September 1916 Fires

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In this month’s column, I present historic fires or significant events in the fire service from September 1916. A reminder: Readers are encouraged to share information from their departments.

September 2, 1916: Harlem, New York: Hundreds of people watched as two members of Ladder 40, Firefighters Bowler and Boldauf, mounted the aerial ladder even before the hook and ladder apparatus had come to a stop. Using the spring-loaded aspect of the ladder, their comrades feverishly worked to position and extend the ladder. Flames poured from the first-floor tailor shop, shooting up an airshaft and the interior stairs, flooding each floor with waves of fire.

On the fourth floor, a 48-year-old woman and her 26-year-old son were cut off by the flames and driven to the front windows crying for help. As the ladder reached the fourth floor, flames burst out the window over their heads, showering them all with broken glass. Bowler reached in and pulled the woman clear, quickly handing her to Boldauf. Two other firefighters, Kruger and Walker, climbed over the first team as they began to slide the burned woman down the ladder. Kruger and Walker then pulled the son to safety as the crowd below cheered.

September 4, 1916: Staten Island, New York: It was just after 6:00 p.m. when a fire broke out in the kitchen of Michael’s Restaurant, located at the extreme southern end of the beach. The flames spread quickly from an overturned pot of grease. The alarm was raised, and a bucket brigade was started by bathers before the fire apparatus arrived. Driven by a strong sea breeze, the fire in the fully involved building showered nearby bungalows with flaming embers as the first engines arrived. They promptly sunk into the sand and were rendered useless.

The flames continued. Two cottages were also aflame as a chemical engine rolled in. This too proved ineffective, as the body of fire was far greater than the stream the rig could develop. In all, the two-hour battle left the restaurant, a bowling alley, two bungalows, and numerous tents destroyed by the flames.

September 5, 1916: Oak Park, Illinois: It was 5:45 a.m. when lightning struck the First Congressional Church. At 6:00, the motorman on a passing street car noticed smoke and sent in the alarm. The department responded with an American LaFrance motorized pumping engine and a Thomas motorized pumping engine, finding the steeple and upper parts of the church in flames. Aid was requested from Chicago. Two engines responded to the scene. Firefighters worked skillfully for two hours. They were able to extinguish the fire and protect the adjoining parish house. In all, six streams were played on the fire.

September 13, 1916: Waterbury, Connecticut: Eight unconscious firefighters were removed and rushed to local hospitals after they were injured battling a difficult hotel fire. The old hotel housed more than 100 people, many of whom worked in local munitions factories. These tenants, of several nationalities, spoke a variety of languages, prompting the hotel’s local nickname, “The Tower of Babel.” The cellar fire proved extremely difficult, as a broken illuminating gas pipe fed gas into the already heavy smoke.

September 14, 1916: Verdi, Nevada: Four automobiles filled with cross-country tourists traveling on the Lincoln Highway stopped when the occupants saw a large fire raging out of control in a lumber yard situated at the foot of the Sierras.

Several million feet of lumber were ablaze, igniting a nearby school and threatening other buildings when the Good Samaritans stopped and joined local firefighters struggling to hold the flames attacking the freshly burning high school.

While firefighters concentrated their efforts on the blazing lumber yard, the vacationers took charge of protecting the school and a bridge, both of which they saved. Carrying buckets and bags of water from the Truckee River, they doused flames and wet threatened surfaces. Two of the travelers spent the night extinguishing embers as they landed on the school’s roof.

September 15, 1916: Carney’s Point, New Jersey: Six workers were seriously injured by an explosion in the DuPont Plant. Flames, possibly caused by a piece of metal falling into the smokeless powder in a mixing tower, caused an explosion that spread the fire. While working in the tower, 13 other workers were also injured by the blast. They exited the blazing tower by sliding down chutes. Local firefighters arrived to find the tower engulfed in flames, with secondary explosions of stored powder sending flaming debris arcing through the air.

September 17, 1916: Paterson, New Jersey: Shortly after midnight, an explosion tore through the chemical plant of a silk drying company. The one-story brick 100- × 300-foot building was quickly in flames. Firefighters were able to protect two nearby barns and a home despite the intense radiant heat. The huge plant, said to be the largest skein silk dyeing concern in the world, employed 6,000 people.

September 24, 1916: Phoenix, New York: It was just after 11:00 p.m. when sparks from a generator ignited a fire in a chair factory in the business section of the village. The fire spread to the pump house next door, as the fire department responded to the scene. Within minutes, the flames put the pumps out of service, thereby effectively eliminating any source of firefighting water.

Mutual aid was requested from the Syracuse Fire Department, 16 miles away. Moments later, all communication to the outside world was lost as telegraph and telephone lines went down. Flames, driven by strong winds, leaped from building to building and even jumped a canal, until 20 were burning at the same time. Firefighters continued trying to save whatever they could, with several getting burn injuries in the process. In all, 80 building were destroyed.

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