FLORENCE FIREMEN OVERCOME HANDICAPS IN UPHILL BATTLE
Costly Furniture Store Fire Proves Need of More Manpower and Equipment
DESCRIBED as the worst fire to strike the City of Florence, S. C., since the burning of the Carolina Theatre in 1939, a spectacular blaze roared through the three-story Rainwater Furniture Store, on December 6, 1948, threatening other buildings in the block on North Dargan Street and causing property damage estimated at over $250,000 before a badly handicapped fire department could master it.
The Rainwater building, in the heart of downtown Florence, was heavily stocked with holiday furniture, mattresses and other combustibles which fed the hot fire. For a time it appeared that adjoining stores—Millers M. System Grocery Store to the south, and Efird’s Department Store adjoining the burning building on the north, would become involved. Efforts of the Florence Fire Department, under Fire Chief J. E. McKain. were successful, however, in confining the blaze to the Rainwater building.
The fire was reported discovered by Ira Rainwater, Jr., when he heard a transom fall to the sidewalk from above the front door. He said he found smoke coming from the stairway and “used two hand extinguishers” in an effort to fight the flames. He then telephoned the fire department which received the alarm at 10:09 A. M.
How much time was lost in transmitting the alarm is unknown, but in his report to FIRE ENGINEERING, Chief McKain states that when the department received the call, both the second and third floors of the building were involved.
The entire Florence department was quickly on the scene, and aid was requested of Darlington, S. C, which sent a 750 G.P.M. pumper and crew to the fire scene. Lake City, although not requested, dispatched a pumper and crew, which located at the Florence fire station until Florence forces returned to quarters.
No Ladder Truck in City of 18,000 Population
The Florence hire Department consists of a chief, assistant chief, seven full-time and thirteen call men. There are four pumper units but no ladder truck. The pumpers include two 750 G.P.M., one 600 G.P.M. and one 350 G.P.M. units. The combined forces, including Darlington, operated nine streams on the fire, delivering a total of approximately 2,750 G.P.M. for about seven hours. The fire was not struck out until 10:15 P. M.
According to Chief McKain, his men were handicapped by the heavy “burglar-proof” reinforced glass and barred windows at the store. Lacking aerial and other adequate ladder equipment, it was impossible to ventilate the burning structure.
In the struggle to open up the window’s, city policemen attempted to blast them out with rifle, carbine and shotgun fire, some of the weapons coming from the local National Guard Unit. An erecting and dismantling service furnished a truck with a large mounted crane which was also used in the effort to knock out the windows of the structure.
Upon arrival, Chief McKain attempted to lead his men into the front door of the store with a hose line, but they had hardly reached the interior when an explosion of gases blew in some of the windows behind them and they were forced to beat a hasty retreat, leaving their line.
Not only short of ladder equipment, but lacking manpower, citizen volunteers were pressed into service during the critical stages of the fire.
Company Operations Directed by Radio at Big Warehouse Fire
Chief Henry Chase, of Miami, new president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and poineer exponent of two-way radio in the fire service, put into practice what he has preached, in combating what the press termed Greater Miami’s worst fire of 1948.
The blaze swept through the 500-foot, block-long warehouse occupied by the Colonial Storage Co., 80 NE 26th street, and the Wonderspray Products Co., 40 NE 26th Miami. The storage building was filled with a wide variety of goods, ranging from matches and paints to chemicals. Several trucks, loaded with matches, provided additional fuel for the fire, and hazards to the fire fighters.
The fire apparently started in the west end of the structure and worked eastward. It was reported at 10:13 P.M., and by the time the first-due companyreached the scene, the fire was out of control.
Additional alarms, five in all, brought twelve pieces of apparatus to the scene. All companies were located and their operations directed by Chief Chase, utilizing the two-way radiophones with which each Miami piece of apparatus is equipped.
Firemen were handicapped by a strong, chill (for Miami) northeast wind that helped spread the flames through the structure. The wind, however, aided in preventing the fire from reaching a row of fiame residences west of the warehouse. As the roof of the building collapsed about 10:30 P.M., flames shot high in the air and a ladderpipe, mounted on the department’s longest ladder, was operated as a water tower to wet down roof areas. The collapse engulfed three loaded trucks.
Volunteers, including several sailors, were able to remove some loaded trucks from the building. Switchmen worked hurriedly to shuttle railroad cars on the F.E.C. tracks out of danger as the fire spread. At 11:00 P.M. the railroad ties were burning. At 11:30 the entire east wall collapsed, followed shortly by the northeast wall. Several firemen narrowly escaped injury when a large wooden door buckled and fell out knocking them down. Throughout the fire the men were affected by the fumes given off by the burning matches, none however was seriously affected.
By midnight the fire was under control, but companies remained on the ground all night overhauling and guarding against rekindle.
As the fire reached threatening proportions, the multiple alarms followed each other rapidly. Chief Chase ordered all off-duty men to report for duty. Property loss was said to be at least $250,000.