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T he FDNY Department Order dated Dec. 23, 1913, announced the retirement of Battalion Chief John P. Howe at 8 A.M., Dec. 24, 1913. This was, and still is, common practice in the FDNY. All appointments, promotions, retirements, departmental charges and deaths are noted in the orders as a matter of record.
What was unusual about this announcement was that in addition to listing the customary name, date and pension amount, it went on for two paragraphs listing the heroic deeds Howe provided in his 25 years of service. It chronicled the 10 times his name was placed on the department’s Roll of Merit, an unprecedented accomplishment. But even at that, the list of rescues only scratched the surface of a brilliant career.
Just part of the job
Howe’s FDNY career began on Jan. 1, 1890, when he entered the East 28th Street quarters of Ladder Company 7 in Manhattan. A quick learner, he began his career with another young fireman, William Guerin. Together they would rise through the ranks and become chiefs.
Only two weeks into their careers, Ladder 7 was sent to a fire in an oleomargarine factory on East 49th Street. At the height of the blaze, Guerin became disoriented and then overcome in heavy smoke. Howe realized his friend was missing. After alerting his officers and other members of the company, he charged back into the blazing building to search for his missing brother. Forced to the floor by thick, hot smoke, Howe crawled deeper into the blazing factory. Barely able to breathe, he came upon the unconscious Guerin. Grabbing his unconscious friend, Howe dragged him back toward the entrance while calling for help as his head swam with dizziness from the smoke.
Members of Ladder 7 closed in around the men and pulled them to safety. Guerin lay unconscious on the sidewalk with Howe slumped next to him gulping for air. The members of Ladder 7 returned to their firefighting with a different sense of this “new guy.”
The following year, Howe proved himself again during a building fire on Coentis Slip in lower Manhattan. As Ladder 7 arrived, two women were trapped at a fourth-floor window and one of them was climbing out and threatening to jump. As the apparatus slowed, Howe leaped to the ground with a scaling ladder in hand, raced to the building and started up toward the women.
As he reached their window, the heat and smoke behind the women was becoming too much for them to bear. He quickly helped one woman out onto the scaling ladder and passed her to another fireman who had just raced up a portable ladder placed next to Howe. The second woman was quickly removed in the same way. These were the first of Howe’s many rescues. In the era of “iron men and wooden hydrants,” these rescues were not even submitted to headquarters for meritorious consideration. It was just part of the job.
14 saves in 15 minutes
The first time Howe’s name was placed on the Roll of Merit was for his actions at a Pearl Street tenement fire on Jan. 10, 1894. It was 4:30 in the morning when firemen pulled up to the old double tenement. Howe made trip after trip into the blazing building, returning each time with a person pulled from the furnace-like third floor. Howe single-handedly saved the lives of 14 people in 15 minutes. His actions on the upper floors of this building, particularly the rescue of two women, gained notoriety for the young fireman. Conditions became so severe that Howe was badly burned. On May 26, 1895, Mayor William Strong awarded the Pulitzer Medal to Howe in recognition of these rescues. In 1896, Howe was placed on the Roll of Merit on two occasions, for his actions on May 6 and Dec. 30.
Early in the morning of Saturday, Jan. 2, 1897, the bells in the firehouse tore the firemen from their beds and out the doors in a matter of seconds. Howe was driving Ladder 7, a team of three horses pulling the rig swiftly through the Manhattan streets. Behind him was Fireman James Pearl at the tiller wheel. As Ladder 7 turned the corner and thundered onto Lexington Avenue, Howe saw flames shooting up the entire rear of number 94. The bright-orange glow showed fire from the cellar to the roof. Three men were trapped at a second-floor window with heavy smoke and flashes of fire pulsing behind them.