Skyscraper Fire Causes Near Panic
An unusual fire in a 42-story midtown Manhattan skyscraper in mid-afternoon gave New York firemen nearly two hours of punishment, resulted in hurried evacuation of over 2,000 tenants, while scores of others suffered nearpanic, and caused considerable loss to a “fireproof” building.
The structure, located at 515 Madison Avenue, near 53rd Street, is of modern fire resistive construction; it is equipped with standpipe and building alarm, central station manual fire alarm boxes and sprinklers having water-flow alarm, on all floors. It is occupied by offices above the ground floor. On the 42nd floor is radio television station WABD, which was in operation at 3:45 P.M. when the fire was discovered. Two banks of elevators serve the more than 2000 tenants.
The fire started, evidently, from a short-circuit in or near an empty elevator car which is said to have been undergoing repairs, at the 20th floor level. It was discovered by Charles Gratz an elevator operator, who quickly unloaded his passengers and sounded an alarm from a manual box on the 10th floor. This was received by the A. D. T. at about 3:45 P.M., almost coincident with the receipt of a water flow alarm, indicating that sprinklers were in operation. The call was at once transmitted to the Fire Alarm Telegraph Bureau which also received a box alarm at about the same time.
Engines 8, 65 and 23, with Ladders 2 and 4 responded with the Chief of the 8th Battalion, to find some smoke coming from the top floor windows while startled tenants were hurrying out the main entrances. Although many windows contained tenants, there was no apparent sign of panic until a woman on the 20th floor leaned far out and screamed. Occupants of windows in the same building and nearby structures shouted to her not to jump, and apparently calmed her.
Meanwhile firemen connected lines to the building standpipe system, while others entered with their doughnut rolls of hose and tools, only to find all eleven elevators in the south bank immobilized. There was nothing to do but climb the stairs.
The fire, which apparently centered about the 20th floor, where the south bank of elevators end worked upward and downward in the elevator shafts, feeding on the grease on cables and tracks. It is still a mystery to many how the limited amount of combustibles could develop sufficient heat to practically melt down some elevator doors and warp others, while parting elevator cables, permitting one elevator to drop to the basement, a mass of twisted metal and cable. The heat also fused three sprinkler heads located on the 20th floor. These had no effect on the fire in the shaft but possibly served to prevent its extension into offices.
The building fire alarm was sounded shortly before 4:00 P.M. and office workers and others, including former Postmaster General Chairman of the Coca-Cola Company, James A. Farley, took the long descent to the street, using the structure’s enclosed stairways, which were free of fire and smoke.
Firemen had considerable difficulty in locating the heart of the fire, and in getting above and below it to cut it off. Men who climbed 20 floors and more with heavy equipment were almost too exhausted to do any fire fighting. However, as rapidly as possible, standpipe streams were brought into play and the fire knocked down. Ladder companies were pressed into service with enginemen to man hose, as well as to break open elevator shaft doors to get at the smoky fire. Although no second alarm was sounded, the last-due Engine Company (No. 21) was special called to give a full assignment, as was Rescue No. 1.
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Shortly after 5:00 P.M., firemen discovered a second blaze in the south bank of elevators on the 10th floor. This was quickly extinguished. Chief of Staff and Operations Frank Murphy took charge.
Fire loss was confined to the elevator system, but there was some smoke and water damage upon his arrival about 4:15 P.M.