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.


I walked back and met ABC Ermentraut on the corner of 8th Street and Broadway and he had the men of Engine 72 and Engine 33 with him. When I told him what happened he said, "I had the companies lash their lines, and then I backed them out for their own safety. They have taken severe punishment for over an hour and I am going to take them into the Drugstore where Dr. Archer has a first aid station set up and see that they get oxygen treatment."

I then went to the front of the fire building where I met ACXX who had just ordered H&L 3, H&L 5 & H&L 9 along with ADC Hogan and BC Kirschenheiter (2nd Battalion) to go into the stairway, recover the two lines, advance them into the 3rd floor and stretch a third line to back up the first two.

They were only in there a couple of minutes when Chief Hogan, Chief Kirschenheiter and Captain Maguire, H&L 5, came out and told ACXX that there was an impending collapse and that the companies should be backed out. Chief XX used the same language that he had used in the rear accusing them and their men of being a bunch of fakers and cowards.

At that point the three officers complied with ACXX's orders and went back into the building. At that point I went over to the front and was just about to start up the stairway when there was a tremendous roar and a push of smoke and heat. I thought that the building had exploded. I had never seen a collapse before so I made a run for it and wound up under Water Tower 2. When I regained my feet I went back to the doorway where I met Captain Winter and a couple of men from H&L 3 staggering out and obviously injured. They told me that a collapse had occurred and the others were trapped in there.

At that point I went looking for ACXX in vain, but once again did find Fire Patrol Deputy Chief Bill Cashman. He told me that Fire Commissioner Quayle was in the First Aid Station on the corner and to tell him what happened and that a fourth alarm was needed.

Commissioner Quayle, who had attended many big fires, had a sort of "what did you expect?" attitude when I told him that the interior had collapsed. "There are three truck companies in there and we need a fourth alarm!" I shouted. "Send it by my orders" Quayle said. In fact as a civilian commissioner he had no such authority. The dispatcher taking the alarm by telephone wisely covered himself by noting that it was ordered by the Commissioner, on his work sheet. The time was 7:16 a.m., nearly two hours into the fire department response and Lord knows how long into the fire.

The fourth alarm brought six more engine companies, an H&L company, and the 7th Battalion in the person of a most competent chief officer Thomas P. "Tommy" O'Brien. He naturally looked for ACXX to report in, but he was nowhere to be seen.

At that point he spotted me and said, "Jack, what's going on here"? When I told him that there had been a collapse and that three companies were trapped, he seized command.

At that point things started to go right for the first time in the entire operation. O'Brien characteristically took a few seconds to calm down a firefighter who was crying. With an arm around his shoulder he said, "We're going to get organized here and get those guys out. Help raise that 35' ladder to the third floor."

He ascended it followed by his Aide (his brother Eddie) and myself. We were only able to walk in about 25 feet when we came to the rim of the collapse. Chief O'Brien ordered up a 25' ladder. When the ladder was lowered down on the pile, Chief O'Brien descended the ladder followed by his brother Eddie and myself. We had only gone a few feet onto the pile of debris when we heard cries and moans from the trapped men. One man, Harry Harriendorf (Aide to ADC Hogan of the 2nd Division) was lying on top of the pile. We aided him up and down ladders to the ambulance.

In the meantime, Acting Chief of Department Frank Murphy took command. Fire Commissioner Frank J. Quayle talked to ADC Hogan in the hospital before he died, returned to the scene and ordered ACXX back to quarters, there to submit his retirement application forthwith.

One by one the entrapped men were removed in an operation that lasted into the night and early morning hours until the last man was dug out. There was still heavy fire in what remained of the upper floor necessitating the use of the water tower and the deckpipe streams. That added to the danger of the rescuers.