Big Fire Due to Incompetent Watchman

Big Fire Due to Incompetent Watchman

Second Large Fire in Unfinished Apartments in Bronx, New York, from Unknown Causes—Poor Watchman Service in Both Cases

A NOTHER mysterious fire of extraordinary proportions completely destroyed the interior of the “Bonnie Brae,” an unfinished 85-family apartment house at the southeast corner of Shakespeare Avenue and Jessup Place, in the Highbridge Section of the Bronx, New York City, early in the morning of March 25 last. This blaze, which was only a few blocks away from the fifth alarm unfinished apartment house fire of Sunday evening, February 19—reported in the March 21 issue of FIRE Engineering—gave the New York Fire Department a two hours’ battle which ended in commendable results.

Ruins of the Partly Completed Apartment House, Scene of the Mysterious Fire Described in This Article

Two Fires in Many Respects Identical

The latest sky illuminator was in many respects identical to the former fire in that the watchman system about which the New York Board of Fire Underwriters had much criticism. That the Underwriters’ conclusions and criticisms were well founded, was borne out by the facts and circumstances of the fire here reported by the writer who was on the scene ten minutes after the first alarm.

The temperature of the weather was 60 degrees; very humid; wind about five miles an hour from the southwest. The locality is a modern new-law tenement district of five and six story apartment houses. There was fifty pounds pressure in the mains.

The accompanying sketch best describes the scene. The building was 80 per cent finished and was to have been occupied in June at rentals averaging $25 a room; the apartments ranging from three to seven rooms. Only the wood trim, plaster, paint and fixtures remained to be put in. The lathings had just been completed. There were no salamanders or other hazards such as stoves or heaters; no electricity and no steam. Stairways were finished.

Only Italian Watchman on Guard

Workmen had left the building Saturday afternoon. The owner, Joseph McConnell, a leader in the building industry in that part of the Bronx, has surveyed the premises at the end of the day’s work on Saturday, He has an excellent reputation in business and tor years resided with his family in an old homestead on the same location.

He employed a watchman at $25 a week, an Italian, about sixty-five years of age who Spoke no English. The watchman, through an interpreter, told Fire Marshal Brophy and Assistant Marshal Kaslunan that he was in his shanty on the sidewalk when the fire engines arrived. The noise of the firemen aroused him. He came out of his shanty only to see his responsibility going toward the sky in flames. I asked McConnell why he employed such a man. He said he had several English speaking watchmen—“but they all got drunk.”

Woman in Neighborhood Discovers Fire

The policeman on that “beat” had a double post to cover extending over a half mile in length in a community where policemen patrol in small runabouts.

One of the arguments against this form of patrol facility has been that the policemen have all they can do to drive the little machine without looking up and about for unusual happenings on post.

It was exactly 4:27 a. m. when a woman residing on the third floor of the apartment house “A” (See diagram) was awakened by the crackling of the fire. She saw fire at “S” on the third, fourth and fifth floors of the new apartment house. She told me the fire extended over a considerable area of the floors. She telephoned to the police who relayed the call via tie-line to Fire Headquarters. The dispatchers transmitted the first alarm signal for nearest street box “F. A.” bringing three engines, two ladders, Battalion Chief Pat. Murphy and one section of the salvage corps. Murphy sounded the second alarm, bringing Deputy Chief John F. King who sounded the third, fourth and fifth alarms.

Diagram of the Bonnie Brae Apartment blouse Fire and Its Surroundings

The fire was a “conflagration” from the very beginning of the attack by the first engine companies on the scene. It is estimated that it must have been burning fully an hour before discovery, and as its place of origin physically appears to have been in the rear where the woman at “A” first saw it, none of the late homegoers on Shakesjteare avenue had an opportunity to observe it. The watchman was indefensibly negligent. With brutal franknesss he said he had not been out of his shanty for an hour before the arrival of the fire engines. A fire alarm box was at his elbow on the corner at “F. A.”

The Alarms Sounded

The alarm situation was as follows :

Time Signal a. m.

4:27 Citizen calls police by phone.

4:28 Hox 2721 transmitted (full assignment.)

4:29 Calls by citizens by phone.

4:33 Boxes 27.36 and 2760 received—N.S.O.*

4:38 Second alarm, box 2721.

4:47 Thiol alarm.

4 :50 Box 2799, N.S.O.*

4:51 Fourth alarm.

4:59 Fifth alarm.

5:08 locating companies (4) special called.

*—Not sent out.

These alarms brought to the fire 22 engine companies, six hook and ladder trucks, the Department ambulance, the gasoline supply wagon, the Police emergency crew, the supervising engineer and the chief of construction, making a total of approximately 168 firemen, 28 company officers, seven chief officers, two doctors and two chaplains.

Method of Fighting Fire

Acting Chief of Department Joseph B. Martin responded. It was be who summoned the four extra engine companies. Chief King had previously special called a spare water tower from 114th Street in Harlem, but the motor became disabled and the tower did not reach the scene. The next nearest tower was downtown at 33rd Street.

The fire was fought with the aid of wagon pipes, hand lines on adjoining rear and front fire escapes and from the roofs and windows of surrounding structures. The heat was terrific. The fire burned a few of the window casings in the apartment house “J,” but it was mainly through the herculean efforts of the firemen that it did not extend to adjacent buildings on the east and north and out of which hundreds of families were driven by the police on orders of the chief in charge of the fire.

Investigation Does Not Clear Mystery

F ire Marshal Brophy and Assistant Marshal Cashman conducted an exhaustive investigation. The “information” given by the watchman was nil. The son of the owner attempted to choke the watchman on the spot, but fire and police officials interfered, and prevented hostilities.

The risk was insured and the loss at first blush was estimated at about $300,000.

Suggestion that possible labor trouble might have caused some person with a fancied grievance to apply the torch was scouted by the owner who declared that he had no quarrel with any group of trade unionists. There is a strong but unsupported belief in officialdom that the fire was the work of some crank or “bug.” While the fire was in progress another similar blaze occurred five miles away, in an unfinished building. The two fires however do not seem to be the “work” of the same person.

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