Know Your Enemy #40

A veteran fire officer tells a gripping story of a fatal collapse that caused compulsory retirement to be instituted in New York.


The old "Loft Buildings" of New York tenant factories are well described in an excellent article in December 1992 Firehouse by Lt. (now BC) Harry Hill. Most of the buildings dated back to a building boom right after the Civil War. They had heavy fire loads and provided desperate battles even today, unless sprinklered. We should note however, that any tenant factory in New York is called a Loft Building so this includes high rise fire resistive sprinklered garment, millinery and fur lofts in Midtown Manhattan.

New Years Eve 1946

New years eve 1946 was solemn in the fire department. Six companies were to be disbanded as of midnight, victims of stiff-necked official pride. It was customary to downplay the number of units that served at a fire. If two engine companies combined to get a line to the sixth floor rapidly and cut off the fire (a common practice today), only the engine which supplied the line was credited and so forth. When the city asked the Rand corporation to provide recommendations for elimination of companies, the "no duty" reports doomed several first class units. The breakup of a fire company can only be compared to the breakup of a family of orphan kids, farmed out to relatives. Three of the six disbanded units were involved in the disaster. There was no ceremony honoring those who had served the city so well over the years. At midnight chauffeurs from the shops arrived on the fire ground to take the apparatus of the disbanded companies to the shops.

High Pressure System

Early in the 20th century, it was evident steam pumpers could not reliably deliver the water quantity and pressure needed. A system of high-pressure mains and hydrants was laid in the severe hazard areas. On a box alarm the pressure was raised to 125 psi. (the pressure required to raise the watertower). The pressure could be raised in increments of 25 psi. to a maximum of 300 lbs. The highest pressure I ever saw however was 225 psi. at the Furman Street warehouse fire in 1935. The system was so reliable that on the first alarm, pumpers were left in quarters with the chauffeur, and engine companies responded with just the hose wagon. Pumpers did respond on greater alarms.

It was quite a sight to see all the deck pipe and water tower streams increase in pressure simultaneously. When a hand line was taken from the high-pressure hydrant, a control valve was attached first and set to a suitable pressure. It was like having a pumper already hooked up and lines were placed in service in very short order. The system was really a rapid supply system. Lines could be gotten into service very rapidly. It was abandoned many years ago.

Alarm Responses

In those days companies were heavily manned. A downtown first alarm brought more personnel than all but a few major fire departments had on duty, and very severe fires were fought with just the first alarm assignment. Note that 72 Engine could have a hydrant man, a man on the deckpipe, a man back in quarters with the pumper, and still stretch and operate a 2 1/2 " line on the third floor for over an hour.

During daytime the last due engine was held back for economy. In those days without radios, the signal calling for it notified the buffs of a working fire.

The Fire Patrol

The New York Fire Patrol is the last of the salvage units maintained by insurance companies in a number of cities. The patrol has a proud record. Over the years "patroleos" have made many good rescues. All patrol units carried scaling ladders. To my personal knowledge, Deputy Chief Cashman was a very astute fire officer and this story would not have been written if ACXX had followed his example. He earned a Fire Department medal for rescuing Fireman Harry Murphy of Engine 26 at another fire, the only one ever presented to a non-member of FDNY.

Assistant Chief Tommy O'Brien

Tommy O'Brien is one of my real heroes, and mentors. I first met him as Captain of 65 Engine in 43rd Street opposite Stern Brothers Department Store where I was auditor. He taught me more practical fire fighting hints than I can name. One saved the day at the last fire I commanded for the Navy in 1949. He was always calm and mentally organized at a fire, and gave clear and explicit orders.

It is my opinion that if Tommy O'Brien had been on the scene, the tragedy would never have occurred. He would have told off ACXX in unmistakable "New Yorkese". A man who spent 180 days on the front lines in France in WWI as a machine gunner in New York's Famous Fighting Irish 69th regiment, would hardly back down to an Assistant Chief. He retired as an Assistant Chief.