COSTLY BALTIMORE FIRE RAZES HUGE PIER AND TROOPSHIP
Ten-Alarm Fire Fought Under Handicaps; Loss Estimated at $15 Million
A Staff Report*
SEVEN agencies, four of them Federal, are probing into the cause of what is reported as the second worst fire in point of destructiveness ever to strike the city of Baltimore. Only the great fire of February 4, 1904, wrought greater damage than this recent holocaust, which destroyed the Hawkins Point ammunition pier, the 25,000-ton troop transport George Washington and damaged other craft, with total loss estimated at over $15 million.
As in the case of the S.S. Lafayette, formerly the French liner Normandie, which burned and capsized at her pier early in World War II, this latest loss gets the nation’s war defense off to a poor start.
Investigating agents, including the FBI, attach importance to the theory that the fire was started by an improvised stove, a 55-gallon drum, its top cut off and holes bored in the bottom which workmen on outdoor jobs customarily use to warm themselves. Agents found the drum about 100 yards off the pier, near where the blaze is believed to have originated.
In addition to the FBI, the destructive blaze is being investigated by the Army, the Coast Guard, the Maritime Commission, the police and fire departments and the National Board of Fire Underwriters.
The property involved included the 1,000-foot pier constructed during the last war to facilitate loading of ammunition warehoused at the Army’s ordnance depot, the 42-year-old historic troopship George Washington, two barges, a tug, and a pile driver. A second troopship, the old Amerika, renamed the Edmund B. Alexander, which was moored at the pier with the Washington, was cut adrift from the burning pier in time to be saved.
*The editors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the many contributors who forwarded information on this disaster.
The piles and underpinning of the pier, built at a cost of $5 million, were highly combustible and, once ignited, blazed freely under the concrete and asphalt topping. The pier juts into the lower end of Baltimore Harbor, near Fort Armistead Park and recently was leased to the Merritt, Chapman & Scott wrecking concern, subcontractors and owners of the smaller craft burned in the fire. Their loss was estimated at $300,000. The two transports, guarded by only skeleton maintenance crews, were moored on opposite sides of the dock at its outer end.
Fire Spotted by Several
Several persons spotted the fire in its early stages. Two workers of the wrecking company in a building near the end of the pier saw smoke about 200 feet out on the pier. This was about 4:00 p.m. They raced along the pier and one pulled a fire alarm box on a telephone pole. The men attempted to cast some of the barges adrift from the pier but rapid spread of the flames prevented.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the pier, a guard for the Maritime Administration noted flames curling around a light pole on the pier, as he was walking the gangplank of the Amerika. He immediately called the fire department. Almost at the same time too, an official of the Merritt, Chapman & Scott company saw smoke coming through the concrete surface of the pier. He also put in a call for the fire department.
By the time the first companies had threaded their way through the heavy rush-hour traffic in the Curtis Bay area, the fire had eaten along the pier, in both directions. A strong wind was blowing out of the northwest at the time and the temperature was below freezing. By the time the first water was turned on the fire, it had spread to involve a large part of the pier at which place it was next to impossible to reach the flames from the land side. Even when fireboats, responding on the multiple alarms dispatched in quick succession, reached the scene, tidal conditions prevented their bringing their heavy streams into effective operation on the fire. After their hawsers burned through, four craft, which had been tied up, floated from the pier, their superstructures afire. A tugboat drifted into Thom’s Cove; one large barge, which was empty, ran onto the Fort Armistead beach a quarter of a mile away. The other barge, and a floating pile driver, both aflame, drifted aimlessly in the cove.
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By 5:00 p.m. six alarms had been sent in, bringing heavy assignments of fire fighters. At 5:27, Fire Chief Michael Lotz sent in two more. And at 7:23 p.m. he dispatched the ninth and tenth alarms. This brought the total number of Baltimore firemen on the scene to about 500, one-third the entire department personnel. Altogether more than 70 pieces of fire fighting equipment cluttered the narrow spit of land, from the point of which the huge pier jutted.
At first, the strong wind, which drove the Washington against the pier, made it doubtful if the big ship could be moved. Six members of the Maritime Administration were aboard the transport at the time of the start of the fire. They are said to have delayed attempting to move the vessel, however, until orders to do so were received from Washington. When they finally attempted to free the vessel from the pier, they were repelled by the advancing flames, and had to run to escape. They were ultimately removed from the tip of the pier by a Coast Guard boat just before the entire structure became fully involved.
