Flames Threaten Pittsburgh Blocks
The people of Pittsburgh, Pa., a few days ago experienced a great scare when flames broke out in St. Agnes’ Roman Catholic Church, threatening the lives of 600 children, and, leaping over an entire city block, menaced a large section of valuable property. The fire, which spread so rapidly made the firemen helpless, even when reinforced by additional companies responding to a second alarm. The conflagration started at 11:40 o’clock in the forenoon, in the vicinity of the sacristy of the church, at the rear. The structure, which was a large, long frame one, had stood for more than a quarter of a century, and fell a quick prey to the flames. A still alarm first was sent to No. 4 engine company, but the firemen quickly realized they were helpless without aid, and an alarm was rung from box 97. A few minutes later, with the arrival of the district chief, a second alarm was rung. The flames soon enveloped the church, and the structure, which had once been condemned but was still used for church purposes, wast a fiery furnace within a few minutes. The alarm quickly spread, and the children in the Soho school nearby were marched out of the building quickly on a fire drill. When the fire started the church was crowded with a host of worshippers, who were attending high mass in celebration of the Feast of St. Agnes. Immediately upon the alarm being given, Father Hagerty dismissed the congregation, which rapidly filed from the building in orderly fashion. Soho bath house, two doors from the church, was emptied in little time, the firemen fearing the result of the sparks which flew in myriad laden clouds from the church. Vestments for the choir and priests, altar images, the angels of the altars, sacred vessels and the candelabra were carried by men who hazarded their lives for the consecrated articles and decorations of St. Agnes. Scarcely had the last of the church emblems been collected and taken into the street when the long passageway through the wooden vestibule was in a blaze of flames. Sizzling, crackling embers from pews and rafters fell just as the last churchman left the burning building. As soon as the flames were seen by Miss Caroline C. Baird, principal of the Soho school, she rang the fire drill signal and the 600 pupils were marched from the building in three minutes.
A short time after the second alarm was sounded the fire broke out on the Fifth avenue side of the building near the roof, making a furnace of heat intolerable. The tall steeple of the St. Agnes church furnished a dramatic and wonderful spectacle when the flames burst from the belfry loft and top-most pinnacle. The steeple is about 300 feet above the church proper, making it tower 450 feet from the Forbes street plane. At 1 o’clock the steeple fell in and two minutes after that the entire front, a sheet of flames, fell into Fifth avenue, carrying wires and poles to the ground. Trolley wires were grounded. car traffic was sent in and out Forbes street instead of Fifth avenue. Danger of a general conflagration became imminent and the loss from the fire mounted higher when several houses in Beelen street below the church were set ablaze by burning embers scattered by the wind which fanned the flames. The houses are of a very flimsy structure, and added to the hardships. The confusion was augmented by the fact that Chief James F. Richards, the new head of the fire bureau, failed to appear on the scene and take personal charge of the fire-fighting forces for more than two hours after the blaze started. It was not until 1:50 o’clock, or two hours and 10 minutes after the first alarm, that Richards reached the fire. The fire was spreading eastward under a brisk wind at 2 o’clock and both the Soho baths and the Soho settlement houses were afire. According to firemen, there was little hope of saving them from complete destruction.
The Pittsburgh Daily “Leader” had this to say in connection with the fire: “From the first alarm of fire at 11:40 a. m., followed by a second and a third, exactly two hours and ten minutes elapsed before “Jim” Richards could be found to head his men, and then, before blackened ruins, he could only stand helpless among fire-fighters, trying tb frame words of command that remained frozen to his lips. The chief fire-fighter of Pittsburgh literally “had not the nerve” to tell his men what to do—which was just as well for their safety and that of surrounding property.”