February 1918 Fires

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

February 6, 1918: Newburg, New York: The wharf and warehouses of the Central Hudson Steamboat Company and the J.W. Mathews & Company wholesale grocery warehouse located on the waterfront were destroyed by fire. The fire was ignited by an overheated furnace inside the steamboat warehouse. Arriving firefighters were hampered by frozen hydrants and pipes and had to cut holes through the ice of frozen Hudson River to draft water. The flames spread and partially burned several nearby warehouses.

February 9, 1918: New York, New York: Four men and a woman were killed and three others were injured when flames swept through a sailor’s boarding house at 1 Peck Slip in lower Manhattan. The early morning fire started in the basement and quickly swept up the stairs, cutting off the exit for most of the occupants. A pet cat awoke a family asleep in their second-floor apartment. With flames filling the staircase, the father helped the family and the cat out the window and onto the roof of a small fruit stand. The father began shouting an alarm to the others slumbering inside the blazing building. A passerby dashed off and notified the fire department. Fire companies were soon racing through the deserted streets, heading toward the orange glow in the sky. Arriving first from quarters on Fulton Street was Hook & Ladder Company 10. Several unconscious persons were already sprawled on the sidewalk beneath their windows as firefighters began pulling ladders off their rig. Captain Michael J. O’Donohue of Ladder 10 grabbed a scaling ladder and climbed up to the second floor of the adjoining building on Pearl Street. He then swung across to a window of the burning building and dove inside. The fire officer was able to remove several unconscious people as the flames closed in around him. Firefighters Morris and Mallen of Ladder 15 also saved several unconscious people.

February 12, 1918: Poughkeepsie, New York: Just as 1,000 students were finishing their dinner in the main dining room on the second floor, a fire was discovered in one of the maid’s rooms on the fourth floor of the main building at Vassar College. The students’ fire department tried to control the fire as a call was sent to the Poughkeepsie Fire Department. Ten fire companies rolled to the college and joined the attack. Many valuable relics owned by Matthew Vassar, founder of the college, were destroyed. At the height of the fire there were two other fires in Poughkeepsie and half the firefighters were recalled from the college. They later returned to the school. Several firefighters were overcome by smoke and injured by falling walls. The damages were estimated at $300,000.

February 15, 1918: Montreal, Canada: Flames broke out in the west wing of the Grey Nunnery, a hospital run by the Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns). The building was crowded with more than 1,000 patients, including injured soldiers sent home from the Western Front, crippled men and women, and babies only a few weeks old. As the fire swept across the top floor, soldiers, nuns, and firefighters pressed into the blazing children’s ward, grabbing as many infants as they could find. Fire Chief Marin, one of the first firefighters on the scene, carried out four children in one trip. Injured soldiers pressed forward despite their wounds, including one sergeant who made five trips into the inferno and saved 10 children. All rescue efforts had to be halted as the fire chief realized it had become too dangerous. Patients in cots, wheelchairs, and blankets were carried to safety, but no joy was felt as the fire overwhelmed the top floor. Sadly, 53 infants were lost in this tragic fire.

February 19, 1918: Louisville, Kentucky: Shortly after 7:00 p.m., fire companies responded to 28th Street and Broadway, the site of the big Sunny Brook Distilling Company plant. With winds whipping at 30 mph and the plant’s box factory burning, Captain Edward McCue of Truck 5 sounded a second alarm. Chief Neuenschwander transmitted a third alarm minutes later as embers rained across the distillery warehouse where several millions of dollars of whisky were stored. With reports of the distillery burning, crowds descended on the scene. While responding to the fire, Truck 1 collided with an automobile, injuring one of the fire horses and putting the rig out of service. Just after the box warehouse fire was controlled, another fire was reported in a table manufacturing plant on 16th Street. Once again, McCue was first due and transmitted a second alarm on arrival. Assistant Chief Alex Blache sounded the third alarm a few minutes later as the fire spread to nearby railroad cars. Aggressive firefighting prevented the explosion of gasoline and oils stored in an exposed building nearby.

February 24, 1918: Mt. Sterling, Kentucky: A fire broke out in the basement of the Trader’s National Bank building at 2:30 a.m., gutting the interior of the bank and destroying a barber shop located in the basement. A man sleeping in a room adjacent to the bank was overcome by the thick smoke and was carried out of the building. Prompt action by the fire department limited the spread of the fire and saved several nearby buildings. The bank’s vaults and records were not damaged.

By Paul Hashagen

Paul Hashagen 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.