Delayed Alarm Held Cause of Fire Extension at Atlanta

Delayed Alarm Held Cause of Fire Extension at Atlanta

Masonic Temple Razed by $750,000 Blaze; Delay in Calling Department Gives Fire Head Start


FlRE which on September 7, 1950, destroyed the historic, old Atlanta Masonic Temple at Peachtree and Cain streets, that city, with reported loss of $750,000 is described by fire officials as the worst they have encountered since the Winecoff Hotel disaster in December, 1946, which claimed 119 lives.

The Masonic Temple, a familiar landmark since its corner stone was laid in 1908, was regarded as one of the sturdiest buildings of downtown Atlanta. In addition to being the meeting place of fifteen Masonic Lodges, the building was occupied on the ground floor by Beck’s Shoe Store and Joseph’s Dress Shop.

The building was six stories and basement in height; of brick and granite outside walls, ordinary joist construction with steel girders, and had a masonry cornice. It was not sprinklered but, ironically, workmen were engaged in installing sprinklers as part of the remodelling program being undertaken at the time of the fire. It is reported the sprinkler installation had been completed on the two lower floors of the building, but the area where the fire started, in the top of the structure, was unprotected.

Stairways in the building were of wood construction, enclosed with wood lath and plaster. Elevator likewise was enclosed with wood lath and plaster. The building had three outside fire escapes, one on Cain street and two in the rear of the property. The upper portion of the building was cut up into small rooms connecting large area auditoriums with balconies. The sixth floor, where the fire reportedly originated, contained a large auditorium and stage, with one of the three costly pipe organs located in the structure, all of which were destroyed. The outward appearance of the old structure belied its combustible interior much as did the exterior of the old Equitable Life Insurance building which burned in New York City in 1912.

There is evidence that there was a delay in reporting the fire to the fire department. According to Captain J. F. Seagraves, Assistant Fire Marshal, there must have been a delay in transmitting the alarm because, when the first alarm assignment of fire fighters went in to operation, fire had involved a part of the sixth (top) floor and cockloft. Captain Seagraves was informed workmen attempted to put out the fire with extinguishers before notifying the department. This was apparently substantiated by an employee of the Temple who is quoted as saying three extinguishers failed to have any effect on the fire. Another report said that workers in the building reported smelling smoke for some little time before the fire was located. The fire alarm office received the first notification of the fire at 1:50 P.M.

What caused the fire has not been determined. Two theories are advanced by Fire Marshal R. C. Endicott and Captain Seagraves: (1) that it was

*The editors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Captain Steve B. Campbell, Ladder 17, Atlanta Fire Department, for most of the information upon which this account is based.

Fig. 1. Beginning of the Atlanta Fire, Looking West Along Cain Street from Peachtree Street. No. II Aerial Ladder Is Being Raised on the Front of the Temple. The Line Up the Fire Escape Is in Operation on the Fire Before the Order to Back Down Was GivenFig. 2. Picture Taken a Few Minutes After That Shown in Fig. I, Showing Fire in Control of the Sixth Floor and Cock Loft; Also Beginning to Burn on the Fifth Floor. The Men Who Had Been Operating on the Fire by Way of the Fire Escape Are Shown Retreating. This View Is Looking East Along Cain Street from Spring Street

caused by a welding torch used by elevator repairmen; (2) that it started in a pile of stage equipment behind an organ on the sixth floor. An official of the Masonic Temple Company who declined to speculate on the cause said the welding torch was 75 feet away from the spot where the fire was first sighted.

Firemen Driven from Building

The telephone alarm brought five engines, three ladder and a rescue company, as well as the Acting Assistant Chief and Second Assistant Chief of Department and a Battalion Chief. The first company reached the scene in a matter of moments after the fire was reported by Albert Armstrong, secretary of the Masonic Temple Company, who turned in the alarm. Mr. Armstrong said he went to the sixth floor to investigate a reported small fire and when he got there found the whole floor balcony ablaze.

First attack on the fire was made by way of the fire escape on Cain Street, up which the crew of Engine 5 worked their line. Ladder 1 was raised to the upper part of this fire escape and efforts were made to fight the fire from the two rear fire escapes as well as by way of the inside stairway. These initial forces brought six streams into play but were forced to retreat hurriedly, when the fire, for some unexplained reason, involved the fifth floor. In this retreat some men had to abandon their lines. Two of the fire fighters were removed by aerial ladder. As shown in the illustration, the fire was through the roof at the rear and in command of the rear part of the fifth floor soon after the first of the reinforcing companies arrived.

