Fatal Manhattan Fire Claims Six Fire Fighters
—New York Fire Department photos
Two firemen and four fire patrolmen caught in building collapse at 5-alarm high hazard area fire
TWO NEW YORK CITY FIREMEN and four members of the Underwriters Fire Patrol were killed and 10 other fire fighters hospitalized as a result of a fivealarm fire which demolished an old paper and twine plant at 137 Wooster Street in downtown Manhattan on Friday, February 14th.
The dead were Firemen Bernard Blumenthal and William Schmid of Ladder 20 (Schmid was actually on the roster of Ladder 1 but was temporarily detailed to 20), and Fire Patrolmen Michael McGee, James Devine, Michael Tracy and Louis Brusati, all of Patrol 1. The victims were caught by the collapse of floors of the building approximately 12 minutes after the start of the blaze.
The six-story building, owned and occupied by the Elkins Co., paper and twine manufacturers, was erected in the late 90’s. It fronted 50 feet on Wooster Street and had a depth of 100 feet. It was of brick, masonry and timber construction. Floors and roof were wood joist supported on the first five floors by cast iron columns. Above that, supporting members were timber. Joisted floors were supported on north and south party walls. Exposures on both sides were six and eight-story structures. All are located in Manhattan’s high hazard district.
The building was stocked with paper in 800-pound rolls, twine and other material. There was also some twine-making machinery on the premises.
Believed careless smoking
The fire believed to have been caused by a careless smoker, broke out on the fifth floor about 6:20 p.m. Seven employees of the plant were in the building at the time, most of them in the groundfloor offices. Hearing the sound of breaking glass, they investigated and saw the reflection of fire in the windows of buildings across the street. They telephoned an alarm. Box 334, Wooster and Prince Streets was also pulled. This was recorded at Manhattan’s communication centra), office at 6:23 p.m.
Ladder 20 and Engine 13 from their quarters at 155 Mercer Street about two blocks away, and Fire Patrol 2 from its house on nearby West 3rd, were first on the scene. The thermometer at the time registered 20 degrees F. and a biting 20 mph wind was blowing.
The patrol crew under Captain John J. Mullin, carried in their tarpaulins and commenced covering the valuable stocks and equipment on the third floor. Four members of Ladder 20, under Captain Thomas McGrath, went to the roof via their aerial ladder, to ventilate in order to facilitate attack on the fire by hose crews, normal procedure for fires of this character.
Even before he stepped from the ladder to the roof, Captain McGrath called down for a second alarm. The fire obviously had control of the upper floor; smoke conditions were heavy and McGrath set his men to cutting openings for vents. Down below, the second alarm was called for. This was clocked at 6:27 p.m. The fire patrol dispatched Unit 1 under Sergeant Michael McGee on a special call.
Unit 1, with McGee and three men, upon arrival took their covers to the third floor to reinforce Patrol 2. Within moments later, and with only a preliminary rumbling sound, floors of the building caved in, taking with them the roof and burying McGee and his men.
Little warning of collapse
Firemen on the roof had practically no warning, but Captain McGrath and two of his men were able to reach an adjoining structure and safety. The captain reportedly clung to a window ledge until pulled in by firemen. The two other laddennen, Blumenthal and Schmid, had no chance and went down with the roof.
Additional alarms and special calls brought more than 200 firemen and some 65 pieces of equipment to the scene. The fire was under control shortly before 9:00 p.m., but heavy smoke conditions and the heap of wreckage piled three stories high still burning in places, together with the constant threat of further wall collapse, handicapped rescue operations.
By 8:00 p.m., icing conditions had become so serious, Commissioner Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr. called for thawing machinery. Men worked in small groups in the glare of floodlights, while watchful eyes gauged the weakened front wall.
Firemen, however, braving all risks, worked frantically to reach the victims. At about 11:00 p.m., the bodies of Laddermen Blumenthal and Schmid were found. Search for the others was carried on without letup.
As the news of the tragedy was broadcast, offers of aid came from every side. Off-duty firemen by the score reported for service. City agencies dispatched vehicles, sand and wrecking equipment to the scene. The Bellevue Hospital disaster unit and ambulances stood by.
On the following day, a wrecking crane brought down the threatening front wall and power equipment began to remove wreckage which until then was being dug out and passed from fireman to fireman by hand.
The bodies of Patrolmen Devine and Tracy were recovered Monday night, February 17 and those of Sergeant McGee and Brusati were found the next day.
Highest funeral honors were given the dead, with officers and men from Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston and other fire departments, and fire patrolmen from the Washington and Baltimore patrols in attendance.
Chronology of Response
Friday, February 14
6:23 p.m.—Box 334, Wooster and Prince Streets: Engines 13, 30, 33, 35; Ladders 20, 9; Rescue 1; Chiefs Division 1, Battalions 5 and 2.
6:29 p.m.—Second Alarm (Box 334): Engines 24, 31, 27, 7; Ladder 8; Searchlight 21. Relocating: Engines 203 to 7, 26 to 30, 213 to 33, 256 to 31; Ladders 18 to 9, 15 to 8.
6:34 p.m.—Special call Ladder 1.
6:36 pan.—Third Alarm: Engines 18, 14, 17, 12; Ladder 5; department ambulance; chaplain; medical officer; Fire Communications Unit 1. Relocating: Engines 221 to 17, 34 to 18; Ladder 12 to 5.
6:49 p.m.—Fourth Alarm: Engines 9, 5, 28, 32, 15; Canteen; chief medical officer. Relocating: Engines 209 to 9, 21 to 5, 205 to 15.
6:52 p.m.—Fifth Alarm: Engines 3, 16, 1, 207, 216; Ladder 3. Relocating: Engines 40 to 3, 44 to 16. 54 to 1, 219 to 207, 237 to 216; Ladder 7 to 3.
6:57 p.m.—Call for Bellevue disaster unit.
7:22 p.m.—Special call Rescue 2 (Brooklyn).
7:24 p.m.—Special call Searchlight 24 (Queens).
7:27 p.m.—Special call compressor unit.
8:04 p.m.—Special call thawing apparatus.
8:27 p.m. — Special call Rescue 3 (Bronx).
8:32 p.m.—Relocate Engine 56 to 30.
8:45 p.m.—Special call air compressor.
9:02 p.m.—Special call fuel wagon.
9:21 p.m. — Request compressors of Consolidated Edison.
10:48 p.m.—Police locate priest.
11:10 p.m. — Special call additional thawing apparatus.
Saturday, February 15
2:40 a.m.—Signal 65-2 (radio) Urgent: Commissioner calls for off-duty firemen to report to Box 334.
11:27 a.m.—Call for two officers and 10 men each from Divisions 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 to report to Box 334.
2:25 p.m.—Signal 5-5-5-5—death in department.
The staff which handled communications at the Manhattan Central Station included Julius Feldman, supervising dispatcher; Dispatchers Aliquo Maggio (Manhattan radio); Ramsey (Citywide radio); Firemen Ries, Middlestorb, Keaveny and Smith and Telephone Dispatcher Mrs. Egan.
Acknowledgement: The editors gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the New York Fire Department and the New York Fire Patrol in providing data and pictures upon which this report is based. Photos were by Hellriegel, Hefferman, Johnstone and Lind, New York Fire Department.