N. Y. FIREMEN FORCED TO WATCH CHURCH SCAFFOLDING BLAZE
Fire Causes $1,000,000 Damage to Rockefeller Church in Course of Construction—Good Work Done in Preventing Spread to Apartments
MYSTERY, or at least conjecture, still surrounds the origin of a fire which did damage, roughly estimated at $1,000,000, to the unfinished edifice of the Riverside Church, located on the east side oi Riverside drive embracing half the block front from 121st to 122nd streets, and standing on a plot 100 x 265 feet. The church proper reached a height of 150 feet, while its towering structure stands 587 feet in the air, overlooking the majestic Hudson river, with the tomb of General Grant just off to the northwest, a block away.
Although $3,000,000 insurance was carried on the risk—$300,000 of that amount having been added the morning of day the fire occurred, the beautiful structure was protected at night by a lone watchman—a faithful man of 62 years, who had been in the employ of the building contractors, Marc Eidlitz & Son, for forty years. It was his duty to make his rounds every two hours. He said he could not do better than that, because he had to climb ten stories on each trip. The watchman says he discovered the fire.
At all events, the fire was discovered too late. When the first alarm was snapped in from the street box on the corner where the new church building stands, at 7.47 p. m., Friday, December 21st, the interior of the spacious building and its lofty tower were a seething mass of flames standing out like a beacon and illuminating the frost bitten facade of the Palisades across the river.
One of the most unaccountable features of the fire is why the flames were not seen by at least one of the hundreds of persons in multi-family apartment houses ten feet distant from the rear wall of the edifice. Immediately in the rear of the church is No. 99 Claremont avenue, a ten-story modern apartment house occupied entirely by students of the Union Theological Seminary. However, many were away for the Christmas holidays. Adjoining the apartments of the theologians is the two-story converted garage occupied as a restaurant or club, known as the “Shipwreck Inn.” The latter structure stands between the quarters of the seminarians and another six-story apartment house on the corner of Claremont and 122nd street.
Patrons of the Shipwreck Inn seem to have given the alarm as quickly as anybody. Their first knowledge of the fire came to them when fragments of limestone, broken off by heat, came tumbling down and landed in the kitchen of the resort, sending the customers out in panic. The fire had burned so long before discovered that the wooden casings on most of the windows of the upper floors of the apartment houses were afire, and in some instances the fire had entered quite a few of the apartments. This occurred before the arrival of the first engine company, located about seven blocks away.
When Battalion Chief Frank Murphy of the 11th Battalion arrived with the first alarm companies, consisting of three engines and two trucks, he ordered a second and third alarm and “specialcalled” a water tower. The second alarm was sounded at 7.53, six minutes after the first. The third alarm was at 7:54 o’clock. Murphy told the writer (and neighbors supported the statement) that the fire was in control of the church and had gone up the tower of the edifice before the first alarm was pulled. This unusual speed may be accounted for by the fact that there were tons of wooden false work, scaffolding, all kinds of timbering, burlap wrappings and burlap bags, excelsior, and straw in empty crates that once held granite and marble in shipment. In the language of Chief Kenlon later on in the night—“the structure was a lumber yard within.”
Chief Murphy, from the beginning, focused his attention on the apartment houses then threatened with destruction and containing the only life hazard. He was confident there was nobody in the church, because there had been two previous fires in the structure, one on October 9th at 5.50 p. m., on the eighth floor, among some building materials, and the other on December 14th at 6.19 p. m., on the thirteenth floor, among burlap and miscellaneous building materials.
The wooden platforms on the roofs of the apartment houses, used by domestics and servants for hanging washed cloths on lines, were ablaze from the embers. The wind was blowing plumb against the apartment houses. The velocity was thirty miles an hour and the temperature twenty-six degrees, according to the U. S. Weather Bureau. It was a mean night to fight a fire.
Having concentrated his forces on protecting the apartment houses, Rattalion Chief Murphy went around to the front of the church on Riverside Drive and there was met by Deputy Chief Bernardo F. Carlock who responded on the second alarm and who when he arrived sounded a fourth alarm, registered at 8.07 p. m. This brought Chief Kenlon who ordered a fifth alarm at 8._2, giving him a total of twenty engine companies, six hook and ladder companies, one rescue company, one water tower, one search light, the department ambulance, the police emergency crew, and later on the coffee van. Fire Commissioner Dorman also responded.
Uthough the church was equipped, as required by law. with a workable standpipe line, no human being could enter to use it. Hoards covered with burlap and used to block the windows as wind breakers might possibly have boxed in the fire and secreted it from view long enough to give it the unusual headway it had at the time it was ultimately discovered. There were no salamanders. The structure was heated by steam generated by an oil burning system in charge of a licensed steamfitter. Upon learning of the fire the mechanic shut down his burners, closed his oil fuel supply and made away for his life. The oil burning system is three stories below the ground level. There is no thought that the fire could have emanated from that cause. There were two electrically driven donkey engines used on hoistways for materials. These had some loose wiring and were located in about the vicinity of where the watchman says he first saw the fire.
During the three hours in which the fire was burning briskly, large fragments of stone continued to tumble down, making the work of the firemen extra hazardous, especially for those operating wagon pipes close to the structure.
The water tower operated for about two hours, as best it could under the circumstances on Riverside drive. It would have been just as effective had it stayed at home. The wind was blowing too hard and thereby diverted the stream. To move the tower in any closer to the building would have been too dangerous for the men operating it.
The actual duty of the first due engine company was fourteen hours. It was midnight before the occupants of the apartment houses in the rear were permitted to re-enter their homes. While the fire was in progress, the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the Park Avenue Baptist church of which the Riverside church is an outgrowth, visited the scene and expressed profound regret, as did Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., principal benefactor, whose wealth largely contributed has made the new edifice possible.
There were no labor troubles on the job which employed four hundred men, principally stone masons, tilers, plumbers, steam fitters, electricians, bricklayers and ordinary laborers. The Fire Marshal’s office and the Fire Underwriters are still investigating. The loss committee of the Underwriters is taking an extra-special interest in the fire, for it has blighted what up to that night had been a rather successful season in fire risks in New York Cits.
Between the time when the second and the third alarms were sounded, the fire alarm central station received eighteen telephone calls and eight other fire alarm boxes were pulled a total of fifteen times. Some of these street boxes were as far away from the fire as a half mile. This would seem to bear out the statement that the fire was observed quite suddenly by numerous persons from all points of the compass. Following the sounding of the third alarm four additional street boxes were pulled, but as in the case of the eight previous boxes pulled, none of them were transmitted—the fire alarm dispatchers again resorting to their customary and often uncanny sense of doping out that such signals were all for the same fire.
Sioux City Has New Pumper—The new 500-gallon pumper of Sioux City, Ia., has passed the customary tests.