The Equitable Building Fire

In its day, no other private business building in the world could compare with the Equitable Life Assurance Building in New York City in respect to the magnitude of the monetary interests assembled under its roof. Several billion dollars in securities...


In its day, no other private business building in the world could compare with the Equitable Life Assurance Building in New York City in respect to the magnitude of the monetary interests assembled under its roof. Several billion dollars in securities, stocks, bonds and cash were stored in its...


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By now, 22 engines, two water towers and 10 trucks were working. Water was freezing in the air as streams were directed toward the raging flames. Ice was forming on everything in and around the burning building. The waiters became visible on the roof and Kenlon ordered a rescue attempt to commence. Using scaling ladders, Engineer of Steamer Charles W. Rankin of Engine 33 and Fireman Francis Blessing, Kenlon’s chauffeur, began working their way toward the men trapped on the mansard roof. This path proved to be nearly impassable due to copingstones that extended four feet from the building’s face.

As the ladder team tried to work around the obstruction, another four-man team raced to the 10-story building across the street. Fireman James F. Molloy of Engine 32 climbed onto the edge of the roof. While he was being held, he leaned out as far as he could and fired a rope-rifle shot to the trapped men. The small line, with a larger rope attached, was quickly pulled across by the waiters and tied off. As this rope was made taut, a huge flame shot from the burning building and burned the rope away in seconds. Dense smoke covered the entire top of the building for a few moments. The victims huddled on a small piece of coping as the roof they had been standing on moments before had fallen away as the interior of the building collapsed in on itself. Rankin held tightly as the collapsing building shook violently. Blessing straddled an aerial ladder and slid to safety. Above them, the waiters lost their battle with the flames and jumped to their deaths. Rankin then worked his way to safety.

Inside the building was Battalion Chief William Walsh, who had led a group of 14 firemen up a ladder to complete searches on the fourth floor. A few minutes later the call to leave the building was given. As Walsh, Captain Charles Bass of Engine 4, Fireman James G. Brown of Ladder 1 and several other men were leaving the fourth floor the building caved in with a loud roar. Most of the firemen escaped, but several – including Walsh and Bass – were buried in the rubble.

Brown was hurled through a door into another wing of the building by the air pressure of the collapse. He immediately returned to where he knew the fire officers were trapped and began digging toward the sound of Bass’ weakening voice somewhere below. Brown found the severely injured and unconscious captain, dug him clear and carried him across the flaming debris pile to a ladder, where he handed him off to members of Ladder 8. A squad of firemen then descended on the collapse area and tried to locate Walsh in the rubble.

At the time of the fire, William Giblin, president of the Mercantile Savings Deposit Co., had gone to his office in the cellar to safeguard securities entrusted to his firm. The office windows, looking out on the Broadway sidewalk, were protected with a screen of bowed-out steel bars two inches in diameter. Giblin, two clerks named Peck and Siebert and watchmen William Campion and William Sheehan were busy in the office as the flames began eating into the inner walls. When the building caved in, Peck and Siebert fled through a door to Cedar Street. But then the door slammed shut and the warped frame locked it fast. The burning debris from above was piled about the vault like coal in a furnace.

Fire Commissioner Johnson and a department chaplain, Father Vincent de Paul McGean, were standing nearby and heard the cries of help from Giblin and Sheehan. Pressed close to the bars, Giblin and Sheehan were forced into a crouch by the fallen ceiling. Rankin and Fireman James Dunn of Engine 6 moved to the window and began sawing the bars in hopes of freeing the trapped men.

 

FDNY’s first borough call

With a major fire and building collapse and men missing, Kenlon took historic action – the first borough call in FDNY history was transmitted, calling Brooklyn companies to the Manhattan fire. Learning that Brooklyn units would be responding, Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo (who had resigned as fire commissioner shortly after the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911), who was at the fire, ordered police officers to shut down the Brooklyn Bridge to facilitate the response. Minutes later, a long line of Brooklyn engines and trucks, each steam engine trailing a line of black smoke from its boiler, rolled straight across the bridge into Manhattan.

Nine engines, four hook and ladder trucks, a water tower, a searchlight engine and all the associated hose tenders rolled into the scene under the command of Chief Thomas Lally. The Brooklyn chief also brought an additional two deputies and nine more battalion chiefs with him to the scene.