Buffalo General Alarm Fire Causes Million Dollar Loss
Other Blazes in Four-Day Period Up Total Losses to Nearly $2,000,000
THE first official general alarm fire in the history of the Buffalo, N. Y., Fire Department recently caused an estimated $1,000,000 damage to the 10-story brick, steel and concrete building owned by the Bison Waste & Wiper Co.
The blaze, in a heavily industrialized area of the city, was the first really large fire directed by Charles W. O’Halloran, recently named fire commissioner of Buffalo.
More than one dozen firemen and civilians were injured during the long battle on March 15, 1954, and one fireman died of a heart attack, believed to have been brought on by exertion while fighting the fire.
The general alarmer also was the signal for a series of other serious fires, two of them multiple alarms. Damage from the fires during an extremely busy fourday period is expected to total nearly $2,000,000. One of these fires was in another mercantile building only six blocks away from the Bison Waste & Wiper blaze.
The 10-story Bison building formerly was a part of the Larkin department and mail order house holdings and was built in 1912. The structure was of fire resistant construction and sprinklered. President Sidney S. Kagner of the Bison firm said his company planned to move all of its operations to the plant by April 1. The company manufactures wiping cloths and packs waste materials and textile wastes. Waste paper also was stored in the building. The firm employed 90 in the building.
The Bison Company occupied the first five and the tenth floors, and the rest of the building was rented out to other firms. Part of the third floor and all of the sixth and seventh floors were used by the Hewitt Restfoam Division, Hewitt-Robins, Inc., to store new rubber cushions for automobiles and furniture.
The Bell Aircraft Corporation used the eighth and ninth floors for storage. A company spokesman said that noncurrent, non-vital records and miscellaneous furniture were stored there. Other space in the Bison building was occupied by the Irving Paper Mill Supply Co. and the CJE Iron Works of Blasdell, N. Y.
Total damage at the Bison building, fronting on Van Rensselaer, Exchange and Carroll Streets, is expected to give Buffalo its second most costly fire in the past 25 years.
Two other gigantic warehouses created a severe exposure problem. The Seneca Warehouse Company Industrial Building, 701 Seneca St., was connected to Bison by three catwalks, one each on the third, fifth and seventh floors. The catwalks were badly damaged and the rear of the warehouse was scorched. A thick firewall prevented communication but two tenants, Sattler’s, Inc., and College Knitting Mills, Inc., reported water damage from hose lines and their own sprinkler systems which were set off. Damage at Seneca probably will reach $100,000.
The Larkin Co. Warehouse Bldg, was to the east of the burned building and on the opposite side of Van Rensselaer Street. It was connected to Bison by two bridges, the upper of which collapsed during the fire. The street between the Larkin and Bison warehouses was no more than 20 yards wide.
Irwin E. Deull, president and treasurer of the New York Fire Adjustment Corporation, estimated damage to the building and contents owned by Bison at $1,000,000 “or perhaps a little more.” He said the Bison loss was “partly covered by insurance.”
Commissioner Halloran said later the Bison building held up remarkably well.
“It is nowhere near a complete loss,” he observed. “Most of the concrete floors are intact, although there is some deterioration from heat. The major loss probably is in the contents.”
The fire apparently started when welders, working in the third floor premises of Bison, ignited tar paper between the ceiling of the third floor and the floor of the fourth. Arson investigators interviewed four iron workers who said they were installing iron beams on the third floor ceiling. The beams were to support the fourth floor where the Bison firm planned to install a laundry, requiring heavy machinery.
Welder Daniel Vujukovick said he was on a ladder when a spark “ignited some tar in the ceiling and the blaze started.” “I got down from the ladder as fast as I could and ran for a fire extinguisher in the corner.” he said. “It was empty. I ran out of the room and downstairs to get another one….When I got back the room was full of smoke.
Even more significant, was Commissioner Halloran’s disclosure that he learned a section of the sprinkler system had been shut off in the building while the welders worked.
Published statements that the sprinkler system was inoperative were denied by Bison President Kagner who said the system “definitely was turned on.” He said the system and the fire extinguishers were all in good working order.
Bison Plant Manager Irvin Yenoff believes he turned in the first alarm.
