Heavy Loss of Life in Lodging House Fire
Early Afternoon Blaze Results in Nineteen Fatalities
NINETEEN of the forty-odd lodgers who were asleep in the Standard Hotel (telephone book listing) a cheap hostelry of the lodging house type at 439 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, were either burned or suffocated to death where they slept, or were killed by jumping out the windows in the hope of escaping death by fire. With an A.D.T. alarm box outside the office, somebody forgot to use it.
Toll Heaviest in Many Years
The toll is the heaviest in the Metropolis in many years. The nearest approach in the lodging house type of structure, was the fatal fire in New York’s Chinatown early in the morning of June 21, 1939, in which seven Celestials lost their lives in their bunks.
The Christmas Eve holocaust is reported as “accidental or careless.” The fire started in a storeroom adjoining the wash room on the second floor. The premises were under the regulatory authority of the City Department of Housing and Buildings. The Fire Department’s jurisdiction was limited to fire appliances only. Last June a recommendation was made by the Captain of Engine Co. 54 that sprinklers be installed in the stairways and hallways. There were no violations of law. The premises were “in the clear,” so far as the law required.
On that score, listen to the City Commissioner of Housing and Buildings: “We’ve tried for several years to get the State Legislature to adopt a law requiring certain structural changes in lodging houses of the older type. Each year the bill died in committee. The lodging house met all the requirements of law. It was inspected two months ago. It’s a shame this Department could not legally require further safeguards.”
Built in 1888 as a factory but converted in 1898 to a lodging house and now classed as a Multiple “B” Dwelling, the building is brick, five-story, fifty by seventy-five feet, fire escapes front and rear; machine shop and plumbing supply on the ground floor and lodgings on the second, third, fourth and fifth floors. In addition to the A.D.T. box 3-785-1, the premises were equipped with an interior manual alarm system, exit lights and exit signs and 24 water and sand buckets. There was a local thermostatic alarm system in the cellar and ground floor; local alarm boxes of the “break-glass” type and large gongs were on all floors and were connected to the thermostat alarm system in the cellar and ground floor where there was no fire. The building is insured for $40,000; the rents for $5,200 and the contents for $3,000.
On the second floor were 39 “rooms”; third floor. 46; fourth and fifth floors had dormitories with cots; total capacity 248, “men only.” The east or right side of the building as you look at the facade had large windows above the ground floor over an alleyway which was hidden from the street behind a “taxpayer.”
The majority of occupants on Friday afteroon, December 24, were asleep. Those who did have jobs were night restaurant or kitchen workers. The place was conducted on a two-platoon plan. Checking out time was 1:30 p. m. and midnight. The “rooms” were typical of the Bowery or waterfront lodgings, with cinder-block partitions or “walls” extending to within four feet of the ceiling. From there the partitions were topped with chicken coop wire. The only stairway was on the left or west side of the building and was about 7 feet from the entrance. All interior trim was wood. Most all windows were closed. The weather was clear but very cold and the wind was strong. Fortysecond Street was alive with Christmas shoppers and West Side drifters.
The first that the Fire Department knew of the fire was the receipt of Box 785 at 42nd and 9th and Box 782 at 41st and 10th, both at 2:03 p. m.; together with five or six telephone calls to the effect that men were jumping out of windows. Four engines, two trucks, a Fire Patrol and the Chief of the 9th Batt. (48th and 8th) all in their stations, rolled on first alarm. When told at his office in the Municipal Building that men were jumping out the windows, Fire Commissioner Pat Walsh, who is also Chief of Fire Department, dashed out of his office and made a quick run to the scene. He picked up the second and third alarms enroute via radio. Fire Marshal Thomas P. Brophy and Asst. Marshal Martin Scott also responded. At 2:16, special call for Squad 21 for eight men and an officer. At 2:17, second alarm, bringing four engines, Rescue 1, Truck 24, Assistant Chief of Department James A. Quinn, Chief Bryant of the 3rd Division, the Chief of the 7th Batt., Tower 3 and Chief Espy of the Fire Patrol. At 2:19, third alarm, bringing five engines, one truck, the Chief of the 6th Batt., Fire Department Ambulance No. 1, and Fuel Truck No. 3. Total, 13 engines, four trucks and five special pieces, with six other engines and three trucks changing location.
As many of the lodgers as could be found in addition to those in hospitals, some of whom were too badly burned to be pressed with questions, were interrogated by members of Chief Brophy’s staff. From what the Fire Marshals have pieced together, it seems that the day manager was on the top floor fixing a radiator pipe when he heard shouts of “fire” as he smelled smoke. He opened a window to ventilate and then tried to descend the stairs only to be driven back. Some of the escaping lodgers had opened windows which fanned the fire and drove the flames through the building with astounding rapidity.
The manager told the Fire Marshals that when he went to the top floor to fix the radiator, he left a favored lodger “in charge of the office” on the second floor. The lodger, if he was on his job, fled with others. He hasn’t been found. He could be among the unidentified dead of which there are several.
Manager Aroused Lodgers
When the cry of fire reached him, the manager ran through the top floor dormitory, kicking cots as he ran to awaken the sleepers, He then reached the front window where he descended the fire escape with much difficulty due to smoke and heat. In the interim other men had scrambled to windows or fire escapes. All but one who jumped, went out the side windows. The only one who jumped from the front of the building, went off the fire escape.
Those who reached the street first were barefoot and were scantily clad. Naturally, they ran to shelter in nearby “saloons.” None of them sent in an alarm.