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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One of the most devastating fires ever faced by the FDNY occurred on St. Patrick’s Day 1899. Thousands of excited spectators lined Fifth Avenue. Inside the Windsor Hotel, a man lighting a cigar while watching the parade accidentally set fire to lace window curtains on the second floor. Within moments, flames were racing upward throughout the building. The initial alarm was transmitted at 3:20 in the afternoon. Before fire companies could work their way through the crowds, the interior stairs were a mass of flames. Firemen swarmed across the front of the seven-story hotel, rescuing people by using aerial ladders, portable ladders and scaling ladders. Despite the best efforts of the fire department, the building began to collapse 20 minutes after their arrival. This horrific event took the lives of 45 people. However, some of the FDNY’s most daring and spectacular rescues were made at this fire. Among those singled out by Battalion Chief John Binns in his report was Howe, who reportedly saved at least eight people.

To the top floor

The city was blanketed with snow on Feb. 17, 1900, when a fire broke out in a five-story building at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. Just as a member of Engine 26 completed a scaling ladder rescue of a woman from a top-floor rear window, a man, William Aiken, became visible trapped at a top-floor front window with smoke pouring out around him. Deputy Chief Thomas Ahearn saw the man and ordered Howe to get him.

Howe charged up the stairs of the building next door and hurried to the window next to the trapped man. Two policemen held Howe’s arm as he stood on the windowsill and leaned toward Aiken. Grabbing the man, Howe helped him up onto the windowsill as smoke and heat swirled around them. Pressing Aiken close, Howe drew him across to his building and with one pull into the safety of the top-floor window. Howe was once again placed on the Roll of Merit.

Nov. 11, 1902, saw the FDNY operating at a very unusual fire. Wooden scaffolding surrounding the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge caught fire and quickly spread upward. Reports of men trapped above prompted Guerin, now a chief, to send Howe, now captain of Ladder 6, and his firefighters to climb up and find the men. With flaming debris and chunks of molten metal raining down, they worked their way up the red-hot tower. After a torturous climb, they reached their objective only to find the extending flames below had cut them off. The wooden ladder they had been climbing moments before was now ablaze. Below, Guerin and the members of Ladder 18 scrambled to raise another ladder toward their trapped friends, while on the river below the crew of the fireboat Boody aimed a rope rifle above the trapped men and fired a perfect shot over their heads. The lightweight rope fell across the trapped men and they quickly hauled up the heavier rope attached to it. On the shore a huge crowd that had gathered to watch the fire burst into applause as Howe and the trapped men used the rope and the newly placed ladder to climb down from their dangerous perch.

The firefighting continued, but with great difficulty. The extreme heights caused hoseline after hoseline to break under their own weight. The flaming scaffolding and footwalks around the bridge collapsed in flames to the streets below, sending firemen and civilians scurrying for cover. Teams of fire horses scared by the flaming debris bolted from the roadway seeking safer ground. Finally, after many hours of backbreaking work, the fire was out. The city sent engineers to examine the steel cables and the bridge’s main supports. Firemen and officers accompanied the inspectors as they made their rounds, concerned about the inability to effectively deliver water to the upper sections of the bridge.

The following year, on June 18, 1903, Howe was placed on the Roll of Merit for heroic actions for the ninth time. Six months later, on Jan. 1, 1904, he was promoted to battalion chief.

Great Baltimore Fire

It was at 1:40 A.M. on Feb. 8, 1904, when the telephone next to Howe’s bed rang. The call was from the acting chief of department, Charles Kruger.

“Is that you, Howe?” Kruger asked.

“Yes,” Howe replied.

“Howe, you are ordered to proceed at once with the companies and apparatus that I designate to Baltimore.”

“What’s that? Baltimore? Where?” Howe rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“Listen to me,” Kruger continued. “There is a big fire raging in Baltimore and the mayor of that city has appealed to Mayor McClellan for help from our department…”

With that, Howe was dressed and out the door heading toward a special ferry boat waiting at Liberty Street that would carry the companies to New Jersey, where a special train waited to take them directly to Baltimore. Nine flat cars carried seven gleaming steam fire engines, several hose tenders and a hook-and-ladder truck, all lashed down securely. Two cars were filled with 35 horses. Two coaches were for Howe and his 85 men and 10 New York City newspaper reporters. Several other companies followed later on another train.