Volunteers Make Good Stop at College Auditorium Fire
Checking Advance of Blaze Saves Half of Large Campus Structure at William and Mary College
TO the surprise of no one acquainted with the structure, William and Mary College’s 27-year-old Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall was scene of a spectacular fire the night of December 29, 1953. Any fireman with more than a passing knowledge of the interior of the building’s auditorium knew it would makt a firstclass bonfire.
The only surprising aspect of the fire in the poorly-designed hall was that any portion of it was saved. It was built to burn.
Nevertheless, when the blaze was brought under control by Williamsburg. Va., Fire Chief Elliott W. Jayne and his predominantly volunteer department, only half the structure was on the ground. The other half was virtually intact. Firemen accomplished this feat in spite of the fact flames burst through the roof of Phi Beta Kappa Hall within moments of their arrival.
Observers and investigators were unanimous in declaring it was one of the finest fire fighting jobs they had ever seen, a magnificent “stop” performed in the face of a delayed alarm of the worst order in a building unbelievably illsuited to successful fire fighting.
Richmond Times-Dispatch Photo
Richmond Times-Dispatch Photo
Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, constructed in 1926, was of brick construction with steel truss support for roof and balconies. As shown in the accompanying diagram, it was divided into a north and south wing. On the north side were offices and lounges; on the south, a barn-like auditorium. Neither wing contained sprinklers or automatic fire alarm system.
No fire wall existed between stage and auditorium in the south wing. Actually, a perfect flue existed for rapid spread of flames from backstage over the proscenium into a large space between ceiling and roof. Except for the outside walls, construction was primarily of wood and plaster.
The north wing, of similar construction, contained a large foyer and two lounges on the ground floor. The second floor housed national headquarters for the Phi Beta Kappa Society and was stocked with irreplaceable records of that organization. Above the second floor an empty loft occupied the space to the roof.
Between the two wings, along the north side of the auditorium, was a brick wall. This barrier, which eventually figured prominently in the battle to save the north wing, was deceivingly porous. Though it was 16 inches thick from the first to second floor, and eight inches from second floor to attic, it went neither to the ground nor to the roof. Below the first floor it rested on columns which provided spaces three to six feet high and several feet wide between ground level and flooring. It stopped just short of the roof of the north wing, leaving six to eight inches of free space below the roof.
In addition, three wide exits from the auditorium on the first floor and another on the second floor gave free access between the two wings. None of the four openings was fitted with fire-resistant doors. There was also an unprotected four-foot square opening into the attic.
As a matter of fact, the only favorable factor about the situation was the weather which existed the night of the fire: the temperature was well above freezing and only a gentle southwest breeze stirred the air.
This was the setting when, from an undetermined cause, fire broke out backstage in the auditorium. How long it burned before discovery may never be known, but estimates range from one to three hours. With college closed for the Christmas holidays, no one was in the building or its vicinity.
At about 8:05 P.M. on the 29th, a passerby on Jamestown Road noticed smoke issuing from the building and saw a dull orange glow in windows near the auditorium stage. He ran two blocks to the fire station to turn in the alarm.
Fortuitously, Chief Jayne and a volunteer were at the fire station, in addition to the two paid men on duty. Signalling a general alarm on the city’s fire sirens, they responded to the alarm immediately with Engine One, a 750-GPM pumper.
Jayne’s size-up confirmed his worst fears: smoke was billowing from the auditorium eaves and flame was visible through windows near the auditorium stage. Nevertheless, he made an attempt to save the auditorium.
Following standard procedure in the Willamsburg department, Engine One dropped a 2 1/2″ supply line at a hydrant on Jamestown Road and proceeded to a point south of the building. A preconnected 1 1/2>” supply line with fog nozzle was stretched to a window at the southwest corner of the auditorium and, with the aid of a 12-foot ladder, applied through the window. Within moments, visible flame was extinguished and Selby Jacobs, regular fireman who had donned air demand type mask, relieved the nozzleman and advanced the line several feet into the smoke-charged stage wing.
At this instant, flame broke through the roof with a tremendous roar and portions of the ceiling, slate shingles and cornice began to fall. By ducking into the window opening, Jacobs miraculously escaped serious injury, though falling objects, which bounced off his helmet and body, bruised him severely.
Assistant Chief Robert B. Smith, who had responded with Jayne, pulled the line back and made another attempt to advance the small line through the front (east end) of the auditorium. He was forestalled by falling masonry, and retreated just before the roof began to cave in.
