COLLAPSE OF FLOORS, WEAKENED BY FIRE, KILLS THREE FIREMEN
Added Weight of Water-Soaked Shoddy in New York Warehouse Precipitates Five Floors—Two Companies Trapped—Six Injured
A COMBINATION of unprotected floor beams and porous wood flooring, weakened by fire which burned through three stories of it, plus the burden of water-soaked bales of shoddy and clippings piled ceiling high, caused the collapse of thirty feet of the rear of the top floor of a seven story factory and loft building, which in turn struck and dislodged a similar area of the 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd floors, piling all of them in a tangled mass from the cellar upward, trapped two companies of firemen, killed three of them and seriously injured six others in a fire at No. 144 Goerck street, a block from the East River on the edge of the Ghetto in the lower part of Manhattan Island on Thursday night January 27th.
Not in several years has the New York Fire Department suffered such casualties at one fire. On the night following Captain John S. Roberts, of Engine Co. 15, having worked unceasingly for nine hours digging through the ruins for missing firemen, collapsed from exhaustion and died at an insignificant fire not far from the Goerck street blaze. Roberts was worn out but declined to report sick when the suggestion was made to him by his lieutenant.
The Goerck street building is seven stories, brick, 100 x 25, erected about 25 years ago, although no official record of the date of its construction could be obtained from the department of buildings. It was constructed for what in those days was commonly called a sweat-shop. It had been used for various occupancies since, and a year and a half ago it was the subject of alterations at which time the stairway was ordered enclosed in wire lath and plaster, the fire escapes front and rear were ordered equipped with counter-balance stairways and all doors were metal covered. During the World War the building was in possession of the Alien Property Custodian, title at that time having been in the name of a relative of the late Supreme Court Justice Henry Bischoff.
The occupancies at the time of the fire on January 27 were: 1st floor, pickles; 2nd and 3rd, wooden refrigerators ; 4th, leather goods, principally children’s school bags and leather novelties; 5th. shoes; 6th, unoccupied and 7th, shoddy, clippings and byproducts from the sweepings of the garments trade.
There were no adjoining structures of equal height, excepting for a seven story factory flush with the north wall for about fifteen feet as indicated on the sketch. The building was equipped with iron shutters on the windows of the north and south walls.
The windows on the front and rear walls were wired glass. The iron shutters on the sidewalls were in most instances found open. That afternoon an inspector from the labor department had been in the building to inspect first aid kits. The elevator shaft was of brick and plaster. The stairway was wood, enclosed with wire lath and plaster, with metal sheathed doors. The building had electric light but was heated by coal stoves owned and operated by the individual tenants.
The floor beams were wood, 12 x 2 1/2 inches, unprotected by exposed ceilings. The flooring was wood, single ply, about 7/8″ exposed ceilings. The flooring was wood, single ply, about 7/8“ thick, badly worn and characterized by fire department inspectors as—“you could see daylight through the floors.”
There were no violations against the premises at the time of the fire. The previous fire in the building was in 1921. It was insignificant and the loss was fixed at $100.
How the fatal fire started is not now and probably never will be known to the authorities. It originated on the 4th floor in the rear of the loft where the leather goods concern was doing business. This firm had been there for eight years and never had a fire before, so far as the records disclose. The leather manufacturers declared the fire in their particular coal stove had been extinguished at the close of business at 5 o’clock. They declared further that they were insured for about one-half of the value of their stock and that they had many orders on hand for manufacture, and that a fire was most disadvantageous. The last persons known to be in any part of the building had departed at 6 o’clock.
The fire was discovered by two boys playing in the street. One of them pulled the street box, Station 416, at Goerck and Houston streets. The alarm was received at 7 :51 o’clock. The first engine company to arrive was No. 11. located two blocks away. This alarm brought four engine companies, two truck companies, one fireboat and the chiefs of the 4th and 3rd battalions in the order given. The building being in the high pressure zone, the firemen found 125 pounds on the hydrants. The first chief officer in was Jacob Levy, followed by Daniel Carlock.
Chief Levy ordered Engine 11, accompanied by Truck 11, up the stairway to the 4th floor. Engine 15. the second company in, was ordered up the front fire escape. Levy found fire in possession of the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th floors. It had apparently been burning for more than an hour. The building had no watchman and no automatic alarm. The third company went up the rear fire escape, and the fourth company up the stairway of the adjoining seven story building. Chief Carlock went to the rear.
