Twenty Die in San Francisco Hotel Fire
Combination of smoking in bed, delayed alarm and unprotected stairways create early morning tragedy during unusually cold weather
HAZARDS which have been pointed out by fire protection authorities for years combined on January 6 in San Francisco to create a disastrous fire in the Thomas Hotel, 967-71 Mission Street, which caused death to 20 persons and injuries to at least 37 others. All were guests of the hotel.
The four and five-story building was mainly of brick with wood joists. Some unprotected metal was employed in the front wall, basement and second floor. Vertical openings included an elevator and an open stairway from basement to roof plus another open stairway from the first floor to the fourth floor and a third, also open, connecting the basement and first floor. Exterior fire department standpipes were provided front and rear in conjunction with the fire escapes.
Chief William F. Murray explained to FIRE ENGINEERING that the building is of a type and occupancy not uncommon to San Francisco. The presence of the elderly, infirm, and in many cases, people existing on small pensions or limited income, is rather typical of a national trend. It is also of the type, readily apparent to the professional fire fighter, that is conducive to heavy life loss if fires are not detected, reported and extinguished quickly.
It is alleged that a 61-year-old occupant of Room 41, had been drinking, and falling asleep, dropped a lighted cigarette which eventually ignited the mattress of his bed. At about 5 a.m. he discovered the fire and rushed into the hallway where he met another guest from an adjoining room. Together the men attempted to extinguish the fire with an extinguisher taken from its position on the wall nearby and were partially successful. However, it flared up again and the night clerk was then notified of the emergency. The clerk telephoned the fire department and started to alert the 135 guests who occupied the 160 rooms in the hotel.
—Official S.F.F.D. photo by Chet Born
The fire department received the alarm at 5:10 a.m. and a full firstalarm assignment responded. The following description is in the words of Chief Murray:
“The first-arriving companies from a station hardly one-half minute removed from the fire scene, and consisting of an engine company with separate hose tender, an aerial ladder truck, a rescue squad and a chief officer, were confronted with a fire situation already of third-alarm proportions. The blaze had fully involved the rear 30 per cent of the building from the ground floor out through the roof.
“In the rear alley all immediate efforts were directed toward rescue. An engine company manned a life net to rescue a woman jumper from an upper story whose blazing clothing set fire to the net. One occupant was picked off by an aerial ladder just as fire engulfed the window from which he had been rescued. An aged double amputee was ladder rescued.
“Firemen made numerous rescues by locating and leading victims to safety through the heavily smokefilled halls from which they never would have escaped otherwise. This was made all the more difficult because access to the interior had to be from the front only by way of the single 4-foot hallway along the left wall into the 3-foot side halls each 42 feet in length. While this was being done, additional companies had to lead hose lines along the same paths to arrest fire travel to the front. To the credit of all my officers and men who exerted herculean efforts in both rescue and fire containment processes, the forward progress of the fire was stopped, as though cut by a knife from basement to roof, at a point near Hall No. 3.
“Heavy streams operated from the rear by necessity to prevent fire extension and to reduce the danger of flying embers which issued in great amounts from the heart of the fire to distances hundreds of feet from the scene. Upon arrival, both the rear fire escape and dry standpipe were unapproachable; a solid sheet of fire lighted every window.
“I shall never cease to maivel at the relatively low life loss ratio of 20 to guest occupancy of 135. One of these victims died from injuries after removal. Pathetic evidence of knotted sheets dropped into lightwells having second-story bases which led to no path of escape showed the panicdriven efforts of some occupants to flee the flame, smoke and gases. Death occurred in some cases, but the firemen’s ingenuity in hastily throwing mattresses into the lightwells from beds in rooms facing them was rewardingly successful in providing a cushion to break the falls of some who jumped from a floor above.
“As in any holocaust of this nature, the officers and men worked under such speed, with experienced reactions, and under such punishing and frustrating circumstances that all of the individual efforts of merited accomplishment will never be fully recorded.”
The second alarm was sounded at 5:13 a.m., followed at 5:15 a.m. by the third alarm. At 5:22 a.m. two additional ladder companies and a large water tower were special-called. The water tower was set up in Minna Street and fed by six hose lines, and for one and a half hours played a powerful stream into the fire.
At 5:26 a.m. the fourth alarm was sounded and the fifth alarm was called at 5:40 a.m. when the entire southwest part of the building collapsed. At 5:44 a.m., a special call was made for additional pressure on the high-pressure system from the Twin Peaks and Ashbury Reservoirs. This boosted the pressure on the system to 324 pounds.
There were now 247 officers and firemen at the fire. At 6:07 a.m., the seldom-used “10-1” signal was dispatched, cutting response of the fire department to two-thirds of that usual to other fires in the city. When the fire was brought under control at 6:45 a.m., firemen worked rapidly to locate victims, hoping to find some of them alive. The blaze was declared out about 11 hours later. The temperature at the time of the fire was 36°F, which is unusually cold for San Francisco. Many of those rescued suffered from tlie cold, having left most of their clothing in their rooms when they were evacuated. Most of the rescued were taken to another hotel in the same block.
It is interesting to note that several rooms in the front part of the hotel on Mission Street were virtually undamaged by the fire. There was some smoke and water damage. In several rooms on the fourth floor, the paint was blistered and the paper had come off the walls.
As soon as the fire was under control, the usual calls for official action to prevent further catastrophes of this nature were sounded. Chief Murray has commented:
Continued on page 224
—Official S.F.F.D. photo by Chet Born
Official S.F.F.D. photo bp Chet Born
Response to Alarms
22 engine companies 9 truck companies (6 aerials)
6 hose tenders 2 salvage units 2 rescue units 1 water tower
5:14 a.m.—Rescue Squad No. 2
5:22 a.m.—Trucks 6 & 7
5:22 a.m.—Large water tower
5:44 a.m.—Twin Peaks and Ashbury Reservoirs on. Off at 7:11 a.m.
6:07 a.m.—Emergency “10-1” signal—rescinded at 10:45 a.m.
30 high-pressure streams
22 low-pressure streams
2 batteries, 2 ladder pipes, 1 65-foot water tower, 6 lines, 1 ⅛ hours
Total of 15,400 feet of 2 3/4-inch and 4,400 feet of 1 ⅛ -inch hose used.
Continued from page 198
“We have had innumerable fires of this type, in buildings of this character, in the past. By good fortune, relatively rapid notification to the fire department, and providential absence of other contributing circumstances, these fires were contained before the tragic results of the Thomas Hotel were reached. There isn’t the slightest doubt in my mind that the delayed alarm contributed heavily to the life loss.
“It is ironical that our fire prevention bureau had been working diligently to obtain retroactive legislation, stirred by the disastrous Chicago school fire, to force stair and hallway enclosures to prevent a fire occurrence of just such magnitude. Now, with tragedy, indignation has been aroused in official and public circles. The resistances to the legislation enactments have subsided, at least temporarily, to enhance the prospects of corrective legislation.”
In paying tribute to the fire fighters under his command as well as to the San Francisco policemen who assisted right from the start he stated:
“Devotion to duty may be a trite expression but never in my career have I seen it so outstandingly exemplified as in this memorable though tragic fire.”