Reno Fire and Explosion Offer Lesson to Fire Service
Combination of Tragic Circumstances Results in Five Dead, Many Injured
A SPECIAL REPORT TO FIRE ENGINEERING
Editor’s Note: FIRE, ENGINEERING is especially pleased to bring its readers this timely, authoritative account of the much publicized disaster in Reno, Nevada, on August 15, last, which claimed the lives of three firemen, one a chief, and two civilians, and resulted in injuries to more than 130 others.
Few fires in recent months have created so much interest and caused so much discussion of cause and effect as this tragedy. Few, also, have furnished the fire service such dramatic lessons as what is termed Reno’s worst disaster.
Although this account is told in the terse language of Reno Fire Chief Karl Evans’ exclusive report to FIRE ENGINEERING, one can visualize by reading between the lines, the dramatic highlights of the tense twenty-four hours spent by Chief Evans and his men. Crowded in those swift hours were a combination of circumstances which only rarely haunts the fire service—simultaneous fires . . . ‘touch-offs’ . . . thrillseekers out of control . . . shattering, unexpected explosion . . . panic and sudden death—all this and more.
Here is still another compelling and enlightening chapter in the lengthening history of the nation’s fire service, one which forethoughtful fire protectionists will study and retain for future reference.
The editors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Fire Chief Karl Evans and his aides, and that of the staff of the Reno Evening Gazette, for the factual data and illustrations upon which this account is based.
THE ordeal that befell the City of Reno, Nevada, on August 15th, began with simultaneous fires, a condition that not infrequently faces the fire service.
At 9:05 A.M. on that date, the Reno Fire Department responded to an alarm of fire at 320 East Fifth street, at Evans avenue. This fire involved two sheds, one four-room, two-apartment dwelling; one old barn, a part of the first floor of which had been converted into living quarters and which was separated by about three feet from a large one-story wholesale grocery warehouse of reinforced concrete, with felt roof.
The assignment which answered this alarm included two engine and one ladder companies from the Central Station and one engine company from Fire Station 2. Fire Chief Karl Evans also responded. Two pumpers were in operation at this fire, which was the prelude to the big show that was to come.
At 9:55 A.M., and before any of the units that responded to the Fifth street fire had returned to quarters, an alarm was sounded for another fire on Lake street between East Commercial Row and East Second street. This call was received over his radio by Fire Chief Evans at the Fifth street fire just as the units were preparing to leave that scene. The smoke of the new fire was plainly visible to him at that time. Knowing the area as he does, and fully aware of its many fire traps, only about a block east of the colorful gambling district, Chief Evans was apprehensive and lost no time reaching the location of the new blaze.
The structure involved in this fire was frame construction, about 100 feet front by slightly less than that in depth. It was built in 1909 and had been fitted with a false front. It housed, from north to south, five small stores—an unused spaghetti restaurant, formerly Tony’s Spaghetti Shop; the city’s old war relief office; the Nevada Farm Labor placement bureau; the Reno Wallet Company, novelty leather manufacturing shop, and, finally, the Western Coin Company, which rented juke boxes and slot machines. Adjoining this structure on the north is the two-story Santa Fe Hotel and on the south, the three-story Alturus Hotel and Mandarin Cafe. Directly across Lake street, a wide thoroughfare, are a number of twoand three-story buildings, including the Mizpah Hotel. Similar structures were located across the alley west of the burning building. The cockloft in the latter covered its entire length, the space dropping from five or six feet in front to two feet in the rear.
Tony’s Spaghetti Shop, in which the fire was started, had been the scene of another hot fire, about a year ago. That fire involved the kitchen and was extinguished by the application of a spray nozzle operated through the rear door. Part of the plaster on the kitchen ceiling fell at that time, when water was applied. In mopping up this previous fire, a large portion of the ceiling was removed and a hole was also cut in the roof for ventilation at the side of a skylight located over the kitchen. This hole may possibly have been covered by the salvage crew after the first fire. The store, However, had never been occupied since the earlier blaze except for storage of a few household appliances and its front was boarded up at the time of the recent fire.
It is believed that the condition of the spaghetti shop, following the first fire, was instrumental in the rapid extension of the second and more serious blaze. With the ceiling never having been replaced, and the opening in the roof with only makeshift cover, the fire quickly vented itself and spread rapidly from the basement where it was set by two youthful arsonists.
Young Boys Set Blaze
Investigation into the cause of the fire and the ensuing explosion by a committee composed of members of the National Board of Fire Underwriters, the Fire Prevention Bureau of the Reno Fire Department and Chief Karl Evans, finally centered suspicion on two nine-year-old boys, one of whom had been involved in the setting of another fire the year previous. At that time, he had been turned over to the Juvenile authorities. Both boys had been in other kinds of trouble, such as petty thievery and pilfering, and were said to be the products of bad environment. Suspicion was directed at one time in the probe to a Las Vegas boy who was known to have set a number of fires and who subsequently confessed. However, it was determined he was not concerned in the Lake street disaster.
