and to sections of the Boardwalk. It also wrecked one fire department pumper and approximately 3,000 feet of fire department hose.

The properties involved in the fire are shown in the table below.

The location of the respective buildings is shown on the accompanying diagram. The fire itself was confined to the southern 600 feet of three blocks bordering on the Boardwalk, and bounded by S. New Jersey avenue on the east and States avenue on the west. Radiated heat caused slight damage to a number of buildings on the west side of States avenue.

It will be noted from the tabulation, two of the properties were of “fireproof,” five of ordinary, and the remainder of frame construction. The “fireproof” and frame sections of the St. Charles Hotel communicated, openings on the first and second floors being protected by single, rolling fire doors and on the third, fourth and fifth floors, by wired glass doors. Windows in the fire tower in the “fireproof” section of this hotel, which faced the frame section, were of wired glass or glass block in metal frames; a vertical pipe chase, adjacent to the fire tower and with openings into the frame section, has access doors into the tower on each floor, the doors being wooden with sheet metal backing. Vertical openings in the “fireproof” section were protected by wired glass or metal clad doors. No other exposed windows or vertical openings in buildings in the fire area were protected. The first and second floors and part of the other of the frame section of the St. Charles Hotel were protected by automatic sprinklers.

It will be noted by referring to the diagram that numerous stores were located in the structures along the Boardwalk. Also, that a number of parking lots separated some of the buildings. Along States avenue, these guest houses were set back from the street on each side, approximately 15 feet, giving a total distance between buildings of about 90 feet.

High wind spread fire—but helped fire fighters. Bird's eye view of Atlantic City conflagration of January 7, 1952. Flying embers ignited stores on Boardwalk (right center). Had 40-mile wind blown in any other direction, disaster would have been much greater. View is looking north.

Weather Windy

Weather Bureau records indicate that during the greatest progress of the fire, between 7:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M., temperatures ranged from 28 to 33 degrees F. During this period, prevailing northwest winds, shifting to north after 1:00 P.M., averaged from 27 to 36 miles per hour, with maximum of 41 miles per hour being recorded at 7:17 and 8:44 A.M. Recorded relative humidities for 7:00 A.M. to 8:00 A.M. and for 1:00 to 2:00 P.M. were 75 and 59 per cent. The morning was cloudy, clearing in the early afternoon.

By referring to the diagram it will be seen that the wind was generally offshore, a factor which reportedly played a big part in preventing the spread of the blaze. Fire fighters believe that had the strong wind been blowing on-shore there is no telling where the fire would have wound up.

Life Hazard at Minimum

Likewise, had the fire occurred during the night, and particularly during the busy summer period, many lives unquestionably would have been lost. As it was, only a few occupants were in the Loraine and the New Davis Hotels and apparently the same condition existed in most of the guest houses. Both the St. Charles and Congress Hotels were closed for the season, although some repair work was being done at the latter.

Cause of Fire Undetermined

The fire originated in the Congress Hotel and, although there is some confusion over just who first discovered it and turned in the alarm, there is agreement on the great headway made by the fire before it was reported. The almost complete destruction of the hotel makes it almost impossible to determine the cause or the exact origin of the blaze.

Engineers of the National Board give this account: One of the owners of the Congress Hotel arrived at the hotel about 6:00 A.M. on the morning of the 7th. went to the basement to adjust the oil-fired heating plant, then went out to breakfast at a restaurant several blocks distant. Upon returning, he noticed smoke coming from the building but was unable to enter because of fire in the lobby. He then went to the New Davis Hotel but, being unable to arouse anyone, he ran to the Loraine Hotel where a bellboy sent in the telephone alarm.

About this time residents of a rooming house on St. Charles Place reportedly noticed the flames and one of them ran to sound a box. The Fire Alarm Bureau received the first alarm at 7:08 A.M. and it is reported that Engine Company 3. Ladder Company 1 and a battalion chief responded (in line with the usual response to telephone alarms).

First arriving firemen found the first, second and third floors of the Congress Hotel involved in flame. Box 217, St. Charles near Beach, was struck at 7:11 A.M. bringing the remainder of the first alarm assignment, Engines 1 and 7 and Ladder 2 with the deputy chief.

With the Loraine Hotel next door, and the New Davis Hotel across St. Charles Place, both frame, and both threatened with involvement, a third alarm was sounded from Box 238 (Chief Bierley), skipping the second alarm. This was at 7:16 A.M., and this set in motion Engines 4, 8, 9 and 10 and Ladders 4 and 3 and brought Chief Farley, Battalion Chiefs Hagen and Vernatta, Acting Battalion Chief Joe Hackney (assigned to the Division of Civil Defense, who responded with the Deluge unit), Battalion Chief and F’ire Marshal Lester Jackson and Drillmaster Mulvihill. At the same time the call went out for offshift firemen.

