Six New York Firemen Die in Freak Wall Collapse
Marquee of old cinema, converted into artificial flower manufacturing plant, falls, carrying wall with it onto firemen—Three simultaneous fires in area necessitate large movement of fire forces
A 15 X 20-FOOT MARQUEE, that formerly adorned a movie theatre, tore loose from its fastenings on the one-story brick building at 4065 Thud Avenue, between 74th and 75th Streets, New York City, on April 4, and fell, carrying with it part of the front wall of the old structure, and a ladder, supporting firemen fighting the fire within the building.
Six of the firemen, including a lieutenant and an aide to Assistant Chief Antonio Z. Petronelli, were killed, and 14 others injured, some seriously, in the crash. A number, including New York’s Fire Commissioner Edward J. Cavanagh, Jr., and Deputy Fire Commissioner George Mand, had narrow escapes.
The building, occupied by Hayman & Lindenberg, manufacturers of artificial flowers, was built in 1910. It measured about 70 x 80 feet and, although alterations had been made to it over the years, the iron-framed marquee hung on light metal rods extending to the street edge of the sidewalk.
The firm occupying the structure had been in business for half a century; it reportedly had been doing a thriving business.
The manufacturing stock contained chemicals of varying character used in artificial flower making. The amount of flammable liquids and combustible stocks stored in the building is unknown because of the destruction of the contents.
The last fire department company district inspection reportedly was made in March, no serious violations being reported. The firm carried meager insurance on machinery, equipment and stock.
The plant was closed at the time fire was discovered, shortly before 8 p.m. The last man to leave the factory that evening (at 6:15) was a truckman under contract for the past six years. He delivered a shipment of parts for assembly of artificial flowers.
The time clock for employees Stopped at 6:52 p.m., but the fire department did not receive the alarm (until 7:46 p.m. Intensive investigations by the Fire Marshal s Office, treaded by Martin Scott and other authorities, have failed to disclose the origin of the fatal blaze. A boy of seven who at first proudly posed as an arsonist who had set the fire was released after his rambling, vague and disconnected answers to questions convinced questioners of his shamming. It is believed that smoking may have been the possible cause, or heat from an oven used in production. The real cause may never be learned.
That the fire had been burning some time is evident. It was discovered by a 15-year-old boy student, on an errand, who pulled Box 2904, Third and 173rd Street. Almost simultaneously Box 2941 at Third and 175th was snapped. Coincidentally, at about the same time, the officer of Ladder 27, crossing Third Avenue en route to Box 2953, Belmont and 176th Street, three blocks east of the fatal fire, saw what later proved to be the factory blaze. By radio he notified Bronx Dispatcher Edward Weichman that he was stopping for what looked like a dangerous fire and was taking Engine 46 (also en route to Box 2953) with him.
These events were all preliminary to the tragic aftermath. Actually, the chain of events started at 7:42 p.m. when Box 2773 was transmitted for a fire at 1520 McComb’s Road, nearby. This drew Engines 42, 92 and Ladder 44 from the area. A minute later (7:43 p.m.) Box 2953 at Belmont and 176th was sounded for a fire in an abandoned building. It drew Engines 45, 88, 46 and Ladders 27 and 38 with Acting Battalion Chief Turulla of the 18th Battalion.
Thus most of the companies originally first due at the fatal flower plant fire were out of quarters when the Box 2904 was transmitted. Engine 50, due on Box 2904, and Acting Battalion Chief McLaughlin of Battalion 19, were called by the dispatcher.
At 7:51 p.m., Signal 7-5 for Box 2953 was sent out, bringing Engine 82 and Ladder 31 to fill in. At 7:54 p.m., Signal 7-5 for Box 2904 brought Engine 48 and Chief Griffin of the 7th Division.
The shuffling of companies throughout the Bronx to meet the developing situation went forward smoothly under the seasoned Bronx communications staff. At 8:00 p.m., Mr. Weichman located Engine 43 in quarters of Engine 46: Engine 83 into Engine 82; Didder 33 in Didder 27, and Didder 29 at Ladder 31.
At 8:06 p.m., a second alarm for Box 2904 was sounded by Chief Griffin. But there were no scheduled second alarm units to respond—only Engines 7 and 75, third alarm units being available. The Bronx headquarters then put out a “dispatcher’s synthetic fourth alarm” to fill the assignment required at the major fire. This signal, 4-4—2904, brought Engines 73, 94. 68, 93 and Ladder 44. It also resulted in these relocations: Engine 41 to 92; 90 to 45; 59 to 71; 81 to 75; 35 to 73; 67 to 68; 80 to 93; and Didder 28 to 44. Ambulance 1 responded with Dr. Kramer. Ambulance 2 was later special called from Brooklyn.