When a section of the roof of the buiding collapsed, Second Assistant Chief N. M. Dean noticed cracks forming in the outside walls and ordered all men out of the structure and back a safe distance. From this time on all fire fighting operations had to be carried on from the exterior of the building. With a strong wind blowing, and handicapped by the type of construction of the old building, with its lack of suitable openings, heavy stone cornice and combustible interior, firemen could do little to stem the blaze which rapidly worked its way downward to involve the entire structure. In less than 30 minutes, the fire had spread to the first floor and was feeding on the stocks of the newly decorated Beck’s Shoe Store and Joseph’s Dress Shop.

As the flames shot high in the air above the building, burning brands were carried on the wind. At this point firemen were favored by the weather, which was rainy. Some concern however, was felt for exposures, including the Henry Grady Hotel and adjoining stores and buildings. The Awtry and Lawndes Funeral Home, directly behind the Temple, a two-and-a-half story old mansion with solid granite walls, one of the few such mansions left in the center of the city, was threatened, and firemen feared that should the back wall of the Temple fall it would considerably damage this property.

An interesting development was the fact that radiated heat broke several windows in the Henry Grady Hotel, despite the direction of the wind which was blowing from the hotel.

Fire fighters took lines into the Hotel Grady and operated streams from its windows and roofs on the Temple. Hotel employees used house lines to wet down exposed walls. Some guests were evacuated from the building. In this connection, another curious factor was noticed, this also involving the wind. It was observed that some heavy fire streams directed at the Temple held together very well until they almost reached the building where they stopped as if cut off with a knife, three or four feet from the building wall. Belief was expressed by firemen who noted this condition that the wind, hitting the front of the building, caused a strong upward draft which broke up the streams near the face of the building. It was not until after dark, and after the wind had abated, that outside streams were reported effective.

The fire raged uncontrolled well into the night. A section of the rear wall fell inward about 6:00 P.M., by which time there was little left but the skeleton of the structure. Earlier Assistant Chief Carpenter, who arrived on the third alarm, ordered men and equipment further away from the Cain Street side of the building as the walls appeared to be weakening.

Fire Telecast to Firemen

The fire made history in another way: it is said to be the first fire to be telecast in the City of Atlanta. It is certainly the first time that the city’s fire fighters not at work on the fire, were able to watch the operations of their fellow fire fighters on the screens of their fire house television sets.

Station WSB-TV scored the television news beat. In the midst of a remote program from a downtown department store, the station’s cameramen turned their cameras on the blazing building a few blocks away to give television observers a ringside seat. One moment the audience was looking at furniture, the next moment it saw the raging fire flash across the screen.

FIRE ENGINEERING’S correspondent, commenting on this, said it might be interesting to know that all during the fire, radio station WTAL, which is located in the Henry Grady Hotel, broadcast a running description of the fire from both the studio and from the roof of the Hotel. He said members of companies relocated in other stations followed these broadcasts very closely and with interest.

Fig. 3. The Masonic Temple Fire at Atlanta Shortly Before Being Brought Under Control

Downtown Traffic Snarled

The afternoon fire produced “one of the worst traffic snarls in recent fire fighting history: From Five Points to the Junction of Peachtree and West Peachtree Streets traffic was in a tight, tangled mess, police reported. How much of this congestion was due to the continued broadcast reports of the fire is problematical, but undeterred by the rain, thousands of spectators crowded the ropes set up by extra squads of police. Trolleys and motor traffic were rerouted to keep lanes open for fire fighting operations. (Continued on poge 932

(Continued front page 897)

Guests of the Hotel Grady were warned over the hotel speaker system to stay away from the windows and rooms on the .north side of the building facing the Temple, and many left the hotel to join the crowds of spectators. Others deserted jobs in offices and stores to join in watching the firemen.

Four autos parked alongside the Temple remained throughout the fire notwithstanding frenzied efforts on the part of some of the owners to move them. Firemen did move a truck to permit one frantic motorist to remove his car, which was blocking operations. The other vehicles, together with cars in a rear parking lot, threatened by falling walls, remained.

Georgia Power Company line crews cut energized trolley wires in Peachtree Street to safeguard fire fighters operating on ladders and on the street level.

At 2:30 P.M. the windows on the ground floor stores were still intact, but within an hour later they were blown out and firemen were directing streams into the stores. This marked about the last of the fight. Notwithstanding the several deluge sets operated on the street level, and two on the roof of the J. P. Allen Company store across Peachtree Street, as well as two heavy streams from ladder pipes, together with hand lines operated from the fourth floor of the Hotel Grady, the fire consumed practically everything combustible in the building.

