THE FIRE TRAGEDY AT ST. LOUIS
St. Louis is the latest city to shock the country with a holocaust. It comes, too, with all the revolting features incident to the most appalling disasters that have preceded it. The loss of more than thirty human lives is sufficiently terrible to render the property loss unworthy of mention. The scene of this awful tragedy was the Missouri Athlete Club Building, located on the corner of Washington avenue and Fourth street. The building is owned by the Boatmen’s Bank, which occupied a part of the first floor. It was valued at $250,000 and was erected in 1890, being of especially heavy construction and intended to be of slow combustion. The walls for the first and second floors were constructed of heavy granite, leaning inward from the ground up, in fortress style. The walls of the upper five stories were of brick. The fire caused the brick wall on the Fourth street side to collapse above the third floor. The ceiling of the banking room was reinforced with heavy steel and concrete construction, intended to prevent the possibility of heavy pieces of hardware from falling through the ceiling from upper floors. The club occupied the seven floors and basement, with the exception of the banking room. The entrance to Boatmen’s Bank was at the northwest corner of Fourth street and Washington avenue, and the main entrance to the Missouri Athletic Club was on Washington avenue, a few feet west of the bank entrance. The only other entrances to the club were in the rear, used by employes. The club used the basement for a swimming pool and bath, the first floor for lobbies and reception rooms, the second floor for pool and billiard rooms, the third floor for dining rooms and kitchens, the fourth floor for dancing rooms and officials’ headquarters, the fifth and sixth floors for sleeping rooms and the seventh floor for a gymnasium. Guests were sleeping on the fifth and sixth floors when the fire alarm was sounded through the building by the ringing of telephone bells in their rooms and the cries of fire first called by the night clerk and later taken up and relayed by the guests.
The first alarm was turned in at 1:58 A. M., by Charles Bauman, night watchman at the bank, who discovered the flames as he was ascending from the basement. As soon as the fire department arrived, squads were detailed for rescue work, while others began playing streams on the flames. Several explosions occurred soon after the fire got under headway, and although these are said to have been caused by gas, the night watchman believes they were caused by the steam heating plant going to pieces. A number of guests on the fifth and sixth floors, who apparently had found their egress by fire escape cut off. rushed into sleeping rooms on the west side of the building and leaped from the windows to the top of the adjoining four-story building occupied by the St. Louis Seed Co. It was in this leap that many were injured. Firemen, hearing the cries of the injured on the roof of the St. Louis Seed Co. building, forced an entrance into that building and ascended to the fourth floor on the elevator. They broke a skylight and trapdoor in the roof and raised ladders, on which they climbed on the roof, picking up the injured and carrying them back down the ladder into the seed company’s building. There they were placed on the elevator and taken down to the first floor. W. T. Hawkins, engineer of the club, told the police he started the elevator for the upper floors of the club but the smoke and flames got so dense at the third floor that he had to reverse his lever and as he did so. the cable snapped and the cage fell into the basement. Hawkins said the fall of this cage might explain one of the noises the firemen heard, which were thought to have been explosions.
Four streams of water, in addition to two streams from fire towers, were played into the Club House from the Washington avenue side. On the Fourth street side there were five streams and on the Lucas avenue side were four streams, making thirteen in all. Steam engines, pumping pressure into each of these lines of hose, were scattered at fire plugs for blocks each way. Flames burst out of the third floor windows, cutting off the exit of a number of men who were running down the fire escape on the Fourth street side. Firemen turned streams of water on the fire escape at the third floor to check the flames issuing through the windows. Some men, clinging tenaciously to the fire escape railings, bravely responded to the firemen’s call for them to continue down the escape. They walked through the water and were almost knocked over by the pressure. One of the first streams was played upon the Washington avenue fire escapes, which in places had become red-hot. Throughout the fire this stream was kept continuously playing on the fire escapes to keep them cool so they would be serviceable.
Chief Swingley massed his forces in the ruins of the Fourth street side, which offered the best means of reaching the bodies supposed to be buried in the debris. On the Washington avenue side the wall stood sheer almost the building’s full length. A portion of the east wall of the club building fell at 2:10 P. M. A water tower, which had been standing opposite the wall on Fourth street, was broken when the wall fell and knocked it against the east wall of the Shapeligh hardware building.
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“I am not going to send any living man ir search of the dead while those walls remain as they are,” said Chief Swingley. Thereupon he got fourteen plug streams at work on the Fourth street side, pouring the water into the burning pile through a rent in the wall and making an effort to tear the bricks away from the top of the wall by the pressure. A tower with four plug streams also played on this mass of wreckage. Two streams were in operation on Washington avenue, two on the west side and two at the Lucas avenue e_____d. A correspondent writing to this journal says:
“When Engine 2 and Truck 6 reached the fire after a two-block run, the heat was so intense that it scorched the horses and the firemen on the apparatus. At that time men were at every window in the club house, while several had already jumped. We had no chance to get a net under them, and Engine 2’s crew was compelled to keep wetting down the fire escape, which was so hot that no one could stand near it. There was delay as soon as the fire was discovered in puilmg the hook. The manager of the Club must have tried to arouse every guest before he tried to pull the hook. Engine 2 and Truck 6 went ou a “still,” and on their arrival the building was a roaring furnace from top to bottom. Whin Truck 13 got there a ladder was raised to the fire escape, then a ladder was carried through the adjoining building, and the firemen tried to ascend to the roof, but the ladder was too short. It was then held on the firemen’s shoulders while fifteen persons climbed down to safety. One man who climbed out of a window on the sixth floor was too far away to be rescued, and he dropped to the pavement when his clothing caught fire. Had it not been for the watchful eye of Chief Swingley many of his men would have gone into the building to rescue the victims, but he saw the walls crumbling and threatening to fall any moment.”