Rekindles sidebar 12/13: FDNY Battalion Chief John Howe: A Fireman's Fireman

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...


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Sizing-up the dangerous situation, Howe stomped the brakes, jumped from his seat and dashed to the adjoining building with Pearl close behind. Up the stairs to the front window they bounded. Howe battered out the window and sash, then stretched his body outside, stepping up onto the sill while grasping the lintel. Pearl, a strong stocky man over six feet tall, moved in behind Howe and grabbed his leg.

Glancing down, Howe saw an iron fence with sharp pickets directly below him. There was no room for error. The trapped men were still screaming for help only five feet away – a long five feet. Howe stretched farther, sliding his foot across the gap between the windows. Feeling the small foothold, he was now completely out and saw the iron pickets directly below him.

The first trapped man, Max Henschel, reached out for help. Howe pulled Henschel up and pressed him into the bricks, protecting him with his body as smoke and jets of flame pumped from the window nearby. He inched the man across the building’s front and handed him to Pearl. Howe then went and reached for the second man, Augustus Whiting. He brought Whiting across in a similar manner and handed him off to Pearl. The big fireman jerked Whiting into the room and dropped him on the floor with one hand while maintaining his grip on Howe. “Now for the other, John,” Pearl said.

Howe paused – his skin was burned and his lungs stung from the hot smoke he had swallowed. With his head swimming, he took a deep breath. Before he could ready himself, the third man, the heavyset Frederick Schmidt, jumped onto Howe’s head and shoulders, wrapping his arms around Howe’s neck. The noisy crowd below gasped, then quickly fell silent as Howe struggled to maintain his balance as his legs slowly bent beneath him. Every muscle in his body fought to stay rigid beneath the new weight he held.

Below, members of Ladder 7 hurried a portable ladder into position. The window belched another sheet of flame and smoke that enveloped Howe and his charge. Losing his grip of the lintel, Howe clutched Schmidt close; the fence points below sharp in his mind. Inside, Pearl dug his legs into the wall beneath the window, forcing his muscles to find an anchor as the weight of both men threatened to pull them all to the ground. They remained in this perilous situation for several agonizing seconds – Howe trying to straighten himself and pull the heavy man upright, the man straining to maintain a hold of the fireman and Pearl inside the building using his knees and waist as a lever hoping to overcome the pull of the two men dangling in his grip.

Below, firemen raised the ladder close to the dangling victim. The ladder brushed his foot as it rattled against the building’s facade. Howe was still struggling to keep his balance and Pearl’s last ounce of leverage all headed in the same direction. Suddenly, the tangled mass of firemen and victim moved slightly back toward the building. Sensing this subtle change, Pearl summoned all of his strength, pulling his massive arms and shoulders back with one sharp move.

Like a slingshot the heavy Schmidt flew toward Pearl, crashing through the remains of the upper-window sash in a shower of broken glass and splintered wood. He slid halfway across the room and watched as Pearl pulled Howe safely into the room.

The two exhausted firemen looked at each other. “Hurt?” asked Pearl.

“Nope. Sick with the smoke,” Howe answered, bent at the waist from exhaustion.

“I’ll call the ambulance for you and this fat fellow – he seems kind of done up too,” Pearl said, walking his partner toward the stairs.

Back to work

Howe’s stay in the hospital was short. He soon was back driving Ladder 7. Four days after the Lexington Avenue fire, Ladder 7 rolled up to a blazing store on Fifth Avenue. It was Wednesday night, Jan. 6, when Howe rushed up a ladder to the top floor and plunged into the thick smoke. Searching under extreme conditions, Howe found an unconscious man and dragged him back to the window. Howe wrestled the man onto the ladder and carried him down to the street. Howe’s name was placed on the Roll of Merit for the second time in a week.

On May 26, 1898, Howe and Pearl were called to the office of Fire Commissioner John Scannell on East 67th Street. Pearl was awarded the James Gordon Bennett Medal and Howe, recently promoted to assistant foreman (lieutenant) and assigned to Engine Company 21, received the Hugh Bonner Medal for their rescues on Lexington Avenue.