At 8:43 p.m. Fire Chief Connors, who had arrived at the scene, special called Engines 79, 60 and 69 to the fire and the Bronx dispatchers relocated Engine 62 in 79 and 53 in the empty house of Engine 60. Four minutes later, at 8:47 p.m., Chief Connors called for additional ladder companies and Nos. 42 and 44 were dispatched.
This was just before the marquee carried the front wall outward, which came about 9:00 p.m. At 9:23 p.m. Commissioner Cavanagh called for Squad 2.
Later (11:31 p.m.) Field Kitchen No. 94 was called. This was manned by members of the Third Alarmers.
Immediately following the collapse, Chief Connors radioed for “four or five ambulances” and all “department ambulances.” Commissioner Cavanagh, also on the air, exclaimed “What we need is doctors and nurses and the Disaster Unit from Fordham Hospital.” He also called for all available assistant fire marshals (Chief Marshal Scott was already on the fire ground). These reinforcements made fastest time possible through the crowded streets which filled up rapidly as rumors of a vast catastrophe spread.
No preliminary warning of collapse
Assistant Chief Petronelli, directing operations in front of the building, was talking with Commissioners Cavanagh and Maud and their aides when the marquee began to come down. The Commissioner added his shout of warning to others as the almost white hot hanging metal began to pull the wall with it. Firemen operating lines under and within range of the marquee tried to scramble to safety. Some ran toward the entrance, others toward the street. Most of the latter were trapped. Chief Petronelli and his aide Charles Infosino, were caught, the latter being killed instantly, and the chief receiving a broken right leg, bruises and shock.
Fireman Joseph O’Keefe, of Ladder 44, saw two of his buddies killed before his eyes. They were Arthur Hanson and William Hoolan. O’Keefe was on a 35-foot ladder, punching holes in the roof. The ladder was braced against the front brick wall and Hanson and Hoolan were below him. As the wall fell, the ladder going with it, O’Keefe was thrown clear, but his two companions were caught and killed.
Also killed were Lieutenant John F. Molloy, of Engine 48; Fireman Edward J. Carroll, Engine 48 and Frederick J. Hellauer, Engine 48. The injured included, besides those named, Captain Samuel Levine, Engine 93; Firemen Hesse, Engine 48, Albert Casario, Engine 48; David Lamond, Engine 94; James O’Hanlon, chief’s driver; James Quinn, Engine 93; Albert Cerroni, Field Communication Unit; Firemen Charles Guilfoyle, Ladder 44; John San Antonio, Engine 93 and Robert F. Chapman, aide to battalion chief.
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—Photo by Ed Heavey
NEW YORK FIREMEN
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When the marquee and wall fell, they brought down power lines, plunging the immediate area into darkness. The absence of light combined with dense smoke, made rescue and fire fighting conditions extremely difficult. Fire fighters, however, rushed to dig their fellow firemen out of the debris; others protected them with hose lines. As rapidly as the men were recovered they were rushed to Morrisania Hospital. One victim was hurried by private car to Bronx Hospital and reported missing until a later hour.
Present among the top officers of the department were Assistant Chiefs Holian, Burke, Masset and O’Brien; Acting Battalion Chief Harry Irwin, head of the Division of Apparatus, and several of his supervising engineers. Special details of police were summoned to hold back the swarms of curious drawn to the scene.
Unprecedented funeral rites
The tragedy was one of the worst in over 30 years of the fire department, being exceeded in loss of life only by the Ritz Tower Hotel explosion of August 1, 1932, where eight firemen perished, and equalled only by the loss of six members of Engine 251 at the Brooklyn Union Gas plant oil fire on February 26, 1920.
On Monday, April 9, Mayor Wagner and Fire Commissioner Cavanagh led the largest cortege in the history of the city, in public and fire service tribute. Over 5,000 fire fighters from New York City, and cities and areas as far away as Washington, Pittsburgh and Boston, marched in solemn procession from 59th Street and Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral accompanying the caskets of the victims, which were mounted on five regulation fire pumpers converted into caissons. The Cathedral services were for Firemen Molloy, Hoolan, Carroll, Infosino and Hellauer. In the Bronx, tribute to the sixth fireman, Arthur Hanson, was similarly solemnized at the First Lutheran Church, Throggs Neck, the cortege assembling at Engine Co. 89.
Acknowledgment: The editors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the following in the preparation of this report: William Jerome Daly, FIRE ENGINEERING correspondent; Fire Commissioner Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr., and officials of New York Fire Department.