Photo by W. W. Mulcahy
Initial Department Operations
Apparatus responding to the Lake street fire on the first alarm consisted of one 750 GPM triple combination and one 1,000 GPM triple combination pumpers. Ladder Company 1, which had just left the Fifth street fire en route to quarters, responded directly to the Lake street call.
The 750 GPM pumper was located at a hydrant on the corner of East Commercial Row and Lake street, just north of the fire (see diagram). Two lines were stretched from the pumper to the front of the fire on Lake street by Engine 1. The aerial ladder was set up directly in front of the fire, with ladderpipe mounted. Engine Company 1 then laid two lines from this ladder to the hydrant at the corner just south of the fire. Engine Company 2 proceeded directly to this hydrant and hooked up.
The Squad Car, which responded directly from the Fifth street location to the Lake street fire, laid one line through the alley in the rear of the fire to the corner of the alley and Center street, one block west of Lake, where it connected to the hydrant.
Just about the time the set-up in front of the building was completed as described in the foregoing, a second alarm was sounded. This was logged at 10:00 A.M., at which time a call went out for off-shift firemen and for one additional pumper.
This second-alarm pumper laid a secend line from the corner of the alley and Center street, where the Squad unit was pumping, to the rear of the fire. Then, front the back, it laid two other lines to be used on the portable monitor which had been special called with orders that on arrival it was to be placed in operation in the rear of the fire building.
The first hand-line, from the pump at the alley and Center street, was operated into the store on the north end of the building where the fire originated, the rear of which was completely involved. The second hand-line was taken to the roof of the Santa Fe Hotel, adjoining on the north to operate on the roof of the burning structure and protect the exposures in the Santa Fe Hotel itself.
In the meantime, a line had been stretched from the pumper on the corner north of the fire, a distance of about 150 feet, and placed in operation covering exposures in the Santa Fe Hotel and the front (Lake street) end of the north store, Tony’s Spaghetti Shop, which was almost fully involved.
Another line was taken by hand from the pumper located south of the southern end of the involved building and this was operated to cover exposures in the Alturus Hotel, which, as previously said, adjoined the fire building on the south.
The ladder pipe, when necessary, could cover the exposures both on the Santa Fe Hotel to the north and the Alturus Hotel to the south, both two stories in height, brick faced and pierced with numerous windows facing the fire.
Both these old hotels were only slightly damaged by the fire. Windows were out, frames charred and in two cases, fire communicated to bedding but firemen quickly controlled this extension. The explosion, however, damaged the Alturus Hotel, to the south, considerably. One wall was pushed in and will have to be replaced. Walls of the Santa Fe Hotel were undamaged.
At the time of arrival of the first fire company, flames were coming through the roof over the Spaghetti Shop, through the hole made in venting the previous fire. Immediately upon arrival, the boards covering the front of this shop were removed to release smoke and gases. The two stores to the south of the Spaghetti Shop, one vacant at the time, had glass fronts which were broken out. Some glass had been partially broken out from the novelty leather shop and the establishment occupied by the juke box and slot machine concerns, to the south prior to the explosion. In the latter, there were stocks of merchandise owned by an Army goods store, including bales of tents, mattresses and cots.
No openings had been made in the roofs over any of the stores before the explosion except the Spaghetti Shop, which had vented itself before the arrival of the department.
Blast Shatters Entire Building
The fatal explosion occurred at approximately 10:22 A.M., causing instant collapse of the entire building. The walls were blown or pushed out and the floor, ceiling and roof collapsed into the basement. Whatever the cause of the blast, it was sufficiently severe to blow out windows in the neighborhood, scatter Lake street with shattered glass and debris and some of the contents of the occupied shops. A slot machine was hurled clear across the street. Some of the injured spectators caught in the line of the explosion had their shoes and parts of clothing ripped off.
The sudden concussion caught firemen and spectators in and facing the structure without warning. The firemen who were killed and most seriously injured were trapped fifteen to twenty feet in from the front of the building on Lake street. They were in the premises of the war relief store, the first one south of Tony’s Spaghetti Shop and the next door Farm Labor office. The victims were caught on top of the floor and pinned by the shattered ceiling and roof. Seven firemen in all were caught at this time, three of whom lost their lives.
The dead firemen were: Frank B. Hobson, Chief of the Sparks, Nevada, Fire Department; Glenn Davis, Captain, and Earl Barry Platt, hoseman, of the Reno Fire Department. Trapped with Chief Hobson was his Assistant Chief, Lowell Monday. Captain Andrew Anderson of the Reno department was with Fireman Platt while with Captain Davis were two truckmen, Frank Roemer and Willis Strasser. Two civilians, William Robert Byron and Domingo Galli, were caught by the blast and killed on the sidewalk in front of the building. Press accounts had them as working with firemen on a hose line inside the structure.
