High-pressure steam line blamed for million-dollar Harrisburg fire

High-pressure steam line blamed for million-dollar Harrisburg fire

Evening scene at building front. Heavy smoke and construction of building prevented effective employment of hose streams at outset

A FIRE that started 30 years ago erupted into the most costly blaze ever faced by Harrisburg, Pa., on May 27 last, at about 4:35 p.m. Before being brought under control 12 hours later, heavy smoke had felled at least 40 fire fighters, and flames threatened nearly a half block of the city’s high-value mercantile district.

Completely destroyed were the Youth Centre at 307 Market Street and the Triangle Shoe Store at 305 Market Street. These structures were so badly damaged that city inspectors later ordered both burned-out shells razed.

Exposure areas suffering heavy water, smoke and heat damage were the Feller Building at 301-303 Market Street, the Capitol Shop and Dauphin Hotel at 309 Market Street, and the Yam Center, a barber shop, a bar, a hat shop and second and third-story apartments around the comer, from Market to 17 South Third Street.

Hose streams impeded

The portions of the Youth Centre facing on Market Street were three-story with false fronts, false ceilings, and a maze of connecting rooms and passageways throughout the entire 95year-old frame structure. The rear windows of the front portion were boarded over, screened with hardware cloth and covered over all with Insulbrick. False ceilings were supported on metal lath. These fell during the course of the fire and the metal and plaster formed inpenetrable shields that even master streams could not pierce.

The Capitol Shop selling draperies and uniforms was on the first floor of the Dauphin Hotel building. The hotel rooms and other facilities have been unused for a number of years.

On the west side of the main fire area was the eight-story brick, granite-faced-front Feller Building, with windows opening above the Youth Centre from the third story on up. Fire fighters could find little early advantage from the locations of these overlooking windows.

On the rear at Blackberry Street, the walls were brick, with heavily barred windows. Hose streams could not reach into the heart of the inferno because of the maze of rooms inside, with doorways offset.

The fire was discovered when a woman employee of the Youth Centre opened a door to a stock room in the front part of that establishment’s basement. She was immediately driven back by a surge of intense heat, smoke and fumes.

The woman left the door open and ran for aid. An adjacent air-conditioning system immediately drew the flames and heat into the ducts and sent them whirling to the first-floor vents. The fire spread so rapidly that employees and customers evacuated the store in near-panic fashion, without wraps, pocketbooks or any personal belongings. Cash registers were deserted and left unlocked.

At 4:37 p.m. a box was struck at Third and Market Sheets. Chief Robert M. Houseal, Sr., struck a second alarm at 4:43 p.m. and the third alarm at 5:16 p.m. This committed all 16 Harrisburg companies.

Firemen found it impossible to enter the store more than 12 to 15 feet, so Chief Houseal ordered them to break through the terrazzo entranceway floor with battering rams and sledge hammers to reach the below-the-street-level source of the fire.

Six Bresnan distributors, each on a 2 1/2-inch line, were lowered into the basement area from the holes battered in the entranceway and the floor of a side display window. Other crews were having little success advancing two 2 1/2-inch lines with straight tips and three 2 1/2 -inch lines with fog nozzles into the upper enhance to the store. The air-conditioning ducts spread the fire in unbelievably rapid fashion from the first floor. Within minutes flames were surging up in the center of the store.


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Chief Houseal had located second-alarm companies on the Blackberry Street side, and third-alarm companies were sent to the roofs to try to cut off the rising flames inside the store. At 5:23 p.m. he radioed requests to Dauphin and Cumberland Counties for mutual aid. In all 14 volunteer fire companies responded bringing together a fire force of over 300 men.

Ventilation almost impossible

Early efforts were made to bring hose lines into play through holes chopped at various sections of the roofs, but firemen were driven back by heat and choking smoke and fumes. Ventilation was all but impossible, and smoke masks proved of little use. In fact, some 2 1/2-inch hose, nozzles, portable lights and hand equipment were lost when front sections of the roof collapsed.

By 6 p.m. the battle was well under way. Ladder pipes and deluge sets were covering two sides of the burning structures. Twenty lines were concentrated on the area, but all lacked the necessary punch to reach the heart of the blaze deep inside the Youth Centre. Flames had spread under the floor into the Triangle Shoe Store. Firemen were able to hold flames from the Feller Building and Capitol Shop, but could not at this time halt their spread under the shoe store.

Chief Houseal later said all-purpose masks didn’t render adequate protection. Most of the men overcome also experienced eye trouble from the fumes. Three firemen were hospitalized, one for nearly a week. About 40 others, as nearly as could be determined, were treated at the scene with oxygen and eye wash. None of these suffered permanent injuries, although many were lost to duty as they were unable to return to the fire lines.

Shortly after 9:00 p.m., the impasse was broken by what proved a boon to harrassed fire fighters. Flames finally burst through the Youth Centre roof at the third-story level, and through the rear roof at the second-story level. With the flareup into the open, hose lines could be deployed effectively for the first time.

Firemen were now able to attack the blaze from rooftops and numerous 2 1/2-inch lines were brought into play.

Ten additional master streams were set up using deck guns, portable and stationary ladder pipes, and deluge sets. Shortly after 10 p.m., a total of 27 master streams could be counted pouring water into the wreckage of the two burned-out buildings, or protecting the exposures, especially the Feller Building, where water and smoke damages were taking a severe toll.

Assisting Units

Progress—Pumper and truck

Pax tang—Pumper

Steelton—Two pumpers

Lower Allen Township—Pumper and truck

Lemoyne—Pumper, rescue, manpower

New Cumberland—Pumper and manpower

West Fairview—Pumper and fire police

Carlisle—Squad with demand masks



Harrisburg Municipal Gas Co.—Demand masks

Harrisburg Police

CD Auxiliary Police

Red Cross

Salvation Army

Lemoyne Ladies Auxiliary

22.000 feet of hose used

As near as could be determined by fire officials at the scene, 22,000 feet of hose was in use. The following Monday, Harrisburg water pipe line superintendent Hober Corty reported to Chief Houseal that more than 1.500.000 gallons of water had been metered through water mains to the fire area during the battle.

At 4:17 a.m., on May 28, the blaze was declared under control although several city pumpers and crews remained through most of Saturday overhauling hot spots.

Early the following Monday morning, city fire officials were joined by Gerald Lafferty and James J. Regan, Pennsylvania State Fire Marshal’s Office; Special Agent Robert W. Knight, National Board of Fire Underwriters; and representatives of various insurance groups in launching an investigation into the cause and extent of the blaze.

After weeks of intensive study by the official team, including exhaustive verifying tests in the state police laboratory, the cause of the fire was officially revealed. The blaze had been touched off over a period claimed to be 25 or 30 years, by a 10-inch steam supply pipe from the city steam heat mains leading into the front of the Youth Centre basement from the underground service along Market Street.

The iron pipe, containing high-pressure steam, was capable of generating temperatures of from 500 to 900° F., and this pipe was in close proximity to pine and oak rafters. These rafters crossed the steam pipe at right angles and had been slowly charring for all these years until ignition finally occurred. Fire inspectors had missed the danger spot repeatedly over the years because it was hidden from view by a shield of plywood.

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