Not knowing the number of occupants of the exposed hotels, first arriving firemen spent some time checking each, and evacuating the few occupants. It was necessary to forcibly evict a few of the occupants of these structures, some of whom insisted on retrieving their belongings. So rapidly were these buildings involved that some rescuers and rescued alike narrowly escaped being trapped by the flames. It was said the heat was so intense that a fur coat worn by one woman caught fire as she left the New Davis Hotel.

A number of police aided in this evacuation. As a precautionary measure, occupants of the big frame Breakers Hotel were ordered out of the building.

Blaze Spread

The rapid spread of the flames trapped Engine 3 of the Atlantic City department. This pumper, a 1,000 G. P. M. American-LaFrance, had connected to a hydrant on St. Charles Place across the street from the Loraine Hotel and was supplying two lines that were played upon the fire, and one line used to throw up a water curtain between the Loraine and the Congress. Water from this line quickly turned to steam.

Map of area involved by fire.Atlantic City's Engine 3 wrecked by fire on St. Charles Place. Captain Jack Cohen and a fireman inspect ruined 1000 G.P.M. American-LaFrance pumper which had to be abandoned, with lines, as fire jumped street. Note burned ladder. View is toward Boardwalk.

Photo Courtesy Lester J. Jackson

Despite these efforts, the fire quickly spread to the Loraine and the New Davis structures and radiated heat made the pumper’s position untenable, forcing the operator to abandon the vehicle, which was soon wrecked. Approximately 3,000 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose also was lost during the fire.

At about this time also, Ladder 3, which was positioned on St. Charles Place nearer the Boardwalk, very nearly was consumed. The driver and tillerman managed to reach safety by driving up a very narrow ramp onto the Boardwalk. Also, during the fire, a second pumper became endangered by the intense heat and only escaped when the operator and driver cut the suction with an axe and sped out of the fire’s range.

Traveling toward the Boardwalk, the fire involved the Globe Theatre, through unprotected window openings in the rear and east sides of the building. About this time, also, the frame portion of the St. Charles Hotel ignited and, notwithstanding the fact that the first and second floors and part of the attic of this structure were protected by automatic sprinklers, flames swept rapidly through the building and then into the “fireproof” section through unprotected windows on the north and west sides. Fire also involved a large frame guest house on New Jersey avenue, in the rear of the New Davis Hotel.

Burning embers and even hot, flying glass, were being carried toward the Boardwalk by this time, some embers carrying to the end of the Steel Pier, three blocks west of the fire, to threaten the 1,792-foot long structure. The Pier’s trained fire crews, however, aided by volunteers, were alert and all minor fires were extinguished.

A large burning ember entered a store on the Boardwalk at the corner of States Avenue and the Boardwalk, ignited the interior and the establishement was wrecked. Other stores on the Boardwalk, seven guest houses on the west side of S. Delaware Avenue and several other nearby structures, caught fire from flying brands, and radiated heat set off two other stores on the Boardwalk. Most of the stores involved had apartments located over them, and tenants of these buildings were hastily evacuated.

Meantime, out-of-town fire companies were arriving and getting into action. The first of these units, responding on mutual aid calls sent out by Chief Farley, reached the scene at 8:30 A.M., and 15 more, including one from the Naval Air Station at Pomona, reported within the next four hours, the last arriving units being located in fire stations to help cover the city in case of other fires. Guides, familiar with the city, were located in each fire house so occupied, to pilot the volunteers.

This covering-up by volunteers, plus Atlantic City engines 6 and 11, and two ladder companies (which were not dispatched to the fire) together with the department’s reserve units manned by off-shift and reserve personnel, afforded adequate protection for the balance of the city during the conflagration. Two other fire alarms were reported during this period, both of which proved insignificant and were handled by the reserve units. These were not for fires related to the major blaze. It is estimated that fully 100 small fires were started by flying embers and sparks emanating from the big blaze. All of these fires were extinguished by fire fighters and volunteers, some of whom manned garden hose lines, and patrolled roofs in the neighborhood during the threat of the fire’s extension.

Mutual Aid Functions

The fire demonstrated the soundness of South Jersey’s planned mutual aid system and the pre-fire planning tor just such an emergency undertaken by the Atlantic City Fire Department.

