Four Chicago Firemen Killed at 5-11 Waterfront Fire
Men Caught in Collapse; Spectacular Blaze Televised to Vast Audience; Losses Exceed $1 1/2 Million
Editor’s Note: The author, Paul C. Ditzel, frequent writer for FIRR ENCINERRINO, is correspondent for a Chicago news agency. His first-hand account of what Chicago fire fighters consider one of the city’s most spectacular and tragic fires is authenticated by information supplied by the Chicago Fire Department, Fire Commissioner Michael J. Corrigan and Chief Fire Marshal Anthony J. Mullaney, to whom the editors express appreciation.
THREE Chicago, Ill., firemen and a member of the city’s Fire Insurance Patrol were killed January 12 when part of a wall collapsed during a spectacular 5-11 and three special alarm fire.
The blaze was in a four-story brick with basement building extending from 318 to 334 North LaSalle Street. The building was used for light manufacturing as well as storage and office space.
Fife Commissioner Michael J. Corrigan said damage would be in excess of 1,500,000. The Cook County assessor’s office said the 1949 assessed value of the property alone was $410,698. This ineluded $331,328 for the land and $79,370 for the building.
Occurring in mid-afternoon, the fire was witnessed by at least 200,000 spectators, who included workers in office and factory buildings in the area. The building is just north of the Loop and close by the famous Merchandise Mart, the world’s largest office building.
Televised to Vast Audience
An estimated five million televiewers also saw the fire. Three of Chicago’s four television stations were within camera range of it. The fourth station sent a mobile telecasting unit to the scene. Station WNBQ, a National Broadcasting Company affiliate, put the fire directly on the coaxial cable and fed pictures of the fire to audiences as far away as New York City. The National Broadcasting Company interrupted the Kate Smith TV show to telecast the fire.
The Chicago affiliate of the American Broadcasting Company, WENR-TV, fed the direct telecast over their coaxial cable for half an hour. Station WBKB, the Columbia Broadcasting System’s station in Chicago, put the fire on the network for 15 minutes.
More people probably saw this fire than any other blaze anywhere at any time, according to Chicago television officials.
News of the fire and wide-spreading smoke caused telephone company and newspaper switchboards all over the city “to light up like Christmas trees,” as one Illinois Bell Telephone Company spokesman put it.
The extra telephone load caused officials to call 400 extra operators to work. One exchange, far out on the west side, was filled with smoke from the fire. This was caused by a freak atmospheric condition which carried the smoke high and dropped it six miles away from the fire, the phone spokesman said.
Policemen summoned by Emergency Plan 5, the highest disaster order in the police department, held back thousands of spectators who lined the south bank of the Chicago River plus surrounding streets to watch firemen battle the blaze. Rush hour traffic, several hours later, was slowed as the nearly 300 policemen rerouted traffic.
Ancient Building a Hazard
The fire building was built in 1875, four years after the Great Chicago Fire. It was close by the scene of the Eastland boat disaster which killed 812 persons on July 24, 1915, when the excursion steamer capsized at its dock.
The records of Chicago Building Commissioner, Roy T. Christiansen, list the building as 57 by 160 feet. The basement of the building is used for the heating plant only, according to the records.
The building was deeper than it was wide. The long side faced on the Chicago River on the south. Other exposures included LaSalle Street on the east. LaSalle Street at this point is extremely wide and there was little danger of the fire jumping across the street to the seven-story grocery warehouse of the A. Reid Murdoch Company.
On the west, and less than 10 feet from the fire building, was a ten-story building used for light manufacturing and offices. Directly across the street from this building, located at 325 North Wells Street, is the Merchandise Mart. On the north were several railroad tracks of the Chicago and Northwestern, with an abandoned elevated structure over them.
Last March 6, an annual inspection showed all building and fire laws had been met. However, the inspector noted deep cracks in the east fire wall. The fire wall was 65 feet back from the main entrance on LaSalle Street. Later, a structural firm reported the cracks were examined by them and found not to impair the structural efficiency of the wall.