Photo by Mrs. M. E. Allen
Other firemen, some of them officers, were injured, a number seriously. Nineteen casualties among fire fighters were recorded. All officers and men working inside the front or Lake street entrance to the building at the time of the blast suffered some injuries, but miraculously escaped with their lives. Assistant Chief Neville North, who was directing operations on the Lake street front, was blown from just inside the door of one of the stores, out into the street under the aerial ladder truck. Others were blown clear across the street into the gutter on the opposite side.
Photo by W. W. Mulcahy
Perhaps the most miraculous escape was that of Hoseman William Valline, who was at the tip of the ladder, operating the ladder pipe stream into the burning building at the moment of the blast. The practice of the Reno Fire Department has always been to have any man who operates a ladder pipe wear a safety-belt. This paid off in dividends. Although Fireman Valline was struck and almost knocked out by flying debris, and suffered chest and internal injuries, his ladder-belt held him safely in place until he could be rescued.
Crowds of Curious Caughf by Blast
The sudden explosion caught many of the spectators, who had crowded past the fire lines. Some of these were attempting to aid the firemen but were actually hindrances. More than 100 civilians were injured, either by the explosion, or in the rush to escape. Fire officers were caustic in their condemnation of crowds which jammed the immediate area during the fire. In the words of Chief Evans, “not only did they endanger themselves to the extent that more than 100 of them were injured, but they also greatly added to the difficulties of fighting the fire.” Chief Evans said, “The police department cooperated and threw up fire lines, but the civilians kept crowding in.”
While hose streams were brought to bear on the wreckage from vantage points, members of the department, aided by city employes and volunteers, set about rescue work. Special equipment, including a large crane, was brought to the scene and as rapidly as possible the bodies of the victims were found and removed.
Emergency Units Mobilized from Wide Area
Volunteer and professional emergency services were quickly alerted and dispatched to the scene. All available ambulances were rushed to the area, not only from Reno and Sparks, but from Truckee, Tahoe City, Fallon, Portola, and Carson. Entire staffs of Washoe General and St. Mary’s Hospitals in Reno reported for duty. Radio appeals brought, in addition, doctors and nurses. Red Cross volunteers and nurses’ aid workers were in attendance. The civilian patrol and Red Cross disaster committee worked to keep emergency lines open and check casualties. The mobile unit of the CAP was set up near the fire and many firemen and workers were treated for exhaustion and smoke consumption on the spot with oxygen and first aid equipment. Self-contained oxygen apparatus was also used in fighting the fire and in rescue operations. An oxygen unit of a Detroit manufacturer, which happened to be nearby at the time, stopped to give aid. Hotels and Girl Scout headquarters dispatched blankets, and blood donors came by hundreds in response to repeated radio appeals.
Blast Due to Back Draff
The apparent cause of the shattering explosion was established by Chief Evans as compression of air and gases from burning materials, following the investigation into the disaster. According to Chief Evans, pressure had built up inside the building, probably from the gases activated by the fire. The pressure was particularly strong between the ceiling and the roof (it will be noted that the glass fronts of most of the stores had been taken out prior to the blast). Apparently these gases simply reached a combustible concentration and exploded, the chief indicated. Extent of pressure in the upper reaches of the building was borne out by the subsequent effect on the upper story of the nearby Alturus hotel. Thus, earlier theories that either dynamite or other combustibles stored in the area created the explosion are largely discounted.
Photo by Mrs. M. E. Allen
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Exactly what comprised the exploding gases has not been determined, according to Chief Evans.
Reno’s second big fire is as many days (August 16) sent four men to hospitals as what officials described as “only good fortune” prevented butane tanks from exploding with possibly disastrous results.
This fire was at the Ransome Company of Nevada plant on West Fourth street and resulted in the destruction of the firm’s bottling platform and shed, the nearby office building and a pickup truck parked along the platform. The cause of the blaze was not determined.
Four units of the Fire Department responded to the single alarm under command of Fire Chief Karl Evans, and operated three to four streams of water on the blazing butane platform and exposed tanks. The water was sprayed on the large storage tanks while the fire was being fought after valves on them had been subjected to dangerous pressures from the heat radiated by the fire.
Injured were three Ransome employes and one Reno fireman, Leslie Shipman. The latter collapsed from exhaustion, believed to have been partially induced by his having fought the earlier Lake street fire for six hours.
Possibly having in mind the outcome of the Lake street explosion, spectators at the Ransome morning blaze were few and most of them remained at a healthy distance.
Flames from the blazing bottling platform caused two overheated 50-gallon butane bottles to explode shortly after fire fighters arrived, signalling a possible later and more serious explosion of remaining fuel storage, which would have leveled most of the surrounding area. However, escape valves on the bottles operated properly and although gas in some containers was ignited no further blasts resulted.
Explosions of the two bottles sent one of them hurtling west approximately 300 feet, clearing two 10,000-gallon and one 3,000-gallon storage tanks about 150 feet away. The property damage was not disclosed.