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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The following telegram was sent to the mayor of Baltimore:

 

Robert M. McLane, Mayor, Baltimore, Md.

Nine fire engines and one hook and ladder company shipped to you on 6:34 o’clock train this morning in charge of battalion chief. The city of New York extends heartfelt sympathy and puts itself at your service. I shall be grateful if you call on me for any assistance New York can lend.

George B. McClellan, Mayor

After some delays, the expeditionary force of New York firemen reached Baltimore. With the winds blowing hard from the northwest, they were sent to the southeast fringe of the fire line to try to stop the fire from spreading to a neighborhood of tenements, lumber yards, factories and icehouses.

Their position was on West Falls Avenue alongside Jones Falls and Dock Street. They moved the seven six-ton engines into position and fired the pumps to their full 1,200-gpm capacity. Numerous lines were stretched and the New Yorkers made a stand. With wind-driven smoke and heat pounding their position, they held their ground and drove back some of the fire. Working in conjunction with the Baltimore fireboat Cataract, the FDNY firemen held their position through the night. With little visibility, they worked continually, taking breaks company by company only to have a sandwich and a cup of warming coffee before returning to the lines.

Howe led members of Engines 5 and 27 in a dangerous attempt to keep the spreading flames from igniting a huge malt warehouse. With the help of reinforcements the line held and the flames were stopped. For hours, they flowed water across the smoldering ruins, helping to ensure the fire was extinguished. Finally, dirty, cold and exhausted, the New Yorkers were ready to go home. The fire was out – their duty was done.

After meeting with Baltimore City Chief August Emrich and accepting his personal thanks and praise, Howe told him, “This is the worst fire I have ever seen. There seemed to be no stopping it when we got here. It was in so many places at once. I don’t believe our men have ever had a harder fight.” Regarding the Baltimore firemen, he told reporters, “The men themselves in this city are plucky fighters and good firemen. The way they have stuck to this fight against awful odds proves that.”

Howe and the New York City firemen had won the admiration and respect of not only the citizens and politicians, but also the Baltimore firefighters and the other cities that responded and operated in Baltimore including Philadelphia, Annapolis, Chester, York and Washington, DC.

The exhausted New Yorkers, who had been awake and operating for more than 48 hours, finally boarded a train for the trip home. Sadly, one FDNY member, Engineer of Steamer Mark Kelly of Engine 16, contracted pneumonia and later died. Howe also became very ill after the Baltimore fire, but refused to go sick. He was finally taken to the hospital on July 10, 1904, suffering from acute inflammatory rheumatism. One notable visitor to the chief was William Aiken, who had been rescued from a fire by Howe three years earlier. After a brief stay, Howe’s condition improved and he returned to work.

It was not long before Howe was performing his heroic acrobatics once again. On May 10, 1908, he responded to a fire at 214 East 65th St. While companies were attacking the fire, two men became visible through the smoke trapped at a fourth-floor window. A ladder was quickly raised, but proved too short. Seeing one of the men climb out and dangle from the windowsill, Howe sprang into action. He dashed to the top rung of a ladder, grabbed the man by the legs and lifted him above his head, then lowered him down to firemen on the ladder below him. Still on the topmost rung, he repeated this feat of strength and balance with the second man. For his actions Howe was awarded a department medal.

Countless lives saved