When Chief Farley, following the general alarm, called for out-of-town assistance, the response was immediate. Apparatus, rescue squads and volunteer firemen from the following communities either reported direct to the fire, or took station in Atlantic City’s vacated fire houses: Ventnor, Margate, Ocean City, Pleasantville, Northfield, Somers Point, Hammonton, Wildwood, Avalon, Egg Harbor City, Absecom, Linwood, Longport, Bayview and Brigantine. Crews from the Naval Air Station at Pomona also responded. Officials of Camden and other New Jersey cities proffered aid but it was not required.

Shifts of some of these fire units were made to cover South Jersey communities that dispatched aid into Atlantic City.

For Brigantine’s firemen, the episode marked the baptism of their new pumper, manned by four men, beaded by Chief Robert Ockenlander. For another contmunity department, it brought an apparatus casualty. The pumper front Engine 3, Pleasantville, of ancient vintage and soon to be replaced by apparatus on order, “burned out” and had to be towed home.

Wide destruction at costly Atlantic City fire. Frame section of St. Charles and New Davis Hotels in ruins. St. Charles Place in background, looking west toward point where fire was stopped. Hand lines are from New Jersey Avenue. Note open lots which aided firemen.

Space does not permit a recital of the services performed by these individual companies, a number of whose crewmen were injured fighting the fire.

Of the 16 departments that responded with apparatus and men, four went into service in Atlantic City fire stations. The total response included 18 out-of-town pumpers and one 65-foot aerial ladder, manned by approximately 160 firemen.

Fire Fighting Operations

Over 200 local firemen, including those off-duty, with the 160 estimated out-ofcity firemen, and 40 members of the Atlantic City Fire Reserve, were on duty, the large majority at the scene of the fire.

Five Atlantic City and five out-oftown pumpers were connected to 10 domestic hydrants and supplied an estimated 20 hose lines. Ten hydrants on the high pressure fire main system furnished supply for about 20 additional hydrant streams. In addition, fire fighters used booster lines, portable extinguishers and other means to kill small exposure fires.

One of the most difficult problems, and typical of nearly all large-scale fire control operations, was coming to grips with the intensely hot fire. Streams from some of the first lines turned to steam before they reached the body of the fire. In some positions, it was impossible to operate heavy duty streams from deck and ladder pipes because of the radiated heat, and the fact that the burning structures were set back a considerable distance from roadways, Fire operations had to be planned with an ever-present possibility of a shift in the strong winds which, if it had come, might well have brought disaster.

No evidence is had that water fog on a large scale was attempted, but firemen made use of small lines particularly 1 1/2inch and some fog in knocking down extensions, and in operating inside some of the burning structures. Some incoming units had high pressure fog which reportedly was put to good advantage on perimeter fires, and to protect the city against additional alarms.

Area of destruction at Atlantic City fire: Globe Theater, right center; St. Charles Hotel, right background, and Boardwalk, extreme right.

Photo Courtesy Edgar W. Johnson

Three or four ladder pipes and a number of portable and mounted turret nozzles and the department’s deluge unit were operated during the fire. The fire area was surounded by companies, which protected the exposures, the largest of these being a 6-story frame section of the Breakers Hotel. Several 2 1/2-inch hose lines were used for this purpose but, in addition, a number of 1 1/2-inch lines were used on guest houses on the west side of States Avenue opposite the fire area. Here hard-pressed fire fighters were able to make an effective stop, holding the fire to the fronts of about 10 structures between that thoroughfare and Maryland Avenue to the west.

After the Atlantic City fire had run its course. St. Charles Hotel Tower at upper left; Globe Theater at center. Ruins of Loraine and Congress Hotels at center adjacent to theater.

Although firemen believed they had the fire controlled by noon on the 7th, it was 1:30 P.M. before they felt secure against any shift in the direction of the wind. The first out-of-town company was dismissed at 2:30 P.M., and others returned to their respective quarters within a few hours. Several city companies were kept on duty until early the morning of the 8th. From then until Friday the 11th, one or two companies remained on the scene wetting down the ruins to prevent re-kindling.

At one stage in the spreading fire, firemen considered resorting to dynamite to level some structures so as to establish fire lanes between the burning area and the rest of the city, but this plan was abandoned after the flames had reached States Avenue and were checked by firemen taking advantage of the large parking lots.

No Serious Injuries

It is conservatively estimated that at least 40 persons, mostly firemen, were injured during the fire, fortunately none seriously. Of these, 22 were treated at Atlantic City Hospital. An estimated 20 to 25 received treatment on the fire ground. Injuries consisted mostly of burns, cuts, and sprains from falls on ice. Many others who battled the blaze suffered blistered skin and singed hair and eyebrows.

All local and some South Jersey disaster units, including the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other services, were on hand to supply firemen with refreshments and care for the homeless. All available police were required to handle the crowds brought to the scene by the news of the fire and response of apparatus.