The maintenance crew of the Alexander was more fortunate. They were able to cut the ship free and the favorable wind, with aid of tugs, shifted her out into the harbor where she was anchored, with only a scorched side.
Fire Operations Handicapped
Fire fighters faced many handicaps in battling the blaze. The location of the pier and ships, necessitating funneling the land attack almost entirely from the single land approach; the lack of space in which to maneuver apparatus and equipment; the long hose stretches necessitated to operate some pumpers, lined up almost bumper to rear-fender, taking suction out of the shallow water alongside the roadway; the unfavorable weather conditions, and the inability to carry the fight aboard the transport, once the ship was involved, made for one of the toughest struggles the department has had in many years, according to Chief Lotz.
Notwithstanding these drawbacks, at first firemen believed they might keep the fire from the Washington, but a heavy explosion, cause unexplained, hurled blazing timbers and part of the pier under the stern of the ship. A few minutes later fire had taken hold, and fanned by the wind, raced through her decks. Fire fighters were driven from their positions to a point about 200 feet from the pier bulkhead, where they made a stand, leaving the task of attempting to control the ship fire to the fireboats.
Before 11:00 p.m., Chief Lotz gave up hope of stemming fire on the transport and called off the fireboats for fear the vessel might capsize, as did the Normandie. About an hour later, however, plans were changed, and the boats renewed their attack to cool the ship’s red hot hull.
At 8:15 p.m., noting that the pier seemed to be sinking dangerously. Chief Lotz ordered all men off. The fire by this time had eaten through pilings 400 feet iront shore. By 9:00 p.m. all but about 180 firemen were ordered back to their stations and this force was maintained to play water on the burning pier and stand by in case of emergency.
Meanwhile the seagoing firemen on the city’s four fireboats, the Torrent, Deluge, Cataract and Cascade, were fighting the blaze on the Washington and the outer end of the pier. The Torrent at 8:30 p.m. worked in so close to the burning troop ship that its pilot house was almost completely engulfed in flames. The fire burned the paint on the pilot house and broke the windows. First Mate John T. Hoffman was burned about the face in helping put the fire out.
Because of tidewater and the height of the fireboats’ nozzles above the waterline, they were unable to operate streams effectively an the flames. Attempts were made to get water on the pier’s under pinning by directing hose streams into the water at an angle so as to deflect the spray onto the underside. Some firemen attempted to take hand lines below the pier deck. About 7:00 p.m. an explosion shook the 70-foot diesel tugboat Catbird, which had drifted burning from the pier, when the fire first began. The force of the blast knocked down two men on the Torrent, nearby,
By 11:00 p.m. large sections of the pier were crumbling into the water. It had burned from tip to tip for nearly seven hours, firemen being practically powerless to save any of it. At midnight the 700-foot Washington was blazing furiously, although four fireboats were throwing tons of water into the hull. She had a list of about 5 degrees to port.
Considering the number of firemen who operated at the scene, and the conditions under which they worked, it is considered fortunate that no more than seven were injured, none of these gravely-
“Box 414” Buffs Do Good Work
The fire saw the marshaling of all available disaster agencies. Prominent among these was the Box 414 Association, the city’s fire buff’s organization. Before the flames had burned out, the club members had served 1,000 sandwiches, 75 gallons of coffee and 10 gallons of steaming hot bouillon and 244 dozen buns. This was the biggest night in the history of the 3-year-old organization and the 31 members, who worked unceasingly, had their two brand new 10-gallon coffee-making urns in service simultaneously for the first time since they were installed last Christmas.
The troopship Washington will be remembered as the vessel which took President Woodrow Wilson to Europe in 1918 for the peace conference.
Following the investigation into the fire by Fire Chief Lotz, it was disclosed that the pier might have been saved had a sprinkling system with which the pier was originally equipped not been permitted to deteriorate. The system has been inoperative since 1947, when the Army left the pier. Fire department officials say the sprinkler system was left to rot away and many of the valves and pipes were stolen. If the system had functioned, it is considered probable that both the pier and the liner George Washington might have been saved.