“I heard our own fire alarm from my office,” he said. “I ran out into Exchange Street and turned in the alarm from a box. It was only minutes until fire equipment arrived. We got everyone out….There was no panic.”
Yenoff said employes were warned by a public address system, by sprinklers going off or the alarm system.
The first alarm was sounded at 1 :36 p. m., and the first due companies, Engine 32 and Truck 5, were stationed on Seneca Street, only a block away. The second alarm was pulled at 1:39 p. m., indicating the fire had a good hold before the fire department was notified.
As is customary in Buffalo, Commissioner Halloran responded to the second alarm. Here is his eye-witness report:
“When I arrived, the northwest corner of the building was on fire and giving off vast and dense clouds of smoke from burning rubber. The crews were moving into position when the fire gained rapid headway on the third floor. Within 10 to 15 minutes it was apparent the fire was out of control on the third floor and the third alarm was sounded at 2:18 p. m. The fourth alarm was sounded at 3:13 and the general alarm at 3:20.”
Commissioner Halloran said the department’s turnout of 32 engines, 15 trucks and miscellaneous equipment fought “Buffalo’s third or fourth worst fire in terms of danger to other property.” He said it was the largest concentration of apparatus since the 1931 blaze at the Masten Avenue Armory.
The quick spread of the fire could have been due to explosions of undetermined origin which forced pipemen to retreat and temporarily trapped 12 men.
“We had the fire almost extinguished when it suddenly broke out with a vengeance following an explosion,” said Battalion Chief William E. McGee, one of those trapped. “There were about a dozen fire fighters on the third floor near where the fire started.
“We had reached the third floor by climbing inner stairways. With great suddenness black smoke began to fill the entire floor. Within seconds it became so dark we were unable to find our way out,” said Chief McGee.
“We groped our way to windows on the Exchange St. side of the building. The smoke became so intense that we couldn’t even see the ground below.”
Commissioner Halloran, who was directing operations on Exchange St., spotted the firemen along with four workers also trapped. He ordered two aerial ladders raised and they were brought down.
When general alarm apparatus reached the scene, Commissioner Halloran sent several hose lines to the five top floors o_____ the Larkin Warehouse with instructions to cover exposures.
High pressure wagons and lines operated from aerial ladders were brought into play. Equipment included two 1800 g.p.m. turret nozzles on the high pressure wagons and six 1200 g.p.m. turrets. Nine aerial ladders were used. Eight pumpers worked into the sprinkler systems of the Larkin and Seneca warehouses to maintain pressure there. Six other pumpers were attached to the standpipe systems in these buildings, forcing water into the Bison building.
Firemen thought they could confine the blaze to the third floor early in the fight, basing their belief on the sprinkler system and the fire-resistant construction. But heat from smoldering rags and foam rubber set off large numbers of sprinkler heads, bleeding the system. The large number of heads opened used a larger volume of water than lines feeding them were able to supply.
Another obstacle was the location of bales stacked near or at windows, thus stopping streams from reaching flames.
“The fire spread rapidly through floor openings to the fourth floor,” said Commissioner Halloran. “If the sprinkler system had been working, it certainly would have been ineffective at that time because of the large number of sprinkler heads already opened.
“The fire then spread to the eastward, fully involving the third, fourth and fifth floors.”
Commissioner Halloran said he thought the quick spread of the blaze might have been caused by floor openings, probably chutes between floors, fire doors held open or structural changes.
“It was apparent that something must be done to save the adjoining building across Van Rensselaer Street (Larkin Warehoused). The flames were leaping across and I sent crews into the building. There were indications of fire on the seventh and eighth floors and the crews knocked the indoor sprinkler heads off near the windows to form a water curtain.” Commissioner Halloran said.
“On Van Rensselaer Street, two high pressure crews threw up a water curtain between the Bison and Larkin warehouses. That water curtain, I believe, saved Larkin’s.”
Commissioner Halloran said he sounded the general alarm, which called the offduty shift, when the Bison fire continued to give indications it might communicate to the two other warehouses. He said the fire began to be brought under control between 5 and 6 p. m.
Operations were made easier by the use of walkie-talkie radio sets which communicated from various points with the chief’s car.