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Although it is too early perhaps to draw definite conclusions from the conflagration, some observations of witnesses, fire fighters, and engineers of the National Board of Fire Underwriters are in order.

National Board engineers point out that an examination of the protection to the communications between the frame and the “fireproof” sections of the St. Charles Hotel indicated that the single fire doors on the first and second floors operated satisfactorily. Wired glass doors on the third, fourth and fifth floors were completely destroyed, only portions of their frames remaining. However, they also point out that since fire entered the fireproof section through unprotected windows on the north and west sides, these doors had little effect on the spread of the fire which, after entering, mushroomed out and burned out each of the first six floors; wired glass in the elevator shaft doors on these floors was completely burned away but probably had little effect on the vertical spread of the fire to or on these floors. Except for broken windows on the north and west sides, rooms on the top two floors suffered little damage, but about half of each of the remaining floors, the west side, were burned out. Wired glass in the fire tower, although directly exposed to the heat, remained intact.

The stage and dressing rooms of the Globe Theatre were also burned out and several rows of seats in the rear under the balcony were destroyed; the latter damage was apparently caused by radiated heat from the St. Charles Hotel through unprotected openings on the east wall. Two of the stores were set afire by flying brands and the other by radiated heat. Two ramps from the street level to the Boardwalk and a small area of the Boardwalk itself were damaged.

The fire proved the prophecy that large areas of congested frame construction, especially over two stories high, are potential conflagration sources in any city (and there are many more seaboard communities where such conditions exist.

The intensity and spread of the fire, according to the Underwriter’s report, were due in large measure to wind conditions. Had the prevailing wind shifted in any other direction, the fire would undoubtedly have extended over a much greater area. Had the same fire, together with the same wind conditions, occurred during the summer season, when all buildings would be fully occupied, according to the Board’s report, “great loss would probably have resulted.”

Although suitable protection to openings in the St. Charles Hotel and Globe Theatre may not have kept fire out of these buildings, such protection no doubt would have considerably decreased the amount of damage. The value of wired glass is exemplified by the condition of those in the fire tower of the St. Charles Hotel which, although damaged, kept fire out of the tower, the Board report states. The fire also evidenced the need of protecting leeward areas against flying brands.

Delayed discovery and sounding of the alarm undoubtedly was a factor in the rapid progress made by this fire. Many believe the fire emphasizes the advisability of having ample fire detection and alarm facilities, such as building boxes in all multiple occupancies such as the hotels involved in this fire. Like many fires of similar nature, this reportedly attests the superiority of the municipal fire alarm signal systems over the public telephone in transmitting alarms of fire.

Just to what extent this, like other similar fires, proves the fallacy of responding to alarms of fire from hotels with only single engine and ladder companies is problematical. That is a problem to be decided by local fire officials after appropriate study. No information exists on the number and kind of alarms received for this fire, but it is reported that no additional boxes were pulled after the fire department once had arrived on the scene, nor were any boxes pulled for the numerous exposure fires.

This, like other similar fires, attests the difficulty in making rescues, directing evacuation and fighting a spreading fire with the limited number of men manning the average units of our fire apparatus today. Manifestly it is impossible to bring heavy duty streams into play when fire crews must devote their first efforts to prevent loss of life.

Under certain conditions, portable hand lines must constitute the sole attack, at least until secondary heavy streams can be made available. Where fire fighters must take advantage of natural barriers, such as open lots and “fireproof” buildings, and lines must be stretched across lots and around buildings to set up protective covering, hand lines are in order. Sufficient hose holders and deluge sets, however, should be available to reduce the number of men required on nozzles, to prevent lines getting away from nozzlemen and to enable nozzles to deliver the most effective streams.

Some firemen drew a parallel between this fire and fire storms such as might be envisaged during an enemy raid. Certainly the blaze illustrated the need of getting large bodies of water onto and ahead of the fire to break up heat waves.

The fire demonstrated the value of organized mutual aid and of pre-planning for such large scale emergencies. Atlantic City chief officers have always been aware of the hazards facing them and have planned the strategy to be followed if and when such a condition arose. Although the best laid plans can go wrong, the local department’s procedures in this case were based on this pre-planning, and upon making fullest use of South Jersey assisting fire forces.

The loss of one pumper and near destruction of two other pieces of equipment evidence the speed of the spread of the fire and the difficulty of taking and holding defensive positions ; likewise, the wisdom of having adequate reserves and a “secondary line of defense.” The need of yielding ground, and relocating apparatus must be met in nearly all such types of fast spreading fires, and conditions may well upset the best predetermined strategy.

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