Quick Destruction in Grand Rupids Bout Yard Fire

Quick Destruction in Grand Rupids Bout Yard Fire

Fast spreading fire destroys more than 1,500 molded plywood boats in less than two hours. Damage to factory and contents exceeds $700,000 and sets record as largest single loss in city’s history

Employees and civilian volunteers attempt to salvage newly completed boats from rapidly advancing flames. Storage yard was almost fully involved before fire fighters arrived

—Grand Rapids Press photo

Value of parapeted fire wall is shown by this picture. Backed by lines from Engines 7 and 10, it prevented extension of fire into western half of Wagemaker factory

Grand Rapids Press photo

THE STORAGE AND BOAT DIVISION Plant No. 3, of the Wagemaker Co., 675 Chestnut Street, S. W., Grand Rapids, Mich., finished, stored and repaired small pleasure craft in a one-story factory about 375 feet long and approximately 100 feet wide. Finished boats, ready for shipping, were stacked in a fenced-in outdoor area adjacent to the factory. The storage yard measured about the same length as the factory—150 feet at its widest point.

The small boats consisted mainly of moulded plywood hulls 12 to 14 feet long, finished in lacquer paints, then wrapped in asphalt-treated water-repellant paper and stacked three to four high in closely spaced rows. A few aluminum boats were also stored in the yard.

The factory was of aluminum-clad wood-sheathed construction with a joisted roof. A concrete block fire wall divided the building into two main sections. A small shed on the southwest corner of the main building was used for storage of lacquer thinners. The factory was not equipped with sprinklers.

The Wagemaker Co. is one of the largest small boat manufacturers in the United States. The factory involved in the fire carried on spray painting and other finishing operations in addition to crating the boats for shipping. Boat repairs were also made in the building and a considerable number stored inside the plant.

Cigarette probable cause

The fire started in the storage yard behind the factory. Employees working in the yard stated that they had been smoking in the area and one of the boat stacks flared up. The fire department was called and about 100 of the employees, including some of the clerical help, attacked the fire with hand extinguishers. These efforts were unsuccessful and the blaze raced quickly along the closely spaced stacks and extended to the factory building. Before the fire was out, about 1,200 boats ready for shipping were destroyed in the yard and 300 more in various stages of completion were burned in the east section of the factory.

At 3:28 a.m. on February 19, a still alarm was received in the Grand Rapids Fire Alarm Headquarters for a fire at tire Wagemaker property. The assignment for Box 61-56, Chestnut and Godfrey was dispatched. This consisted of Engines 1, 6, 8, 12; Ladder 1; Squad 1; District Chief Bergstrom and DeputyChief Adrian Meyers. The box was transmitted at 3:29 p.m.

At 3:32 p.m., District Chief Bergstrom turned in a second alarm bringing Engines 3, 7 and Chief of Department Frank Burns. A third alarm was transmitted at 3:43 p.m. and three more engines and a ladder company responded. The off-shift was called back (110 out of 118 reporting) and 47 men were ordered to join the 54 men on duty at the scene. The remaining men were assigned to reserve apparatus to protect the city in the event of another fire.

Train delays response

The fire had gained great headway before the first alarm was received. Chief Burns was sitting at his desk when he heard the bells announcing the alarm. He glanced out of the window and noticed a great cloud of smoke rising over the area. By the time he had reached the scene, the entire storage yard was involved and the fire had entered the east section of the factory building.

When the first-alarm assignment reached the area, immediate access was blocked by a Chesapeake and Ohio main line train which was on the crossing northwest of the factory. Heavy vehicular traffic on the streets also added to the delay. These factors, coupled with the long hose lays which were necessary, made it difficult to get streams quickly.

Approximately 10,000 feet of hose was laid in ten lines with a discharge of 3,000 gpm at the peak of operations. The intense heat proved a serious obstacle to fire fighters. Engine 6 attempted to lay its lines from a hydrant about 500 feet northeast of the storage yard. The radiated heat was so intense that paint peeled on the vehicle and the windshield was broken. The company was forced to withdraw behind the protection of the New York Central railroad viaduct, where under protection of a fog nozzle on one of the lines, a fog blanket enabled personnel to attack the fire with a straight stream.

The fire in the storage yard had advanced to such a point that salvage operations were practically impossible. The major problem was to head off the blaze in the factory and to protect other exposures. All efforts were directed to this end. Engines 10 and 7 each took a 2½inch line into the building. A large fire door was open in the fire wall and fire had started to extend into this section. Some employees were attempting to fight the advancing flames with extinguishers when the firemen stretched in and the two lines were successful in stopping the fire at this point. This action saved approximately 200 boats from destruction, as well as large quantities of paint and other boat building materials. While this interior stop was being made, Engine 3

stretched lines alongside the lacquer thinner shed to protect this vulnerable exposure.

The fire was brought under control in about one hour. It was declared out by Chief Burns in less than two hours and companies began picking up and returning to quarters by 5:30 p.m.

Injured in the operation were Firemen Donald Van Dyke, burns on the face; Willard Watson, burns on the shoulder and neck; and Harold Barry, nail puncture in foot. All were treated in St. Mary’s Hospital and released.

The approximate losses were: Factory building, $70,000; contents, $15,000; boat storage in building, $210,000; boat storage in yard, $430,000. In addition, two railroad freight cars standing on a siding were damaged.

A crowd of over 1,000 persons gathered on the elevated New York Central right-of-way to watch the thrilling spectacle.

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