BIG WAREHOUSE FIRE INVOLVES THIRTY STORES AND DWELLINGS
Sparks Ignite Five Homes and Damage 23 Other Stores and Homes; Loss, $310,000
A FOUR-ALARM fire galloped through a century old four-story brick warehouse in Buffalo, N. Y., the past summer causing $310,000 damage. Before the flames were brought under control, sparks from the blaze ignited five nearby dwellings and damaged 23 other stores and homes.
It was Buffalo Fire Commissioner Harold R. Becker’s first fire of conflagration proportions since he was appointed commissioner early this year.
The ruined building at Oneida and Lord Streets on Buffalo’s East Side was erected 100 years ago and housed a chair factory. Later the Buffalo Starch Works occupied the building for the manufacture of soaps and chemicals. Twentyfive years ago a used machinery company purchased the building. Commissioner Becker said he believes oil-soaked floor timbers from the machinery business helped cause the rapid spread of flames.
The operator of the used machinery outfit later was found dying from malnutrition in the building. The warehouse then was purchased for $18,195 in February, 1947, at a public auction by a delivery truck concern. The head of the trucking concern was informed the building was not in particularly good condition.
The building was once a block-long structure. Several years ago the center portion collapsed. When this debris was removed a paved parking lot, 100 feet wide, was installed, thus slicing the building into two parts, an east end and a west end. The parking lot was used by the delivery company for storage of trucks.
The east end of the warehouse was Completely leveled. It was occupied by the William Simon Brewery Company of Buffalo which stored beer cases there. The west end, owned by the Raz Delivery Company of Rochester, N. Y., was used for storing freight. It was undamaged. Only damage suffered by the Raz Company was a truck trailer which was crushed when the west wall of the burning building collapsed.
First notification of fire came at 9:36 p.m. on June 27, 1950, when the Fire Alarm Office received a signal from Box 829 at Oneida and Lord Streets. Box 829 is close to the fire building.
Three engines, two hook and ladders, and two battalion chiefs responded on the initial alarm. Battalion Chief Warren J. McMahon radioed for a simultaneous second and third alarm three minutes later at 9:39 p.m.
Seven pumpers, three ladder companies, an auxiliary wagon, a battalion chief, and Deputy Commissioner James Forehead turned out on two and three bagger. Commissioner Becker also rolled when notified of the fire.
Meanwhile, the chief of the second battalion responded to the fire alarm office and took over as acting fire commissioner, according to standard Buffalo fire alarm precedure.
At 9:47 p.m. Chief McMahon radioed for an additional four engine companies. When Commissioner Becker reached the fire ground at 10 o’clock he radioed in the fourth alarm. The four engines already called by Chief McMahon took in the scheduled fourth alarm assignment.
Six minutes after he radioed in the fourth alarm, Commissioner Becker put in a special call for four more engines, constituting a fifth alarm, although Buffalo’s assignment cards do not schedule fifth alarm turnouts. At 10:39 o’clock, Deputy Commissioner Forehead called for a light wagon to illuminate the smoke-heavy scene.
More than 15 big lines were laid in an attempt to hold the racing flames. But flames swept the building with such speed that within an hour after the fire’s discovery the top walls of the four-story building had collapsed down to the second story. An hour later only the first-story walls and a three-story portion on the southeast and northeast corners still stood.
When Commissioner Becker arrived at the fire he ordered firemen to hold their nozzles straight toward the sky, creating a rain-like effect to protect the greatest possible area of homes with the water available. Two engine companies patrolled surrounding streets to wet down sparks on roofs. Homes around the building were mostly of wood frame construction and if more were ignited, could easily have sent the fourth alarmer into a blaze of unleased fury.
Nearby Roofs Ignited
Roofs of five nearby homes were ignited by sparks and caused families living inside to flee. Commissioner Becker estimated damage at $10,000 to the damaged buildings. Sparks damaged 25 other stores and dwellings.
As the warehouse walls collapsed, sparks showered an area of five blocks around. Residents quickly pulled garden hoses from storage places and began wetting down their homes.
Heat from the blaze was so intense that firemen were forced to cower behind trailers parked in the lot next to the warehouse as a shield behind which they operated their lines.
Flames spiralling 150 feet into the sky illuminated the entire area as if it were in daylight, and attracted thousands of spectators who were held back by 55 policemen. Some of the policemen went from house to house arousing occupants and evacuating houses on streets sursounding the fire.
Midway during the fire the southerly wind prevailing at the time shifted suddenly to an east wind. Firemen were forced to take hurried precautions against the heat radiating and igniting homes on the lee side of the fire building.
As the front of the warehouse crumpled, electric and telephone wires were showered with bricks and debris. Several blocks were plunged into darkness as the power was knocked out. Fremen were jeopardized by the fallen live wires until linemen cut off the power.
Toward the end of the fire not even die powerful lights of the auxiliary wagon could pierce the dense smoke which began to roll from the ruins. The blaze was brought under control at 11:30 o’clock, nearly two hours after the first alarm was sounded.
The following day five engine companies and two hook and ladders still wet down the ruins and went through the nasty job of overhauling. Streets in the vicinity were barricaded as workmen began clearing away tons of bricks and debris. Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation linemen restrung electric wires.
Damage Over $300,000
Commissioner Becker, in making his breakdown of the fire loss, said $250,000 damage was caused to the warehouse, $50,000 for contents, and $10,000 damage to dwellings to which the fire communicated.
Detective Sergeants Charles J. Haggerty and John C. Golembeck of the police arson squad worked with Battalion Chief Leo J. Considine of the Fire Prevention Bureau in an attempt to learn the cause of the fire.
They attempted to locate a neighborhood woman who told a fireman she chased a gang of boys from the warehouse an hour before discovery of the fire. She said the boys had ignited a bonfire in the warehouse but made them extinguish it before they left.
Repairs Ordered by Building Department
Officials of the arson squad and the Fire Prevention Bureau said they had received complaints within the past year from residents of the neighborhood that the building was unsafe and a firetrap. On May 9, the director of buildings notified the trucking company that they must make repairs. Shortly thereafter the president of the trucking company announced he had signed a contract to renovate the building.
Despite the intensity of the blaze and the falling walls, there were only three minor injuries. Two firemen attached to Hook and Ladder 3 were burned while moving the apparatus from near the west wall of the building just before it collapsed. They were treated by an Emergency Hospital ambulance physician for first degree bums on the hands and face and returned to duty.
Commissioner Becker commended the pair for “exceptional heroism in saving a hook and ladder truck.”
A 19-year-old citizen, helping firemen move a hose line in the early stages of the fire, suffered first degree burns on the forearms. He was treated at the Emergency Hospital and released.
The Salvation Army’s mobile canteen served hot coffee to firemen and police during the blaze.
In addition to the 18 engine companies, five hook and ladders, and auxiliary wagon which responded, six engines, and two hook and ladder companies changed quarters on orders of the fire alarm office.
Following is a resume of the alarms and the equipment involved: