CHICAGO “SKID ROW” HOTEL FIRE RESULTS IN 29 CASUALTIES
Derelicts Die in 5-11 Chicago Fire Kindled by “Human Torch”
A FAST-SPREADING fire which roared through a dilapidated 40-yearold so-called “hotel” in Chicago’s Skid Row, brought death to 29 men, most of them human derelicts, early on the morning of Feb. 12. Many more, including a number of fire fighters, were injured.
The three-hour blaze gutted the Barton Hotel at 644-48 W. Madison, owned by a woman and leased to the Gandy Hotel Co. which, in turn, sub-leased the property to two brothers, Benjamin Glassman and Max Glassman.
According to Chicago Building Department files, the place was divided into sleeping stalls for 336 persons. Forty-eight were on the second floor, 85 on the third, 117 on the fourth and 86 on the fifth. The ground floor was occupied by the Standard Store Fixture Company.
It is estimated that 245 men were asleep in the five-story building at the time of the fire. Their “rooms” were cubicles about 4 ft. wide 6 ft. long and 7 ft. high. The bunks were separated from each other by corrugated iron sheets, topped with meshed chicken wire. An aisle ran between each two rows of cubicles. The chicken wire top was to provide ventilation, and to keep the flophouse denizens from crawling into each other’s cubicles.
According to press reports, the owner reportedly spent $60,000 to “fireproof” the building. It was used to put in firewalls, enclose the stairway, etc. This was done after the Building Department notified the owner what was needed. City inspectors afterward gave the place a satisfactory report, the owner said.
Fire Prevention Bureau records reportedly show charges that the place lacked a fire alarm system. The two brothers who operate the place said they paid $10,075 for the installation of a fire alarm system in January. The fire alarm violation showed up in an inspection made April 23, 1954, according to press reports. In court, the case was delayed so the brothers could make the necessary installation. Press reports relate that at the time of the fire, night clerk C. W. Harvey “groped his way to an inside alarm, but got no response. He dialed the telephone operator who called firemen.” No explanation as to the kind of inside alarm was referred to.
Anthony Dykes, 45, janitor of the hotel, said he was walking down a second-floor hall shortly before 2:00 A.M. when Joseph Armatyz, 70-year-old pensioner, burst from his room covered with liquid fire.
Dykes chased the man down the hall, the victim’s fire-wracked body splattering flaming alcohol as he ran. Other roomers piled out of their cages and tried to assist, Dykes said, but suddenly the lights went out all over the hotel.
By the time night clerk Harvey had gotten the alarm through, the blaze had gained momentum and the hallways, lighted only by the feeding flames, were filled with screaming, panic-stricken elderly men.
Some of them found their way to the stairwell; others to fire escapes.
Armatvz, who soon died from his burns, was in the habit of rubbing himself with alcohol and it is believed ashes from his pipe or cigarette ignited the fumes.
Along with the charred bodies of those who failed to escape, firemen found scores of wine and whiskey bottles. mute characterization of the flophouse clientele. According to one paper “The Barton Hotel offered sleeping quarters for the destitute, broken down men who go to Skid Row to drink and be forgotten and to dream about what great persons they might have been.”
Firemen, once they had the alarm, were quickly on the scene, to encounter near-pandemonium. The cries of the firecrazed victims in the hallways, at the windows, and on the fire escapes tore the bitter cold night air. Bodies were coming down out of windows as those who made the openings were forced to drop or jump. At least one matt jumped to his death from the third floor. The list of injured shows a heavy preponderance of fractures and sprains.
The fire fighters, coming in increasing force as multiple alarms were sounded, raced tip the steps and led many to safety. The front of the building was thoroughly laddered and, notwithstanding the hazardous climbing conditions in the sub-zero weather, firemen made every effort to penetrate to the interior of the upper floors where they knew most of the victims would be located. Smoke in heavy volume, and roaring flames in the rear, particularly soon drove them to break off search and fight the fire from the exterior. The stairs gave way early in the fire, followed not long after by parts of the floors.
As heavy streams from water towers, ladders and deck pipes tore into the building the fire escapes, and even firemen’s equipment, took on coats of ice. Ladders buckled under the added weight and steam trucks were summoned to de-ice jammed apparatus, hydrants and equipment.
As soon as conditions made it possible, search for the victims was instituted. Most of those found were burned beyond recognition. Indeed it is doubtful if the majority will ever be identified. Those who managed to escape were sheltered by the Salvation Army, located next door, and taken to other hotels and service agencies.
According to Chief Fire Marshal John Haberkorn, the fire was the worst in Chicago since April 16, 1953, when 35 perished in the Haber Corp. fire. It was the third major fire in two days in the blighted near West side area in that city. On the day before, a 3-11 fire
broke out in a warehouse at 711 Randolph and a 5-11 blaze the day before that razed a vacant building at 663 Washington.
The 29th body was recovered from the ruins on the 17th as firemen and others probed the wreckage. Following collapse of the top floors, the upper two stories of the building were razed by wreckers to safeguard searchers in the ruins.
Meanwhile the usual investigations are being made by the city’s police, fire and building departments, state fire marshal’s office, and State’s Attorney.
100 Dead in 22 Months
In the last 22 months, according to press reports, there have been five fire disasters, previous to the Barton Hotel blaze, which have taken the lives of five or more persons. These five fires in which 71 died were:
April 16, 1953—Haber Corp. fire, 908 W. North, 35 dead
Sept. 7, 1953—Tenement at 3616 W. State, 18 dead.
Dec. 1953—Reliance Hotel, 1702 W. Madison, 6 dead, including 5 firemen.
June 11, 1954—Tenement at 1704 W. Erie, 7 dead.
August 9, 1954—Tenement at 3101 Wentworth, 5 dead.
Chicago’s major disaster in recent years was the LaSalle Hotel blaze, June 5, 1946, in which 61 persons perished.