City Hall records showed that none of the tenant firms was licensed to store flammable liquids, a possible cause of the blast. The Chicago City Code requires a special license for the use and storage of flammable liquids in a building. The code restricts methods of storage and requires inspection by the fire prevention bureau before a license can be issued; and an annual inspection thereafter.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Earl Downes, the fire attorney, said he had been told the George E. Fox & Company, an office supply firm, had a quantity of naptha stored on the fourth floor where the explosion occurred.
Other building tenants were: Wells Sales, Inc., dealers in new and surplus radio supplies; Hartz Mountain Products Company, bird seed suppliers; Kaiempfer Bird Food Company; B. F. Goodrich Company; National Scale Company; Studio and Quilting Service; Acme School of Floral Designing, Inc.; Frank Ryser Company, cheese; Confection Cabinet Corporation; Williams and Meyer, a blueprint firm; C. C. Furlong, interior decorator; Gay mount Laboratories, Inc.; Super Popcorn Company, and Maddox Closet Accessories Company. The J. J. Harrington Company of 7 South Dearborn Street, Chicago, were agents for the building, which was owned by the Food Products Building Corp.
Fire Attorney Earl Downes, after conferring with several of the building’s occupants, said he is convinced the explosion, which was the cause of the fatalities, was caused by an accumulation of lacquer-laden dust. Mr. Downes theorized that lacquer and lacquer thinner, used by various building tenants, had soaked into the floor and ground into dust.
He said this theory was backed up by the fact that the blasts ripped out in every direction. Building employees told Mr. Downes that lacquer thinne.r had been dripping from the third floor ceiling for many months.
The owner of an office furniture concern on the fourth floor, where the blast is presumed to have come from, and the president of a confectioner’s cabinet company, both told Mr. Downes “the building was in filthy condition.” Downes added the fire insurance rate for the building was one of the highest in Chicago.
Manuel Sterling, president of the confectioner’s cabinet company, told Downes that “dust was so thick on chairs and rubbish, including waste paper and cartons, and so thick in the elevator well, that anything could have happened.”
Mr. Downes said the negligible amount of lacquer thinner stored on the top floor of the four-story building could not have caused the blasts. He said the walls where the thinner was stored remained intact.
The fire attorney said investigation and testimony by building personnel pinpointed the origin of the fire to a spot near an elevator shaft on the first floor of the building on the railroad track side.
Employees told him the fire apparently had been localized. Suddenly it belched forth from the second floor. Minutes later there was an explosion on the fourth floor.
First notification of fire came from a telephone call at 2:04 p.m., January 12, 1950, to the nearby City Hall fire alarm office. The alarm office sent a still alarm assignment of one engine, a hook and ladder, a rescue squad, and a battalion chief. A fire insurance patrol followed the still alarm companies to the location. Forty-nine minutes later a 5-11 and three special alarms were in on the blaze.
The “still” company, Engine 42, under Relief Lt. John Schuberth, who was shortly to be killed, stretched a large line. The fire was at the rear of the building and seemed to be centered on the first floor. Engine 42’s line was dropped over a bridge to 25 feet below where the first floor was located.
Seventeen minutes after the still alarm, the Second Battalion Chief ordered his driver to pull nearby Box 821 at Kinzie and Wells Streets. The box alarm, transmitted at 2:21 p.m., brought three additional engines, the Fireboat Joseph Medill, another ladder company, plus a high pressure wagon, a water tower, a division marshal and another battalion chief.
Four minutes after the box alarm, a 2-11 was struck. Five more engines, the Fireboat Fred A. Busse, two ladder companies, plus another rescue squad, a high pressure wagon, a water tower, and an ambulance responded. Another four minutes passed and the 3-11 was tapping in, followed by the fourth ala.rm. Twelve minutes later the 5-11 alarm was pulled.
Three minutes after the 5-11 was transmitted, the first special call went out over department registers. This brought five additional pumpers. Nine minutes after the first special, a second special was struck off. Another five engines rolled. Three minutes later the third and final special alarm went out and five more pumpers turned out to the now raging fire.
Just before the 5-11 was sounded, 10 of Chicago’s 12 fire ambulances were sent to the fire. With the one ambulance already on the scene from the 2-11, there were ll of the city’s 12 ambulances on hand. In addition, three more rescue squads were sent to the fire.
