Hospitals threatened during Memphis Russwood Park blaze
Five alarms sounded for fire which reached near-conflagration
—Wide World photo
EXTENSIVE WOOD construction, coupled with the wide open expanses of a baseball park and very high winds, created an extremely dangerous fire condition in Memphis, Tenn., on the evening of April 17. In all probability, there has never before been a fire in this city with the destructive potential of the near-conflagration which destroyed Russwood Park and several other buildings, and caused heavy damage to others, including two large hospitals. In addition, 25 automobiles were destroyed or damaged.
Most serious was the potential life hazard involved in this fire. It was only through the combined factors of good fortune, good employee training, good building construction and the ability to concentrate quickly a large force of firemen and fire fighting equipment that prevented a serious loss of life.
Russwood Park was built in 1921 and served as the home of the Memphis Chicks, a Southern League baseball team. It covered an area of six acres. The park ran about 300 feet east along the north side of Madison Avenue, from Hospital Place, and extended north from Madison for about 550 feet along Hospital Place. Although some of the seating areas were built on reinforced concrete, there was a considerable area containing wooden seats. A wood-deck roof with unprotected heavy steel framing covered a large portion of the stands along the Madison and Hospital Place sides. In addition, a heavy wood fence, from 12 to 20 feet high, surrounded the park on three sides.
As in most old structures of this type, countless coats of paint had been applied to woodwork, the last one only 10 days before the fire, and the grandstand had 14 layers of roofing— having been recovered to this extent over the years.
The fire is believed to have started on the west side of the ballpark at about 7:25 p.m. The fire department was called at 7:28 p.m. Upon the initial response the blaze did not appear to be serious, but before a line could be laid, flames raced before a 22-mph wind to involve most of the park. Additional alarms were sounded at 7:33, 7:35 and 7:38. The last, a Signal-5, requested all available apparatus and a total of 27 companies worked at the scene. More than 30 pieces of apparatus and all off-duty personnel responded. By this time the grandstands were fully involved and the fire had extended into adjacent buildings.
—Memphis F. D. photo
—Memphis Commercial Appeal photo by Williams
—Memphis F. D. photo
Gusts of wind up to 35 and 40 mph carried heat, smoke and a shower of sparks against the 13-story Madison East wing of Baptist Hospital, across the street from the ballpark. Radiant heat cracked or shattered windows on the north side of the building. In addition, the maternity wing of John Gaston Hospital, a three and four-story building, just west of the ballpark, caught fire at several points and had to be evacuated. Employees of both hospitals had been trained in evacuation procedures and did a tremendous job in the face of rising panic to remove patients from the threatened areas.
Occupancies Destroyed or Damaged
Initial attack on the fire by first-alarm companies was made with at least two hand lines, both of which were ineffective due to the rapid headway which the fire made. Once the multiple-alarm companies began to arrive, attack was made from the north, east and west sides.
The fire spread with amazing speed through the combustible stands. Not more than four or five minutes after the second alarm had been sounded, flames were clearly visible from the Summer Avenue Viaduct, at least 5 miles away. Engine No. 9, a first-alarm company, had to be pulled off a hydrant in front of Baptist Hospital, before it caught fire from radiated heat. As it was, the paint on one side of the apparatus was badly blistered and several hose lines on Madison caught fire.
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By the time the third and fourth alarm companies arrived on the scene, the fire had complete possession of the grandstands, and had already involved four other buildings on the north side of Madison. Windows on the ground floor of the Madison East wing of Baptist Hospital were broken by the heat, and fires were started in draperies and furnishings on the north side of the ground floor. These fires were quickly controlled by the use of interior standpipe lines.
Twenty minutes after the first alarm had been sounded, flames were going above the roof of the Baptist Hospital, and Madison Avenue itself was all but impassable. The wind in front of the hospital building was so strong that walking was an effort.
Heavy structural damage to exposed buildings (on the north side of Madison) occurred as the result of fire simultaneously entering practically all windows on the north and east sides of the buildings. Likewise, fire entered both the first and second floors of the two-story buildings, and attic sections also became involved when roof structures caught fire. In at least one place, an air-conditioning water cooling tower (wood construction) caught fire and burned completely, starting fires both on the roof and in the attic below.
