CAMDEN EXPERIENCES THE MOST DISASTROUS FIRE IN ITS HISTORY
Explosions Level a Chemical Plant Within an Hour and Cause Flames to Spread to Nearby Buildings
THE most disastrous fire in the history of the city of Camden, N. J., occurred in the afternoon of July 30, destroying the central plant of the R. M. Hollingshead Company and approximately sixty homes and stores in the surrounding area. This area is bounded by Ninth, Market, Tenth, and Cooper streets. Market street is the main traffic artery from the Delaware River bridge to the shore.
The first alarm was answered by two engines, one truck company and the Deputy Chief. Within six minutes, a general alarm was transmitted and additional outside calls sent to Philadelphia and the counties of Camden and Gloucester. Philadelphia responded with nine pieces of apparatus under the command of Battalion Chief McKnight.
Explosions Spread Fire
A series of explosions which rocked the building, caused the spread of the fire both inside the plant and to nearby homes and stores. The factory building was totally destroyed within an hour after the start of the fire, but the office building across ninth street was saved. Every pane of glass in the latter building was blown in from the force of the explosion
The fire spread with unbelievable rapidity, fed by one explosion after another. The first occurred in the northwest section of the five-story brick building. The flames spread fanwise all over the building, causing Chief John Lennox to give up hope of saving the block. The Pennsylvania Railroad runs diagonally through the block from Tenth and Market streets to the front of the office building. A number of tank cars were on this siding, and in the first half-hour, two of the cars had exploded. Volunteers were able to push another car out of danger. The fire jumped the siding and entered the loading platform: then it jumped to the homes and stores on Tenth Street. From that time on, it was just a case of trying to confine the fire to the four blocks surrounding the building.
Homes Destroyed and Damaged
Twenty-two homes on Cooper street, fourteen homes on Carpenter Street, six homes, including a nine family apartment house, on Ninth Street between Market and Cooper, and four stores and five homes on Market Street were either destroyed or badly damaged. Approximately sixty families were left homeless by the fire. The Red Disaster Unit was busy getting families reunited and sheltered. The damage to the entire area will run into probably two and one-half million dollars according to the Underwriters.
The draft on the water system was so great that couriers had to be dispatched throughout the city to warn the inhabitants against any unnecessary use of water. The Campbell Soup plant had to close down shortly after, due to the water shortage.
Looting started almost immediately after the fire started as a couple of arrests were made within the hour. Police had a difficult time protecting one youth from the crowd when there were cries of “kill him.” Mayor Brunner declared a state of emergency and called out the 114th Infantry of the New Jersey National Guard.
Although badly undermanned, and unequipped as far as new apparatus is concerned, the Camden Fire Department put up a fight that will go down into the annals of the Firemanic History. Some years ago, the department had a top quota of 208 men, but now there are 158 men. Although there have been no new appointments to the department within the past four years, this did not affect the ratings of the National Board of Fire Underwriters. Camden receives the rating of fifth place for cities of its size. The equipment consists of nine engine companies and three truck companies, eleven pumpers, nine hose wagons, one emergency truck and three Chiefs’ cars. Camden was one of the first cities in this country to be fully motorized. With Camden’s Fire Department and the Philadelphia contingent of nine engines, at least thirty companies and approximately five hundred men, from the volunteer department of the neighboring towns, aided in abating the flames. Chief Lennox said that if it had not been for the outside help the city would have been in ruins.
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“Second Alarmers” on Duty
The “Second Alarmers” from Chester, Willow Grove, and Philadelphia were quick to respond. They worked throughout the day and night as well as the following day feeding the weary firemen. The Willow Grove squad, under Chief George Volz, operated a dressing station and first aid unit. Although constantly in danger, none of the fire extinguishing force was seriously injured. However, one Camden fireman died from the effect of the heat and exhaustion. Among the Volunteer Rescue Units was the finely trained squad from the nearby R.C.A. plant.
A report was circulated that sabotage had something to do with the explosion, but this has been discounted by the officials of the company. Chief Lennox was of the opinion that the fire was caused by spontaneous combustion, such ignition being likely to occur in chemical plants.