Chief Carpenter’s Analysis

Combine (1) a fire that has gained rapid headway before being discovered with (2) an old multi-storied building with wooden floors and stairways and (3) a windy day, and you’ll have a conflagration almost impossible to control until the building has burned down. That’s the way Assistant Chief Carpenter, who had charge of fire fighting operations in the absence of Chief C. C. Styron, analyzed the battle. Chief Styron was en route to the San Francisco Convention of the International Association of Fire Chiefs at the time of the fire.

Another factor, commented on by fire fighters at the scene, was the low water pressure particularly during the early stages of the struggle. This is reported to have had some bearing on the inability to get sufficient water on the fire during the 15-minute period in which firemen were able to work inside the structure. One report attributed this shortage to the location of the Temple, which is on one of the highest points of the city, and to the steep grade of Cain Street.

Other contributing factors, beside the high wind, which prevented penetration of fire streams into the building, was the peculiar construction of the building, with its large area auditoriums, balconies, small rooms, open stairs; unprotected shafts; the distance from the fire building of vantage points from which to operate effective streams, and the delayed alarm. These are the factors which combined to place Atlanta fire fighters on the defense almost from the start and forced them to exterior operations.

Casualties among firemen were fortunately few. Five received medical attention: Ewell Vernon Wilson and John Cecil Pope, both received injury to legs; Charles Fred McCravy (Fulton County fireman) knee injury; Randolph Glaze, strains; and Courtland Simmons Askew, injured side.

Early the following morning, two alarms were sounded for a fire in the headquarters of the Carrier Air Conditioning Corp. and Wrenn Brothers, a hoisting equipment firm, located in Ivy Street. At this blaze, some 12 hours after the temple fire, and while some standby units still were guarding the Temple ruins, several more firemen were injured. They were: Albert K. Morris, knocked from a ladder at the third floor level by a wild hose, condition serious; James H. Doyle and Carl McLarty cut hands.

The cause of this fire, which was fought by six companies, is not reported. This fire did only a small amount of damage, the second alarm being sounded as a precautionary measure. The building is a three story brick and basement structure. The fire started in the basement and spread upward through the walls, where it was soon checked. A rekindle of this blaze later brought companies back to the scene after they had returned to quarters.

The chronology of response to the two fires was as follows:


Incidental facts of Masonic Temple Fire: Fire streams in operation, 36 in all. In addition to hand lines there were 9 Grant Multiversal pipes and demountable deck guns: 2 ladder pipes. Eight streams were operated from standpipes in the Henry Grady Hotel. Paul Weir, Chief of the Atlanta Water Works, estimated that approximately 2,500,000 gallons of water were used on this fire. Ten first size (1000 GPM) pumpers were in operation. Wind velocity at 2:30 P.M. Sept. 7. 1950: 36 MPH with gusts up to 52 MPH. Responding to the Masonic Temple Fire 15 engines and 6 ladders.

Box 12, Detroit Buffs Club Has New Officers

Box 12 Club of Detroit is one of the oldest and best known of the nation’s buff’s clubs. For 23 years its “chief” and guiding genius has been Paxton Mendelssohn, who helped found it and who for the past few years has enjoyed the added distinction of being a Detroit Fire Commissioner.

On October 25, 1950, the Club convened to hold its first election of officers since Pax, as lie is affectionately known, took the reins. An entirely new slate was named by a committee of five of the older members appointed by Chief Paxton months ago, and installed for a three-year term of office.

These new officers are: Chief—C. Gilbert Waldo, prominent Detroit insurance executive and a former national golf champion who, according to his associates, is “just a blue shirt at heart”; Assistant Chief—-Gordon C. Graham, for four years assistant or acting secretary, Superintendent of Safety Education in the Detroit Public Schools—another died-in-the-wool buff; Treasurer—Lansing (Lanny) Pittman, young socialite but long-time friend of the fire service; and Commissary Steward—James F. Whitehead, Jr., also young as buff’s go, but full of the same stuff that breeds buffs.

Box 12 emerged from the blueprint stage in 1926, when Paxton Mendelssohn became its chief. Its deputy chief was the then commissioner Heyward Murphy, since deceased. The office was never filled thereafter until the present. Harry Shearer was the original secretary .and Bob Loughead of the Michigan Inspection Bureau was the original treasurer. Then, and until now, the group met in a room over Paxton’s garage, where curious and other “memorabilia” of the fire service were collected and cherished.

New Club quarters are contemplated now that the group has outgrown its present rooms. Eventually the memorabilia will be moved to a permanent home over the office of Commissioner Ludington (buff and fire commissioner).

Additional steps to further advance the Club include the installation of a short wave radio which will pick up the air wave communications of the fire department and a revision of the by-laws, with the ultimate objective of adding a few additional hand-picked buffs to the roster.

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