Fire Spreads As Water Fails— Firemen Face Crisis
Pittsburgh Fire Fighters Get Taste of What Enemy Attack May Be Like—Prevent Conflagration
A STAFF REPORT
Editor’s Note: Some small idea of what fire control under war emergency conditions is like was experienced by Pittsburgh fire fighters and civic officials last December when a fire, described in this report, got out of hand due to partial failure of water supplies resulting from the break of a large main, and threatened the city’s high hazard Golden Triangle district.
Thanks to Fire Chief William H. Davis of the Pittsburgh Fire Department, who was in charge during the crisis, we are permitted to bring our readers the “inside story” of this critical incident.
ON December 22, 1950, a break in the 36-inch cast iron water main leading from Highland Park Reservoir No. 1. in the Pittsburgh area, left the city’s downtown area virtually without fire protection. The rupture of this supply—one of three feeders to the downtown area, left but a trickle of water for fire protection in the remaining mains.
At the most critical moment, while water department crews were struggling to control the flood resulting from the break, and restore service, fire was discovered in the four-story brick Pennsylvania Paper Stock Company at 518-26 First Ave., in downtown Pittsburgh. Before that fire was controlled, the paper company’s premises and an adjoining garage were wrecked and a sixstory exposed office building was damaged; hundreds were forced to flee the structures, and some businessmen of the area were planning to evacuate their premises for fear of a devastating conflagration.
Fortunately, however, the fire did not catch the Pittsburgh Fire Department entirely unprepared when it was detected early on the morning of the 22nd. Five hours before, the fire department officials had warning of the rupture of the large feeder main in the Lawrenceville District, the breaking of which caused flooding of streets in that area, reducing the available supply of water in downtown Pittsburgh by approximately 65 per cent.
Being forewarned of the anticipated shortage, the Fire Department’s fireboat C. D. Scully responded on the first alarm received for the paper company’s fire and anchored in at the foot of Grant Street, approximately 500 feet distance as the crow flies.
The warehouse, as shown in the diagram, is located on the south side of First Ave. on a 24-foot roadway, about midway between Grant and Ross Streets. In its rear is a 3-story brick garage and storage building and on its south is another 3-story brick garage. To the east is a 2-story brick service station and beyond that, at the corner of Ross, the 6-story McKenna brick office building. Across the street from the garage in the rear are the B. & O. R.R. passenger and freight terminals, express company buildings and railroad yards.
The fire in the paper warehouse, which incidentally has been no stranger to Pittsburgh firefighters, veterans claiming to have answered 20 to 25 calls there in as many years, apparently started from spontaneous ignition on the second floor. An estimated 200 tons of paper was being sorted and baled in the structure at the time. This, with the combustible construction of the building itself, gave the blaze plenty of fuel to feed upon.
The first companies, responding on a still alarm following a telephone notification, viewed a roaring fire on the top two floors of the old plant. A box alarm was struck at once, followed shortly by additional calls, six in all within a period of 45 minutes, bringing 40 per cent of the city’s entire fire-fighting forces to the scene. A total of 29 companies and over 200 firemen ultimately engaged in the struggle.
Photo Courtesy Pittsburgh Fire Department
The first engine companies to respond connected in the customary way to the city hydrants, and ran into trouble. In most cases they either pumped from a vacuum or received only a scant output for their efforts.
The situation confronting Chief William H. Davis and his men was dismal, to say the least. A raging fire involving the upper part of an old combustible structure, stocked with paper products, accessible from only one side, that a narrow street, with hazardous exposures on sides, front and rear, would present a problem for any department even with ample water supplies. But with water at a premium and almost the sole unhindered supply being from the fireboat, itself having limited pumping capacity, the crisis was serious and immediate.
It was an apprehensive moment for the aggressive crew of Engine 3, which had taken its line up the paper plant’s front fire escape only to have to give up their vantage position and retreat, on orders of the Chief. They complied only after being shown the futility and danger of their position, with no water in their line. It was no less disturbing to other company crews to find themselves with little or no pressure on their hose lines.
At this juncture additional forces were being called. Five hose lines were stretched approximately 1,000 feet to the fireboat and attention centered on preventing serious extension of the fire. It was mainly a problem of setting up as tight a defense as possible, utilizing every available gallon of water.
The fire quickly involved the paper warehouse, and spread to the adjoining City Service Company, a building janitor service. All efforts were directed at this point toward preventing extension of the blaze into the McKenna Office Building. Over 300 occupants of this structure were evacuated; and occupants of the garage in the rear also were ordered out. In the adjacent West Penn Power Company’s garage, at 14 Grant Street, plans were made to flush out 1,100 gallons of gasoline from two underground tanks, if the building was threatened. Sixty motor vehicles were removed from storage in the structure. Located in the Pittsburgh Paint Supply Company’s structure just behind the burning building were 30,000 gallons of flammable paint, adding to the department’s worries. Start of fire in paper processing warehouse which gained momentum as first fire fighters are unable to wage attack and are forced back down fire escape and go on defense. Note empty and only partially filled hose lines.
Photo Courtesy Pittsburgh Fire Department
Photo Courteay Pittsburgh Fire Department
In less than an hour, the roof of the paper warehouse was gone and the City Service building was involved. By this time, however, some effective streams were in operation, fed by the fireboat and relays of pumpers. These were concentrated to protect the McKenna Building and prevent extension of the fire across First Street. Although the walls of the Post Gazette Building at First and Grant became hot to the touch and the side of the McKenna Building was scorched and some windows cracked, the fire was kept from these structures.
Firemen were showered at times by broken glass as windows of burning buildings blew out. The entire district, given over to warehouses, small machine shops and parking garages, was blacked out by smoke. As firemen fought to. make most effective use of poorly charged hand lines and tried to bring some heavy caliber streams into play, water department engineers and maintenance men labored feverishly to restore some service by re-routing water supplies. Ultimately they managed to increase the volume to the point where fire fighters were able to put a limited number of turrets and monitor nozzles into operation and these, with the fireboat’s contribution from the Monongahela River, finally turned the tide and practically assured the worried and hard pressed firemen that no catastrophe would eventuate.
Five firemen were reported injured, only one requiring hospitalization. He was Acting Captain John McLaughlin, Engine 19, who received cuts and bruises. Treated at the scene were Firemen John Ryan, leg injured in fall from a ladder; Joseph Naughton, Engine 3, cut by flying glass; Battalion Chief Sol Kramer, burned by hot tar, and Charles Geis, Engine 5, hand cut by glass.
Fire department records show these alarms: First at 9:45 A.M.; second— 10:05; third—10:09; fourth—10:12; fifth —10:21, and sixth at 10:40.
An ironic twist in the whole situation was provided by the fact that the paper company’s building was equipped with a wet pipe sprinkler system, which failed to function adequately because of the water shortage.
Hundreds of Christmas shoppers jammed the streets to view the battle, few of them having any comprehension of the conflagration threat to the city as water failed. They were controlled by extra police who also re-routed traffic and trolleys.
At 4:00 P.M., Chief Davis began to return companies to quarters and men were able to enter the paper company’s premises to overhaul and extinguish smoldering fires. By 5:00 P.M. the situation was “all clear,” although two watch lines were kept on the premises all night.
The Salvation Army’s new emergency unit, which was scheduled for dedication a week later, was given its baptism, as the Army handed out coffee and doughnuts.
The loss was estimated at $250,000.