January 1918 Fires

Boston Engine Company 8 battled a four-alarm fire and tough winter conditions on January 17, 1925. (Photo courtesy of the Paul Hashagen collection.)

In this month’s column, I present historic fires or significant events in the fire service from January 1918. A reminder: Readers are encouraged to share information from their departments.

January 1, 1918: Norfolk, Virginia: Nearly two blocks of buildings in the heart of the business district, including the Monticello Hotel, were destroyed by a series of explosions and fires. The fire started before dawn in the old Granby Theatre on Granby Street and spread quickly. Arriving firefighters were faced with an advanced fire, frozen hydrants, low water pressure, and near-zero temperatures. The growing flames soon ignited the nearby hotel. Three distinct explosions in as many buildings, one after the fire had been brought under control, led to the belief the fires were intentionally set. Mutual aid from Portsmouth, Suffolk, and naval fire brigades joined forces and heroically battled the fire. With no water, firefighters watched helplessly as the hotel filled with flames. Fires were ignited around the frozen fire hydrants and, when water finally flowed, the low pressure kept the streams from reaching the top floors. One firefighter, Charles McCoy, was killed and seven others were hurt when the upper floors of the hotel collapsed. Blue-jacketed sailors led the rescue work and helped remove several badly injured firefighters. As soon as the fire was contained, the area was flooded with agents of the Department of Justice, who rounded up several possible enemy agents. (German destroying agents had been setting fires across the country in an attempt to stop ships and supplies bound for the war in Europe.)

January 3, 1918: New York, New York: One of the toughest nights of firefighting in FDNY history saw 500 firefighters, some coated in layers of ice, battling a series of fires under brutal winter weather conditions. While Chief Kenlon was directing operations at a three-alarm fire in a six-story loft building at 444 Broadway, another fire broke out at 142 Mulberry Street inside a six-story paper box company. This fire required four alarms and 27 pieces of fire apparatus to control. A strong wind blew the water spray across the fireground, freezing everything in sight. Just as the firefighters were gaining the upper hand, two huge high-pressure water mains burst at 12th and West Streets. Two hours later, personnel battled another two-alarm fire in a four-story loft building at 28 Howard Street. Then, an hour after that job, another fire was reported at 305 East 43rd Street, a picture frame factory. This fire also required three alarms to control. Firefighter John Frein of Engine 65 was killed when the roof of the five-story building collapsed into the third floor, trapping several members of the engine company.

January 12, 1918: Boston, Massachusetts: One of the most difficult cellar fires in years was battled at 3:00 a.m. in Healy’s Hotel on Washington Street. The smoky fire caused the evacuation of all the guests sleeping in the rooms above while nozzle teams attempted to penetrate to the seat of the fire deep in the rear of the cellar. The dense, noxious smoke in the long low-ceiling cellar overcame Captain Krake of Engine 7 and a number of firefighters. Even the rescue squad, using smoke helmets, found extreme conditions. Falling sections of ceiling and a maze of pipes hampered their efforts. The floors above were breached and cellar pipes were employed to extinguish the stubborn fire.

January 13, 1918: Indianapolis, Indiana: A fire in the huge 200- × 600-foot four-story industrial building, housing 23 manufacturing companies, destroyed the building and quickly spread to nearby structures. Fire Chief Loucks believed the fire to be incendiary in origin, with several of the manufacturers working under government contracts. High winds fanned the flames and showered the neighborhood with embers and sparks, igniting five homes, a church, a grocery store, and a tavern.

January 15, 1918: Bryan, Texas: Flames broke out in the second floor of the First National Bank Building, a two-story 50- × 100-foot brick building. The first floor contained the bank and commercial stores and the upper floor had lodge rooms, offices, and a pool hall. It was believed careless smoking in the pool room ignited the fire. The alarm was received at 1:30 a.m., sending a motor triple combination chemical and hose truck and a hose wagon. Firefighters laid 1,500 feet of hose to secure four hydrant streams. Under the command of Chief Jenkins, 16 firefighters battled the fire for three hours. Because of their excellent work, the fire was contained to the upper floor and did not spread to the exposures.

January 26, 1918: Newark, New Jersey: A Port of Newark guard noticed flames pouring from a group of scows and fired his rifle several times into the air, alerting others of the danger. One of the scows, each containing about 600 barrels of oil, drifted away and ignited nearby piers. A large body of fire now endangered the entire complex: the shipyards of the Submarine Boat Corporation and the new buildings of the Army Quartermaster Corps shipping base. Chief Paul Moore arrived and called for all the fire apparatus in Newark to respond to the scene. The flames rapidly extended to nearby piers and government buildings. Engines 14 and 24, which were among the first to arrive, were overwhelmed within a half hour by the expanding flames and dense smoke. With conditions becoming unbearable, they had to abandon their position. A slight change in wind direction allowed them to return to their paint-blistered pumpers, which amazingly were still operating. FDNY fireboats were requested and had to carefully navigate the ice-clogged river to join the attack. The flames destroyed $1.5 million in property.

January 30, 1918: London, England: A fire was reported in a three-story warehouse at the Albert Embankment. The fire was fought for two hours by three engines, an escape ladder, and 25 firefighters and subofficers. Although the fire was not very large, a dense fog held the thick smoke down and made operations difficult. While in the overhauling stage, Brigade Superintendent Barrow ordered everyone to “drop everything and run!” as the building above started to give way. The building collapsed, injuring many and killing seven firefighters.

By Paul Hashagen

Paul Hashagencwxtubaccyduxrscebwcefseyaxrbdzddwc is a 40-year veteran of the fire service. He retired from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) after 25 years of service, with 20 of those years in Rescue Company 1. Hashagen is a former chief of the Freeport (NY) Fire Department and is still a member of Truck Company 1. He has written several books and numerous stories on the history of the fire service, including his new book Stories of Fire and One Hundred Years of Valor: Rescue Company 1 New York City Fire Department Rescue 1915-2015, both of which are available at paulhashagen.com. Visit his Facebook page at Paul Hashagen-author.