Saturday Night, September 9, 1848
Edward Crowley, a member of Manhattan Engine 20, was one of a crew pulling their hand pumper to a huge fire in Brooklyn. Like a number of other responding companies, they would travel by ferry across the East River. As the apparatus left quarters and proceeded down Fulton Street toward the docks, Crowley apparently lost his footing and fell. Unable to move out of the way, one of the wheels crushed his skull and he died instantly.
Edward Crowley is surely one of America's first firefighters to be killed in an apparatus accident and may be the first such fatality in New York City. Since that late summer night in 1848, 157 other New York Firefighters have died in apparatus accidents.
The Last Alarm
In 2006, Michael Boucher, Gary Urbanowicz and Frederick Melahn, Jr., published a book detailing line-of-duty deaths in New York City. Their effort commences with a death recorded in 1799 and continues through 2006. It is a fascinating story of America's most celebrated fire department. It is also the documented history of a fire department told through the deaths of its members. Their research provides a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between firefighter fatalities and fire apparatus across two centuries.
The Good Old Days?
New York obtained their first pumping engines in 1731 and the first hose cart in about 1818. Beginning then and for years afterward, hose carts and hand pumpers were pulled by teams of as many as 20 volunteers. Though there may have been a limit to how fast they could go, getting to the fire safely required a good deal of teamwork and coordination. These devices were especially hard to control going downhill and it is unlikely that Crowley was the last firefighter to be killed pulling one.
Firefighters scoffed at the notion that horses might be better suited to pull fire apparatus and the competition between men and horses was fierce and legendary. The first documented use of horses for this purpose is in about 1828. In 1832 a devastating Cholera epidemic struck New York and horses were forced into service to pull fire apparatus as so many firefighters were felled by the disease. In that year Hook and Ladder #1 purchased the first horse for $88; it lasted four years.
In exploring the underlying causes of apparatus related deaths it's appropriate to distinguish between the volunteer and paid departments. In the period covered by The Last Alarm, there were 12 discernable apparatus fatalities during the 65 years between 1800 and 1865, the height of the volunteer era. We can assume that because of the paucity of records there were probably more volunteer deaths related to accidents that were not recorded. However, in the 65 years (1865-1930) following the creation of the paid department, there were 82 deaths. This represents an almost 700 percent increase in the fatality rate. As will be discussed later, there does not seem to be a direct relationship between the number of runs and the number of fatalities in the sense that a busier fire department might be presumed to automatically account for increasing apparatus related deaths.
From 1865 through the end of the 19th century there was an average of one firefighter killed every other year in an apparatus related accident in the city. Firefighters variously pulled the pumpers by hand, or ran along with the rigs or rode on them as they were pulled to fires. A large number of these fatalities were from being run over by the apparatus or the horses.
Types of Rigs
There was a gradual transition in types of apparatus and their means of locomotion and during key periods there were a variety of different types in use at the same time. In the 1850s the first steamers were placed in service including a few that were self-propelled. Predictably, they were scoffed at for a variety of reasons. An 1850 plan dividing the city into eight fire districts and limiting responses to companies from just two districts as opposed to city-wide may have reduced the number of apparatus accidents as fewer companies were responding to an alarm.