NEW YORK FIRE DEPARTMENT HAS DIFFICULT GARAGE FIRE
Concrete Floor Made It Hard to Reach Seat of Flames—Many Men Overcome By Large Volume of Fumes—Call Sent for Dr. Archer
TEN fire fighters were seriously affected, one of them almost fatally, in an eight-hour effort to reach and conquer an insignificant fire in the sub-cellar of a garage in East 92nd Street, New York City, on October 15. The incident is important and serious because of the fire prevention lesson it contains, both from the standpoint of building construction, garage plant maintenance and the human equation.
At this time a year ago, a new seven-story garage with space for 660 automobiles was erected on the site of the dismantled Ringler Brewery in the middle of the block between Second and Third Avenues and extending north to 91st Street. The brewery interests leased the real estate for twenty years to the 92nd Street Holding Corporation. It has a frontage of 150 feet on 92nd Street, and extends one hundred feet back where it is reduced to a twenty-five-foot width and this narrow strip extends one hundred feet seven inches through to 91st Street. The garage was opened for business December 1, 1929.
The sub-cellar of the old brewery (main building) contained scores of beer vats, some of them eighteen feet in diameter. These were not removed when the brewery was torn down and neither was a lot of refuse and building wreckage. The sub-cellar was divided by extra-heavy brick walls, arched at passageways, but the passageways were blocked with earth excavation and debris. Part of the sub-cellar was utilized for the location of six 500-gallon gasoline tanks, in conformity with the Fire Department’s rule, viz; set twelve inches apart and eneased in twelve inches of concrete, backed up by ten feet of fill consisting of rock, earth, etc.
Otherwise the sub-cellar was a blind nonentity, topped-off with a few feet of concrete to make a floor for the garage cellar, which flooring under the New York fire regulations must have no openings. Access to the enclosed area occupied by the six tanks is through a companionway from the front of the garage building, reached by an iron ladder from the sidewalk hatchway.
The Fire Department’s responsibility in foundation construction is restricted to the location and character of encasement of the gasoline tanks. There were no violations recorded; the garage was licensed and doing a thriving business. It was insured and had no previous fires.
A few days prior to October 15, gasoline odors annoyed the lessees, the Badner Bros., who complained to the oil selling corporation which installed the gasoline plant. The latter being responsible by contract for the maintenance of its plant, engaged a contractor to survey and correct any complaint found with the gasoline system.
The sub-contractors worked for a few days. Their operations necessitated puncturing a hole in the floor of the garage cellar, which had the effect of ventilating the sub-cellar which was the evident source of complaint. What they accomplished is at the moment unascertained and beside the point, suffice it to record here that their work was done and in consequence a mason contractor, was engaged to patch the recesses around the gasoline pipes from the sub-cellar, and also to fill in and concrete the aperture made in the cellar floor by the previous workmen.
Gasoline fumes were so distressing to Cimo while at work that he procured an electric fan to ventilate the area. Toward evening, 5:20 to be exact, when he was ready to quit for the day, there was an explosion and Cimo was badly burned about the face, hands and head.
The flash occurred near the hole in the cellar floor which he was filling at the time. Fire shot out of the pipe recesses. A telephone call to the Fire Department at 5:22 o’clock brought Engine Co. 22, H. L. Co. 13 and Acting Chief Hayes of the 10th Battalion. Somebody pulled the street box, bringing Deputy Chief B. F. Carlock, of the 4th Division, with a full assignment. By this time, the garage employees with a house line had extinguished the flames around the pipe recesses, while Cimo was being rushed off to a hospital. All but one engine and truck company were dismissed.
Smoke, fumes and gases permeated the garage cellar. No fire was apparent. It was evident however that something in the sub-cellar was burning without proper combustion. The problem was to reach it and “kill” it. The companionway from the sidewalk, via iron ladder, could not be negotiated without masks, consequently Rescue Co. No. 1 was special called at 6:22 p.m.
Capt. Cornell M. Garety and his men reconnoitered as far as the limitations of the confined area of the gas tank locations would permit, but there was no fire there. The fumes, pungent smoke and gases persisted, however. The men were spelling-off in relays, such was the concentration. More relief was called at 7:13 p.m.—H. & L. Co. 22. Officers decided to penetrate the concrete floor of the cellar to gain access to the sub-cellar. To do this, a compressor on an emergency truck was requisitioned from the Consolidated Gas Company. Pneumatic drills of the gas corporation soon began to bore through the thick flooring of the cellar.
Three large punctures were made, each big enough to admit a man. Ladders were dropped into the improvised man-holes, but the fumes, smoke and gases were unbearable. Special call for H. L. Co. 26 for more men was sounded at 10:47 o’clock. Men went below, but could not locate any fire.
The dungeon, with its uneven surface and brick walls was impenetrable. The three openings made by the gas company’s pneumatic drills were well spaced, but each one led to nowhere, as far as subduing the source of fumes and gases. The men were groggy; the fumes continued, so did the carbon monoxide. An open sewer running through the sub-cellar floor defeated any attempt to flood the sub-cellar.
At 11:15 o’clock. Deputy Chief John J. McElligott, in charge of the operations of the department that day, arrived, and upon observing the condition of the men, immediately summoned the Department Ambulance with Dr. Harry M. Archer. Chief McEllgott went below. Streams from cellar pipes were temporarily shut off. No human being could live there long.
The three openings in the cellar floor gave vent to the fumes in the sub-cellar, but this also gave the fire fighters a terrible affliction. Engine Co. 91 was special-called at 12:54 a.m. to give further relief. The battle waged unceasingly with men teaming-up in relays and cellar pipes doing their best.
Dr. Archer had plenty to do, the most precarious case being that of Batt. Chief Michael F. Ruddy, of the 10th, who came on duty at six o’clock. Poisonous gases made Chief Ruddy maniacal. He had tenaciously hung close to the job and declined proffered relief. At about two o’clock (eight hours of incessant work) he collapsed completely, and for an hour Dr. Archer administered artificial respiration with the aid of an inhalator. At one stage of his condition, Chief Ruddy did not breathe for a half-minute. Dr. Archer was apprehensive lest he “lose” his patient, but he rallied. Chief Ruddy, a brother of the internationally known swimmer “Joe” Ruddy, of the N. Y. A. C., had not had a sick leave for eighteen years. He has been 31 years in the service. Nine other fire fighters were affected but none so badly as Chief Ruddy. He returned to duty October 17th at 9 a.m.
About three o’clock on the morning of the 16th, the fumes were spent, and the smoke and gases had subsided. It was evident then that the firemen had at last won the fight.
Assistant Fire Marshal Martin Scott made an investigation, as a result of which he arrived at the following theory: “A spark from the contractor’s electric fan caused the explosion.” It is thought that this resulted in firing the sub-cellar strewn with refuse, junk and debris, which in all probability was impregnated with the normal amount of gasoline seepage to be found in the cellar of almost any garage, no matter how prudent the management might be.