Damage by radiated heat
All exposed buildings had brick walls which were severely damaged by radiated heat and direct flame contact. The two-story Russwood building at 926 Madison suffered heavy damage to masonry walls. Much of the concrete and brick in the rear (north) wall was chipped, spalled or cracked. The east wall of this building separated from the rear building at the northeast corner.
A contributing factor to the heavy exposure damage was the inability of the fire department to use interior lines in the various buildings to limit the damage, or to use heavy streams at the rear as a water curtain. This was due to the very rapid spread of the fire, together with the large amount of heat which made it necessary for fire fighters to first work around the perimeter in an effort to break up the radiated heat. At the time the exposed buildings became involved, it was almost impossible to bring hand lines or even heavy streams to bear on the fire.
Once the amount of radiated heat and open flames from the grandstands had died down some, deck guns and applicators were put into operation on the exposure fires, which were controlled without further difficulty at about 9:30 p.m.
No injuries occurred, despite the fact that 250 patients were moved at the Baptist Hospital, and 68 infants at John Gaston, a credit to hospital personnel. It was reported that about a dozen patients at Baptist had to be treated for smoke inhalation.
Damage to exposures
The building at 900-904 Madison, a two-story brick joist, stores on first floor, apartments on second, suffered heavy structural damage to roof, second floor rear, walls and interior finish. Building at 906-908 Madison suffered similar damage.
The building at 912-914 Madison, a one-story brick, wood joist, suffered very heavy structural damage to roof, walls and ceilings. Building at 922934 Madison, a two-story brick, wood joist and steel, suffered extremely heavy structural damage. Parts of rear wall failed, the east wall cracked and pulled out of plumb. Parts of the roof and second floor collapsed and contents of the second floor were practically a total loss with heavy contents loss on first floor due to smoke, water and fire.
The building at 944-948 Madison, a one-story brick, wood joist structure, suffered heavy structural damage to roof, rear wall and west wall, which was cracked and pulled out of plumb. Contents of stores at 944 and 946 suffered fire, smoke and water damage. Bank offices at the extreme east end of the building (948) suffered only smoke and water damage, as a fire wall separated this from remainder of building.
The John Gaston maternity building suffered some damage from fire, mostly wood window sash which burned, and glass which cracked and fell out; also smoke and water damage on upper floors from hose streams.
The fire-resistive Madison East wing of Baptist Hospital suffered some fire and smoke damage on ground floor, due to fire entering through windows. There was some loss to contents from standpipe hose streams.
Windows suffered heavy damage on the north side of the building from radiated heat. It is estimated that about 99 per cent of these will have to be replaced due to cracking or breakage. All were the “Thermo-Pane” or “Twindow” type, a double sheet of glass with an insulating air space in between. It should be noted that these windows held up very well under the severe fire conditions, and undoubtedly prevented entry of fire into the upper floors of the hospital.
Russwood Park itself is practically a total loss, as far as grandstands, locker rooms and other facilities are concerned. Unprotected steel, plus a large amount of combustible frame construction combined to result in the almost complete failure of steel work and some reinforced concrete sections. Other portions of reinforced concrete were badly spalled, with the reinforcing steel showing; still other parts simply disintegrated.
Flying brands started more than a dozen other fires in the area, and resulted in a second-alarm fire more than an hour after the Russwood fire had been brought under control. Where a company could be spared, it was dispatched to cover a secondary fire. These are shown in the table.
Large group of spectators
On the afternoon of the fire, some 7,000 people had watched an exhibition baseball game at the park. Many times this number came to see the park burn. After an intensive investigation of the fire, Chief Edward A. Hamilton reported that the fire started in a “catch-all” area near a tool shed under the northwest section of the stands.
There was evidence of paper, boxtops, old newspapers and other debris in this area. A cigarette or cigar could have been the actual cause.
Acknowledgement: The editors wish to express thanks to Chief Edward A. Hamilton and District Chief C. L. Scott, drillmaster, Memphis Fire Department, for the material on which this article is based, and to Lieutenant Richard M. Adelman, Training Division, who wrote the report.