Fast Spread, Accompanied by Explosions, Gives Department a Hard Fight

A FAST-SPREADING fire of suspicious origin destroyed the building of the Wire Corporation of America on 21st Avenue, Paterson, N. J., and damaged seven frame structures and a diner, on February 14, last. The blaze was one of the most threatening and spectacular within the memory of many veteran local fire fighters.

Fire Chief G. Hobart Strathearn, who instituted a three-way investigation into the general alarm blaze, said the fire mushroomed through the building faster than any he had seen in his more than 30 years experience with the fire department. That fact, along with a series of six to eight explosions preceding the blaze, and the failure of the sprinkler system to slow up the fire, added to the suspicious circumstances, in the Chief’s opinion. Representative of the National Board of Fire Underwriters and the New Jersey Rating Bureau were asked to assist in the investigation into the fire’s cause, made difficult by the almost complete destruction of the two-story L-shaped building and contents.

The department received the first alarm at 2:02 P.M. It was sent in by a patrolman who saw flames sweeping across Twenty-first avenue, following a series of explosions which sounded to another witness like artillery fire.

Engines 3, 6, 9 and 13 responded under Battalion Chief Walter Titus, who ordered a second and third alarm as soon as he reached the scene. The other alarms were transmitted at two minute intervals until Chief Strathearn took charge and ordered a general alarm bringing all fire equipment and off-duty fire fighters into action.

The heat of the flames touched off seven other buildings, mostly residences. A large vacant area in the rear of the plant, and an empty triangular park, (shown in the photograph on the cover) helped prevent extension of the fire on those sides.

The radiated heat made it impossible for fire fighters to get close to the blaze in its initial stages, and every effort was centered on preventing ignition of the built-up residential area and to the large industrial plants to leeward of the blazing wire plant.

In these operations two firemen were injured. Fire Captain Herbert Dodds of Engine 13 and Fireman Raymond Alex of Engine 4 were caught in the fall of a telephone pole while operating a hand line nearby.

The heat ignited automobiles and trucks parked in the path of the fire, two vehicles being totally destroyed. Some tenants of nearby houses used their garden hoses to dampen down exposed areas, but it was the firemen dragging their hand lines who finally stemmed the on-sweeping fire.

Actual spread of the flames was checked in about 30 minutes, with every available hose operating to hold the position. About an hour later the men were able to enter some of the burning wooden structures to fight the fire from inside. At about 4:00 P.M. the main fire was confined to the wire building with mopping up operations elsewhere. By 5:00 P.M. the struggle had slackened but it was 2:00 A.M. the following morning before most of the companies had returned to quarters, leaving only watch lines.

To “cover-up” vacated Paterson fire stations, West Paterson sent its Companies 1 and 2. The Little Falls Fire Department was alerted to in turn help cover West Paterson. Volunteer firemen from the surrounding areas offered aid, and some personnel responded, as did civil defense auxiliary firemen.

The wire company manufactured a deodorizer, and deflection yokes for television sets. The latter are insulated coils which control the picture, it is said, and the manufacturing process requires highly volatile enamel and varnish. The building had been inspected regularly by the combustibles bureau and by the State Labor Department to prevent accumulation of dangerous chemical. No one reportedly was in the structure when the initial explosions and fire occurred.

The property damage is estimated at $350,000.

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