Fire Destroys Aerospace Museum

Fire Destroys Aerospace Museum

Union Tribune photo

A building containing one of the nation’s finest collections of aerospace memorabilia was totally destroyed by one of the largest structure fires in San Diego’s history.

The fire which occurred last February 22, presented a multitude of problems. The structure was built in 1914 for the San Diego World Exposition held in 1915. At the time of const ruction, it was recognized that the building was a serious fire problem. Therefore, it was designated as a temporary building and fire brigades were positioned nearby. It was scheduled to be torn down the year after the exposition.

The structure contained a ground floor area of 52,000 square feet (1.2 acres) and was a type V wood-frame building. The walls were plastered over wood lath. There were no fire stops in the walls or ceiling spaces, and there was no sprinkler system or other adequate private fire protection system. The building was also not divided by fireresistive interior walls, so there were large unprotected areas within the structure. An arcade along the front of the building also was of wood-frame construction with plaster. This is where the fire started.

Fire set by boys

About 7:55 p.m., two boys were seen running from the building. Witnesses said the boys ignited some papers and stuffed them in a vent in one of the arcade’s columns toward the northwest end of the building. The hollow wooden column burned rapidly from the inside. Bystanders quickly began dumping trash cans of water into the vent, but it was too late.

The draft in the column spread the fire into the ceiling space of the arcade and into the walls and attic.

The fire department received the alarm at 8:14 p.m. and dispatched three engine and two truck companies. The first units on the scene found fire and large volumes of smoke coming from the northwest tower of the building. This tower was approximately three stories high and 30 feet square.

The strategy was to make an aggressive interior attack by stretching 2 ½inch lines up an interior stairway to the office area. Walls were opened and the attack on the fire began. It was discovered early, however, that the Fire had already made considerable progress. The truck companies began setting up water towers.

Second alarm struck

A second alarm at 8:27 p.m. brought three engine companies, one truck and a rescue company.

The fire was effectively cut off in the arcade joining the Aerospace Museum building and an adjacent building housing a large restaurant.

For a considerable time, it looked as if the Fire was being controlled. The use of large streams along with an interior attack was effectively containing the Fire to the northwest corner of the building. Exposures were being covered. The visible flames had been suppressed.

At 9:22 p.m., a third alarm was requested when the fire broke out in the arcade and walls of the structure a great distance east of the assumed containment. The fire had traveled through the hollow walls and ceiling spaces and burned through the roof. The entire building was now threatened. At this time, a decision was made to remove all fire fighters from the interior and roof of the building because of falling ceilings and weakened floor joists and roof rafters. The third alarm response was three engine and two truck companies, which were positioned in the rear of the building.

There was an ample number of hydrants in the front of the building that were fed from a 16-inch main, hut in the rear the nearest hydrant was 1200 feet away and was off a 6-inch main. Lines were laid to the rear of the building and into water towers provided by the truck companies. The streams, however, were inadequate due to the distance and lack of an adequate number of lines which could he supplied from the one hydrant.

It was now clear that the building would be lost. The sides of the building were inaccessible. Attack was a possibility only from the front and rear, and of course there was an inadequate water supply in the rear. When the building became fully involved, the roof and walls began to fall.

Fire fighters fight losing battle with flames destroying aerospace museum.

Union Tribune photo.

The total maximum fire How at this fire was 5000 gpm. Calculations performed after the fire showed that to adequately deal with a fire of this magnitude in this structure, 9500 gpm would have been required. Most of the 5000 gpm flow on the fire was being produced at the front of the building, so poor water distribution was also a critical factor in the loss of the building. A total of five aerial water towers, one monitor nozzle and several large hand lines were employed. No fire fighters or civilians were injured.

The real tragedy was in the losses at this fire. The Aerospace Museum was chartered in the fall of 1961. The Aerospace Hall of Fame, located in the same building, was chartered in 1962. We talked to Col. E. F. Carey, Jr., director of the Hall of Fame, who told of the more important losses.

Rare planes lost

Among the planes lost were a Consolidated PT-3 aircraft and a Ryan M-l aircraft (the only ones of their type in the world) and the only true replica of the Spirit of St. Louis (Lindbergh had actually sat in the cockpit), which could be flown. Also destroyed was a World War II Japanese Zero which had been shot down and later raised from Rabaul Harbor in the Solomon Islands. The metal was in good condition and scientists were attempting to make a study of how this aircraft had withstood the normally expected corrosion. The archives and museum library were the finest in the world and contained many rare books on aircraft. They were all destroyed.

In the Hall of Fame, a book written in 1894 by Octave Chanute, “Progress in Flying Machines,” was destroyed. It was the only copy in existence. A dollar bill which had been taped to the instrument panel of the Spi rit of St. Louis when Lindbergh made his historic flight also was lost. Many rare World War I and World War II medals were destroyed, as well as a 1915 German Spandau machine gun. The total loss was estimated to be approximately $10 million.

Ironically, the museum was scheduled to be moved in July so the building which burned could be torn down to make room for another building. The directors of the Hall of Fame and Aerospace Museum had long complained of the unsafe fire hazards existing in the destroyed building.

Carey urged fire officials in other cities to look closely at conditions in their museums and take appropriate action before it’s too late. The citizens of San Diego will tell you that the loss to the community as a result of such a fire is heartbreaking.

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