Having surveyed his fire and placed his companies. Levy ordered a second alarm. This was recorded fifteen minutes after the first alarm. The fireboat (The New Yorker) Eng. Co. 66 had arrived on the first alarm and without losing time to stretch a boat line, Levy ordered the boat crew to take a second line off Engine 11. This line was sent up the front to the fourth floor to replace Engine 15 which had been ordered to go higher. Two deck pipes were operated on the front.
The second alarm brought five engine companies, one truck company, searchlight, fuel wagon, boat tender, rescue company, Deputy Chief Helm of the 2nd Division, Deputy Chief Worth of the Marine Division and Assistant Chief of Department, Joseph B. Martin, the ranking officer under whom the fire was fought. The pressure was raised then to 150.
The companies were placed as indicated on the sketch. The fire, as a fire, was hot unusual. It was fought and controlled in the customary way within an hour. At about 9:15 o’clock when most of the second alarm companies had shut down prior to overhauling, the beams of the 7th floor sagged or yielded to the dual condition of having been burned and weakened and weighted by water soaked bales of shoddy, piled to the ceiling. The beams pulled out of the sockets in the south wall, dropping to the 6th floor which in turn struck and knocked out the beams of the 5th floor and likewise all the way down on the south side of the building this condition followed in succession until the mass of debris stood end up against the north wall.
The collapse came with a suddenness that contained not the slightest warning or other audible or physical indication of impending danger. The condition of the 7th floor had been recognized and therefore all hands were ordered to stay clear. The holes worn in the flooring did not relieve the water because of the sweepings on the floor which prevented the escape of the water. The water on the 7th floor by reason of this stoppage, reached an elevation sufficient to cause it to overflow and spill out the window sills 2 1/2 feet high.
What evidently gave the fire officers a false sense of security below the 7th floor was the fact that the 6th floor was vacant and by reason of such emptiness was the least burned and outwardly safe. The 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd floors probably never would have collapsed of their own weight or condition, had it not been for the impact caused by the collapse of the top floor.
The collapse trapped and hurled with it the crews of Engine 60 (fireboat New Yorker) and Engine Co. 9, the latter a second alarm company. They were operating where indicated on the sketch. The fireboat company was about through with its work. Lieut. Cray of Engine Co. 66 had just turned to go toward the front to announce that his company was of no further service, when the collapse took place. He was caught too, but only injured.
The collapsed portion of the floor area extended from the rear wall as far front as the stairway header beam, which was about thirty feet. It was at this point in all of the floors that the collapsing was arrested. Strangely, no part of the rear or sidewalls was disturbed. Indeed, the dislodgement of bricks was almost entirely negative.
The collapse caused quick calls for four truck companies and the Department Ambulance, as well as several public ambulances from Bellevue and Gouvernetir Hospitals. Fire Chief John Kenlon responded and took personal charge of the rescue work. Fire Commissioner John J. Dorman deserted his place on the dais at a dinner in his honor in Columbus Council, K. of C. in Brooklyn and hurried to the scene. Fire Chaplain Patrick F. O’Connor and others of the clergy soon arrived.
Honorary Deputy Chief Edward J. Kenny stretched portable flood lights into the rear of the building and the task of rescue was on in all earnestness. Some of the trapped firemen could be heard calling out to their comrades. The injured were reached as quickly as any human agency could reach them and rushed off to hospitals. It was two hours before the first dead fireman was found; another was dug out in three hours. These two were members of the fireboat New Yorker. It was six o’clock next morning before the third body was recovered. He was a member of Engine Co. 9. This man was found with the pipe in his grasp.
The men rescued were numb, wet as drowned rats and shocked terribly. They were mangled or broken somewhere. Fireman Sweeney of Engine Co. 9 was found to have a broken jaw and a fractured skull. Fireman Anzelone of Engine 9 was rescued from a position in which he was found head downward. He was pinioned by the legs and his arms were wedged in such a manner that with the fingers of one hand pressed by debris against his face, he managed to keep water from entering his mouth. He said later at the hospital that the water was rising about him in such volume that he thought for a time that he was in the cellar.
Honorary Deputy Chief R. H. Mainzer, one of New York City’s foremost fire fans rendered great aid to the men as they were carried out. All of them needed stimulants. They were trembling. Chief Mainzer scurried around among the neighborhood drug stores and offered $10 a pint for whisky. He had no prescription. He showed his badge, told who he w-as and so forth, but it was in vain at ten different drug counters. Finally, at the eleventh attempt he succeeded in obtaining a pint for $5.75 and over his own signature, he gave a written notice to the drug clerk in lieu of a prescription and declared that he invited a test of the case, but so far no test has been made by Uncle Sam.