November 1917 Fires

In this month’s column, I present historic fires or significant events in the fire service from November 1917. A reminder: Readers are encouraged to share information from their departments.

November 4, 1917: Paterson, New Jersey: There was a fire in a rear storage room filled with magazines, papers, and kindling collected daily as scrap to be sold to help support the Salvation Army Rescue Mission at 42 Mill Street. The flames spread to the four-story brick main building as the alarm of “Fire!” was raised inside. With only a single fire escape, a panic followed as men on the third and fourth floors found their exit cut off. Excited civilians caused a delay in fire apparatus reaching the scene as numerous alarm boxes, some remote from the fire building, were transmitted simultaneously. As the fire department finally arrived, a 60-year-old man was seen balancing himself on a fourth-floor windowsill. Despite flames, radiant heat, and heavy smoke, Firefighter Lewis Rudensky raised an extension ladder and was able to pull the exhausted man from sure death. Moments later, the floor collapsed. In all, 19 lives were lost in this tragic blaze.

November 7, 1917: Louisville, Kentucky: At 3:00 a.m., the manager of the Willard Hotel, a five-story brick building at Jefferson and Fourth Streets, discovered a fire on the top floor. The alarm brought 100 firefighters under the command of Chief Timothy Lehan. Numerous people were reported trapped as the first units rolled in. Firefighter Edward McCue made his way to the fifth floor and was in the process of the very dangerous search when he was caught in a backdraft. McCue was so badly burned he died the following day. Several spectacular rescues were accomplished as the fire swept the top floor of the building. Ten engines streams were played on the flames, and a cellar pipe was used on the roof to battle the fire in the cockloft. In all, 12 engines and four hook and ladder trucks worked the fire.

November 8, 1917: Brooklyn, New York: At 9:00 a.m. the weight of heavy machinery and stock, 25 tons of packed beans, caused the collapse of the four-story brick building at 19 Atlantic Avenue. The entire front of the building, the bean packing machinery, and six women workers plunged into the basement. Engine Company 224 arrived within minutes and began digging into the rubble despite a damaged ammonia tank that was leaking fumes inside the building. Under the command of Deputy Chief O’Hara, the firefighters dug for six hours, recovering five of the dead women.

November 10, 1917: New Rochelle, New York: A police officer discovered a fire in the basement of a large five-story business building on Huguenot Street and transmitted the alarm. Chief Ross and the members of the fire department responded at to the advanced fire at 3:30 a.m. Flames burned upward through wooden partitions and quickly filled the building. Scrambling to contain the gale force wind-driven flames, 14 attack lines were placed in position as the fire spread to nine adjacent structures. With a shower of embers falling on buildings a block away, mutual aid was summoned from Larchmont and Mount Vernon. These departments battled the five dwellings and stores that ignited on Clinton Street. The fires were extinguished in five hours, and a conflagration was averted.

November 11, 1917: New York, New York: Fires, started in five different places at once, raged through the huge wire factory of the Washburn Wire Company on the East River at 118th Street. The second alarm brought Deputy Chief Joseph “Smoky Joe” Martin to the scene, who was acting chief of department. Martin immediately transmitted three additional alarms, calling most of the apparatus on the upper end of Manhattan. Oil-soaked floors helped feed the flames and weaken the building. Early in the battle, a wall collapsed, narrowly missing several firefighters and injuring several others. Water Tower 3, and the huge hose wagon of Engine Company 58, were destroyed as the brick wall fell.

November 13, 1917: Buffalo, New York: Captain Edward White, Hook & Ladder 4, a father of six children, was killed when the roof of a blazing vacant building at 63 Chandler Street collapsed. During the initial interior operations, a large section of the front collapsed, trapping 25 firefighters beneath the rubble. Battalion Chief Eimiller and a number of firefighters rushed inside and began the rescue work. Many of the trapped were able to escape with minor injuries, but several, including Captain White, had to have large beams lifted off them.


To read more from Paul Hashagen, visit www.firefighternation.com/author/paul-hashagen.

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