It was not until 7:27 p.m.—5 hours and 23 minutes after the initial still alarm—that the fire was “struck out,” or declared under control.
World’s Largest Commercial Building Threatened
A fairly strong wind blew smoke and flame toward the building at 325 North Wells Street and the huge Merchandise Mart. obscuring both buildings during a good part of the fire. The 325 North Wells Street building was scorched by flame and windows broken by the intense heat. Hose lines battled the fire from the sixth floor of the Wells Street building.
Wind-carried embers from the fire ignited several parts of the Merchandise Mart roof. Two engine companies, plus crews from the Mart’s building staff, quickly extinguished the fires. The Mart’s roof sprinklers were turned on shortly after the fire broke through the roof of the fire building.
The Mart, according to Sargent Shriver, assistant manager, has three hose lines on the roof which are always ready to back up the sprinkler system. As an added precaution, six janitors stood by with carbon-dioxide extinguishers. The Mart’s 60,000 square feet of roof is fireproofed with asbestos composition and more than two inches of cork insulation.
Men Caught in Wall Collapse
The firemen who were killed were trapped under several tons of brick and debris when a section of the north wall collapsed. Just before the bricks tumbled, there was an explosion on the fourth floor. After the explosion the building was quickly enveloped in flame. Killed were Relief Lieutenant John Schuberth, 45, of Engine 42: Fireman John P. Gleason, 34, also of Engine 42: Fireman Henry T. Dyer, 30, of Engine 11, and Patrick Milott, 55, of Fire Insurance Patrol 5. Seven other firemen were injured, none of them seriously, in the collapse.
As the fire roared fiercely out of control and broke through the roof, a water tower was extended and played a stream on the building from the LaSalle Street side. Rescue squads also turned their turret guns on the fire. Below, along the railroad tracks, two high pressure wagons and another squad directed their turret guns at the flames which shot from all windows of the building.
Meanwhile, heavy black and alternating gray smoke ballooned from the building. Firemen to the west of the fire took a heavy smoke beating.
In the river, the Fireboat Busse tied up near the LaSalle Street bridge and directed its two front turret guns at the flames. At the opposite end of the fire building, the Fireboat Medill played two turret guns, plus a raised turret gun on the aft section, on the fire.
Both boats approached the fire building at an angle but were kept from getting close to the building because of the intense heat. At one point Fire Marshal Anthony J. Mullaney orde.red them back from the fire for fear the south wall might collapse. He asked the Coast Guard to send two boats to the scene in case they might be needed for rescue work. The boats tied up across the river from the fire.
At 10:30 the night of the fire, a large portion of the south wall collapsed into the Chicago River after incessant battering by the two boats. The Fireboats Busse and Medill hammered at other sections of the weakened wall with high pressure streams to bring it down. A private wrecking company, hired by the city for such emergencies as this, demolished the cast wall with the aid of a 50-foot derrick and a swinging 3,000-pound weight. Wreckage was piled two stories high.
Fire Commissioner Michael Corrigan, who termed the fire “the biggest I have ever seen in the downtown area.” put four walkie-talkie radios into service.
One walkie-talkie was placed on each of the fireboats and directions were given them from the LaSalle Street bridge by Battalion Chief Gerald Slattery, who also had a walkie-talkie strapped to him. The fourth walkie-talkie was used on the north side of the fire where the four firemen met death.
The radios were available for use at the fire only through a coincidence. The Motorola Company, manufacturers of the nine-pound high-frequency transmitters, loaned them to the fire department earlier in the day for a test of civil defense forces in a simulated atom bomb attack on Evanston.
Fire Marshal Mullaney, who directed the test, still had the walkie-talkies with him when the fire started. Chief Mullaney kept one of the two-way radios and alternated with Chief Slattery on the bridge.
Mayor Martin H. Kennelly, who was a spectator at the fire, was impressed by the effective use of walkie-talkies at the disaster. He said the city would consider buying some for both the fire and police departments. The hand-operated radios were put into use at this fire for the first time since the LaSalle hotel fire which killed 62 persons in June, 1946.