In the meantime, Engine Two, a 500GPM pumper, had arrived and, following a pre-arranged plan, proceeded to a hydrant inside the campus at the northwest corner of the building. Its “skid load”, two 1 1/2″ lines with fog nozzles wyed to a 2 1/2″ line, was deposited at the north entrance to the Hall. Another 2 1/2″ line was laid immediately to supply the ladder pipe on the department’s 75foot aerial, which had taken up a position close to the auditorium’s west wall.
At this point, approximately five minutes after the alarm, flames were leaping 75 to 100 feet in the air above the auditorium and its roof was rapidly caving in. Chief Jayne summoned mutual aid from James City County, Camp Peary Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity, Cheatham Annex Naval Supply Depot, Yorktown Naval Mine Depot and Fort Eustis.
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Phi Beta Kappa Fire
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He realized his only course was to attempt to save the north wing of the building. Accordingly, he moved Engine One to the Jamestown Road hydrant and laid out two 2 1/2″ lines with fog nozzles. With these two lines on the east and the ladder pipe on the west, Chief Jayne began a “pincers” movement at the recesses between the wings. The two 1 1/2” lines from Engine Two were advanced through the north wing towards the auditorium exits, one on the second floor through a window, the other through a door on the ground floor.
Another 2 1/2″ line trom Engine Two was stretched to assist the ladder pipe on the west side, and two more 2 1/2″ lines from Engine One were directed into openings on the southwall of the auditorium.
To conform to water supplies available, mutual aid trucks were dispersed. The first to arrive, Camp Peary’s 750GPM pumper, stretched a supply line from a campus hydrant near Sir Christopher Wren building and placed its 2 1/2″ line inside the north wing on the ground floor. Next arrival, a 600-gallon booster tank engine from James City County, was placed to cover exposures northeast of the involved building. Then the Cheatham Annex pumper was placed on Richmond Road and also stretched its 2 1/2” line into the first floor of the north wing. The Naval Mine Depot pumper stretched from a hydrant near the college library and directed a stream at the east auditorium entrance.
At first, though, the infighting inside the north wing was carried on with the two 1 1/2″ lines. On both floors the fire was driven back to the auditorium exits.
Then the cellar and attic “leaks” in the north auditorium wall became evident. Smoke began issuing from the eaves of the north wing and the first floor began to get hot. To deal with the undermining attack of the blaze, Camp Peary’s Chief Alfred R. Liptow—also a Williamsburg assistant chief—cut through the first floor and placed his line, equipped with an all-purpose nozzle, in the cellar. He successfully drove the fire back to the north auditorium wall.
To meet the attic threat, where the loft was now heavily involved, Chief Jayne’s men on the second floor retreated from the second floor auditorium exit and pushed through an exhaust-fan opening in the Phi Beta Kappa offices to play their 30-degree fog at the flame. In a few moments, the fire in the attic was knocked out, though continued application of water and an attack through the roof by hook and ladder men was necessary to extinguish rekindles caused by intense heat from the gutted auditorium.
At about 9:50 P.M., about an hour and three-quarters after the alarm, Chief Jayne felt the fire was under control. Shortly thereafter he began releasing mutual aid equiment. At 3 A.M., he returned Engine One to the fire station and released the Fort Eustis pumper which had been covering the town. Engine Two, supplying two 2 1/2″ and two 1 1/2″ lines, pumped almost continually until 7:30 A.M. on the 30th, as Chief Jayne continued to water down the ruined auditorium. A hand line direct from the hydrant was used until 4 P.M. to finish the job.
Investigations which began on the 30th revealed that, in the north wing Phi Beta Kappa files, not a single piece of paper had been damaged by either fire or water. Fire damage in that wing was confined to areas near the four auditorium exits, the basement and the attic, which was most badly affected. Water damage was extremely light.
Of the auditorium, nothing remained but tottering walls and rubble. Insurance adjustors allowed full coverage— $125,000—on the structure and were expected to allow about $25,000 on its contents.
Wiliam and Mary President Alvin D. Chandler, Phi Beta Kappa Executive Secretary Carl Billman, Insurance Adjustor Edward Robedee, Insurance engineer H. R. Durall and many others were unanimous: they marvelled that firemen were able to save anything at all in face of the conditions which existed in the building and the amount of fire they encountered in the auditorium.