Gigantic clouds of thick black smoke poured from the 10-story building and a strong southwest wind carried the smudge eastward.
Late in the afternoon, firemen were able to take up positions on the upper floors and root of the Seneca Warehouse where they operated streams into the Bison Building. At that point, Commissioner Halloran declared the fire under control.
The comissioner, who had ordered all men out of the building, went back in about 8:30 p. m. and said the smoldering rags, rubber, sponge rubber and crude rubber would take two or three days to put out.
Some 400 firemen fought the blaze, including 100 off-duty men.
Roy B. Farrell, Buffalo Fire Department superintendent of apparatus, estimated that about 5000 gallons of gasoline were used. The motors of at least 20 engines were kept running for 10 hours, while some ran for 30.
Officially, the general alarmer was the first such in Buffalo’s history. Records show that four alarms were transmitted and additional equipment sent to the 65th Armory blaze on May 8, 1931. In 1928, eight years after Buffalo’s present alarm system was installed, flames in the D. & C. Dock and Warehouse at the foot of Main Street got similar treatment.
The fire proved the efficiency of the Erie County Mutual Aid System, set up in 1950 with the help of former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Harold J. Becker. Within minutes after the third alarm, the suburban departments of Kenmore and Lackawanna were alerted. After the fourth alarm, the system went into action, sending seven suburban rigs into the city to relocate in empty houses. Ten more stations were alerted on a standby basis. At no time during the fire was Buffalo left without protection.
The general alarm cleared Buffalo of all apparatus except three rigs. All offduty firemen were ordered back to work and enough manpower kept to man six pieces of apparatus in reserve. All other firemen were told to pick up their boots at station houses and to report to the fire. Departments participating in the mutual aid plan were: Kenmore, Kenilworth, Eggertsville, Pine Hill, Seneca Hose, Ellwood, Doyle No. 1. In addition, 40 other county fire departments could have been called upon if necessary.
Operations at the alarm office, where the mutual aid system was controlled, were supervised by Gerald A. Gleason, chairman of the Erie County Fire Advisory Board and Leo H. O’Hara, superintendent of fire alarms, Buffalo Fire Department.
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The department’s Auxiliary Fire Corps, a Civil Defense unit, also saw plenty of action during the Bison blaze. Approximately 200 auxiliary fire fighters took part directly or indirectly. More than 100 of them helped lay hose and maneuver apparatus, and after midnight they began breaking up wet lines no longer needed and loaded them onto trucks for cartage to the department’s central drying tower. Some auxiliaries also manned hose lines.
After the fourth alarm was sounded, auxiliaries who had not reported to the fire were alerted by telephone and asked to report to the Fire Department Center. More than 75 showed up. Although most of these never got to the fire, they helped load fresh hose on reserve apparatus and then were dispatched with regular Fire Department officers and some of the off-duty firemen to vacant firehouses to standby for other blazes. Many auxiliaries remained on duty all night.
Quantity of Water Used
Chief Engineer Frank Nehin, of the Colonel Ward pumping station, said more than three million gallons of water were used at the Bison fire. He said a normal Monday pumpage during winter is 131,000,000 gallons but 134,000,000 were pumped the day of the fire.
The owners and the directors of the Larkin Warehouse, Inc., threatened by the fire, presented a check for $1000 to the Buffalo Fire Department Beneficiary Association in gratitude for the “excellent work” done by Commissioner Halloran and firemen.
Fortunately, there were no other fires during the Bison blaze. Members of the Pine Hill Hose Company, which had occupied Engine 31’s quarters under the mutual aid system, took in an alarm at Fillmore and Glenwood shortly after the general was sounded. The alarm was false as was one at Clinton near Michigan at the height of the fire.
Four days later, a three-alarm fire in the D. J. Mead & Sons, Inc., wholesale paper distributors, caused more than $255,000 damage. The building was on the southwest corner of Seneca and Louisana Streets, about six blocks from the Bison plant. Two firemen were injured.
Simultaneous with the paper wholesaler’s fire, two alarms were sounded in another part of the city for a fire which damaged three homes to the extent of $40,000. That afternoon a fire in the North Park Garage caused an additional $3750 damage.