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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Seneca Larke Jr., with the rank of engineer of steamer, had been running the searchlight engine, a rig invented by then-Chief of Department Edward F. Croker 10 years earlier. The rig featured large theatrical spotlights to aid firefighters working at night. With daylight breaking, Larke left his searchlight and volunteered his services to Kenlon. He explained that as a former ironworker he knew techniques that would enable him to do the job. Although reluctant to put the 37-year-old father of six into such a hazardous position, the chief agreed.
With a new saw and a number of blades, Larke relieved Rankin and Dunn, who had little success thus far. Larke lay on his stomach by the barred window and began cutting. Water was pouring down onto him by the barrelful, freezing as it fell. Broken stones, glass, flaming embers, and debris fell on Larke and Father McGean, in position to give last rites to the imprisoned if the rescue failed.
Firefighters directed a hose stream into the cellar from time to time to control fire near the trapped men. After nearly an hour, the first bar was cut free, but the opening was not large enough. Larke continued cutting, stopping only to change worn or broken saw blades. A large stone fell on Larke’s back, momentarily paralyzing him. Despite orders from both the chief and the commissioner to withdraw, Larke refused to stop cutting. Dunn had stayed nearby to help bend the bars back and chip ice from Larke’s coat so his arms could move freely.
The rescue operation was almost an hour-and-a-half old when Giblin told Larke that Campion was dead. Father McGean began his prayers as Larke sawed with renewed vigor. After nearly a half-hour more, the second bar gave way and was pulled clear. Larke called for help. Giblin and Sheehan were pulled to safety and hurried to a nearby hospital. Larke was also hospitalized.
The rescue work was done, but the flames had to be controlled before firemen could safely venture in and begin recovering the dead, imprisoned in the ice-covered tomb, and recover the valuables still inside the building’s safes.
World financial markets were in a near panic as word spread that billions of dollars in stocks, bonds and securities could have been lost. In London, stocks took sharp losses as exaggerated accounts of the fire caused sell-offs of many stocks. New York bankers tried to calm fears and prevent a worldwide financial meltdown. On Jan. 11, under a guard of 150 policemen and 50 Burns detectives covering every possible approach, officers and clerks of the Equitable Trust Co. and Mercantile Trust Co. removed $375 million in securities and $10 million in cash from the ice-coated vaults. On Feb. 4, the procedure was repeated as another large safe was located in the rubble. Securities valued at $282 million were recovered.
On Jan. 13, four days after the fire started, workers located the body of the missing chief. It took an additional four hours of difficult work under the direction of Binns and Battalion Chief “Smoky Joe” Martin for workers to completely uncover the chief. Firemen moved in and in a solemn procession, including 50 men from the Second Division (Walsh’s command), removed Walsh’s body and carried him from the frozen ruins. The following day, after eight hours of dangerous work, the body of Campion, his hand still frozen to an iron bar, was carefully removed from the cellar. On Nov. 16, 1912, Bass died from injuries received in the collapse.
New York has witnessed many fires and many great rescues, but it is doubtful that in the days of horses and wooden ladders that any surpassed the acts of heroism performed at the Equitable Building fire.
Author’s note: This is an expanded version of my first published article that appeared in WNYF, the official FDNY magazine, in 1988. There were several small historical errors in the original that I have corrected in this version. n