One-Fourth of Fire Department in Operation
Sixty-nine pieces of fire apparatus responded to the fire. This figure represents one-fourth of the city’s fire equipment. It was manned by 283 firemen, commanded by Commissioner Corrigan. Included in the battle were 34 engines, 5 ladder companies, 6 squads, 2 high pressure wagons, 2 water towers, 11 ambulances, 1 division marshal, 4 battalion chiefs, 2 light wagons, and 2 gasoline wagons. The night following the fire, more than 24 hours later, several pieces of equipment were pouring water into the still smoldering ruins.
In addition to the equipment at the fire, 16 engines, 3 ladder companies, and 1 battalion chief changed quarters and moved into the large high value district which was stripped of its normal fire protection.
The Cicero, Lockport, and Elmwood Park fire departments telephoned the City Hall fire alarm office and volunteered aid. Similar offers were made by various veterans groups.
A Salvation Army emergency canteen rolled to the fire shortly after the 2-11 alarm and served hot coffee and doughnuts to firemen and police during the fire and throughout the night and into the next morning during mop-up operations.
The fire was the fire department’s grimmest tragedy since 1943 and one of the worst in the past 15 years. Records of the Firemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund revealed that 61 Chicago firemen died in the line of duty since 1935. In 1943, the last time the department suffered a high loss of life, eight firemen were killed. They were trapped, July 9, under flaming debris when the roofs and floors caved in at a multi-alarm fire at 419 West Superior Street on the near north side and not far from the most recent tragedy.
Underneath Chicago’s Loop and mercantile district runs a 60-mile network of underground railroad tunnels operated by the Chicago Tunnel Terminal Company. This subway was completely shut down because of smoke and water from the fire which flooded the system. The terminal company had an outlet in the burned building.
Water in some places reached six feet deep. Smoke from the fire worked its way along the tunnel and entered the 25 downtown building’s which use cool air from the tunnels for ventilation. Blowers were used to clear smoke from the tunnels after the fire had been extinguished.
Following is a resume of alarms:
Chronology of Alarms and Response 2:04 p.m.—(Jan. 12, 1951) — Telephone alarm, Fire at 320 North LaSalle Street, Engine 42, Ladder 9, Squad 1, BC 2, via loudspeaker alarm. Fire Insurance Patrol followed companies to location.
2:21 p.m.—Box 821, Kinzie & Wells Sts. Engines 11, 13, 40, Fireboat Medill, Ladder 3, High Pressure 2, Water Tower 2, Division Marshal 1, BS 1.
2:25 p.m..—Box 821, 2-11. Engines 3, 14, 17, 27, 98, Fireboat Fred A. Busse; Ladders 2, 6; Squad 2; High Pressure 1, Water Tower 1, Ambulance 1, BC 25. Light Wagon 1. Companies automatically changed: Engines 9-13. 24-2, 103-40, 106-98, 111-14, Ladders 7-3, 31-6. BC 8-1.
2:29 p.m.—Box 821, 3-11. Engines 1, 4, 5, 21, 34. Ladder 1, Squad 10. BC 6. Light Wagon 2. Companies changing: Engines 2-1: 39-5, 109-34, 128-4. Ladder 14-1.
2:37 p.m.—Box 821, 4-11. Engines 6, 12, 20, 22, 104. Companies changing: Engines 48-104, 77-12, 79-27.
2:38 p.m.—Box 821, 5-11. Engines 8, 26, 30, 33, 44. Companies changing: 52-8, 67-24, 89-33, 114-30.
2:39 p.m.—Special call. Ten fire ambulances to fire.
2:40 p.m.—Special call. Squads 6, 7, 11, to fire.
2:41 p.m.—First Special Alarm. Engines 24, 48, 103, 106, 111.
2:50 p.m.—Second Special Alarm. Engines 23, 43, 57, 67, 105.
2:53 p.m.—Third Special Alarm Engines 19, 77, 89, 114, 128.
7:27 p.m.—Fire at 320 North LaSalle Street “struck out” by orders of Fire Commissioner Corrigan.