HIDDEN FIRE in the EMPIRE STATE BUILDING
FIRE IN THE SKY was again a distinct possibility in New York on January 9, when a smouldering blaze in a utility shaft of the Empire State Building burrowed its way through combustible pipe insulation all the way from the 24th to the 67th floor. Breaking out eventually through access doors on the 65th, 66th and 67th stories, the fire did considerable damage to business offices before being knocked down by a second-alarm assignment.
New York fire fighters were brought to the scene when a maintenance man on the first floor of the towering structure pulled the building box associated with the street fire alarm box 715 on the corner of 5th Avenue and 34th Street at 4:35 a.m. The response consisted of three engines and two trucks in command of Battalion Chief John Matson who was informed by building personnel that there was a heavy smoke condition on the 82nd, 83rd and 84th floors, with no apparent fire. The chief immediately gave the “all-hands” report to the Manhattan dispatcher, and all hands repaired to these floors via elevators, carrying tools and numerous lengths of rolled up hose.
Water is no problem in the Empire State Building. Standpipe risers are more than adequate to cover the floors and are well supplied, beginning with a 10,000-gallon suction tank and fire pump in the subbasement and ending with a 5,000-gallon gravity tank on the 101st floor. Spaced in between are three 750-gpm fire pumps and one 250-gpm, plus six combination gravity and suction tanks, two of which are of 12,000-gallon capacity. In addition there are 10 exterior fire department Siamese connections on the street to assure sufficient augmentation of the standpipe system if needed. Three pumpers that responded on the box connected to these connections immediately on arrival as required by department orders.
Leaving the elevators in the 80’s, engine companies connected their lines to the standpipe risers and then assisted the truckmen in resolving that frustrating and fearsome firemanic condition known as: “Smoke, no fire.” Building maintenance personnel were ordered to evacuate the building, and tense firemen groped through the offices making sure that no one was forgotten, and at the same time feeling walls, ceilings and floors for the hidden fire.
Eventually fire was found in the utility shaft and apparently coming from below. Deputy Chief Alfred Eckert of the Third Division had by now arrived and ordered his men to scatter in teams down through the building until the heart of the fire was found. Working from floor to floor, leg-weary fire fighters carrying heavy lengths of hose finally came upon the major fires in offices on three floors, 13 floors below. Here, heat had overcome the access doors and permitted fire to extend to walls, ceilings and partitions in three separate establishments.
Hand lines were stretched from the standpipes and the fire darkened down in a matter of minutes, but the back-breaking pulling and climbing had only just begun. Inspection of the shaft indicated that spot fires were smouldering from the 65th floor all the way down to the 24th with somewhat heavier fires in the shaft at the 25th, 33rd, 55th, and 64th levels. Water applied from above was having little effect. More manpower was needed and a second alarm was sent out at 6:16 a.m. bringing an additional four engine companies, one truck and the rescue to the scene.
By now, Deputy Assistant Chief Joseph Contrastano was in charge and he organized the fresh companies into teams that went from floor to floor, ripping out and wetting down the burning insulation. Eight hand lines, some of which were shifted from story to story were used for the entire operation. Portable radios were put to good use, and the field communications unit, operating from street level was able to coordinate action of the units operating at widely separated levels. At 8:10 a.m. the fire was reported as officially under control but the vanguard of 16,000 persons who work in the building was held behind police barricades on the street until 9:00 a.m.
No exact cause of the fire has been determined, but officials suspect that a discarded cigarette butt was the culprit. Damage to the 32-year-old skyscraper was minor compared to the morning of July 28, 1945, when an Army B-25 bomber crashed into the 79th floor, exploded and killed 14 people, and sent an additional 25 to hospitals.