The Baltimore City Fire Department's Worst Night
By V.B. MORRIS
F rom late 1949 until the end of 1954, a total of 13 Baltimore City firemen died in a series of most unfortunate vehicle collisions, heart attacks on the fireground and a backdraft explosion. There was little open discussion, but firefighters, buffs and the public alike hoped for a better record in 1955. It was not to be.
On Tuesday evening, Feb. 16, 1955, I was at home monitoring the Baltimore City Fire Department radio communications frequency. The system was still new and novel. It had become operational in 1953. Earlier, the fire department was provided limited service by the Baltimore police radio communications system.
At 9:02 P.M., the attention beeps were transmitted and Box 12, Baltimore and Frederick streets, was announced. I knew Engine 32, Truck 1, Hose 1 and Deputy Chief 2 were responding from their Gay Street station two blocks away. Three additional engines, another truck and a battalion chief were responding from more distant stations. Box 12 was located near the eastern end of Baltimore's downtown area in a declining area of mixed retail and commercial occupancies barely within Baltimore's "Block." Actually several blocks, it was an adult entertainment area of striptease bars, burlesque theaters and cheap movie houses.
In the 1950s, Box 12 was sometimes pulled for false alarms by overindulgers and other celebrants visiting the Block. I suspected another false alarm. At 9:06, the attention beeps were followed by the announcement of the second alarm for Box 12. A second alarm meant they had a real fire. The first-alarm response was more than adequate to handle all but major fires. The second alarm essentially doubled the response with three more engines, the rescue company, two more trucks, an additional hose company and another battalion chief. Hose companies were assigned to Box 12 because the area was then served by Baltimore's since-abandoned high-pressure system. The high-pressure system covered all of the area lost in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and somewhat more. All of the buildings in the area had been constructed after the Great Fire.
On hearing the second alarm, I immediately drove to the fire from my home a little more than three miles to the north. By 9:20, I was on the sidewalk opposite the Tru-Fit Clothing Company. The third-alarm companies were moving in. The third alarm had been struck out at 9:13, summoning four more engine companies. Smoke was heavy close to the building, but no fire was showing from the front. Many 2Â½-inch and three-inch lines had been run into the front of the building and more were being stretched.
I worked my way around the rear of the building. There was more smoke, but no fire. Because of the dense adjoining of commercial buildings, then typical of downtown Baltimore, access was limited in the rear. I met several of my fire buff friends and we discussed the situation. We concluded that there must be heavy fire in the basement and they were having trouble getting to it. We all knew the problems involved in fighting cellar fires in old, large commercial buildings. It looked like it might be a long, drawn-out inside attack with the firemen taking quite a beating. The weather was rather mild for mid-February in Baltimore, well above freezing and no threat of rain. We were grateful that bad weather was not adding to the punishment the men trying to reach the fire were enduring.
From outside the building it was difficult to assess progress in fighting the fire. At 9:33, a fourth alarm was transmitted, bringing four additional engines and two more trucks. Because so little of the firefighting activity was visible, we walked west one block to Gay Street to watch the fourth-alarm companies from South Baltimore roll in. Truck 6, a then-new 1954 cab-ahead American LaFrance, turned from Pratt Street into Gay and came north three blocks to Baltimore Street, red lights flashing and siren wailing.
The hose companies had been positioned on Baltimore Street in front of the Tru-Fit building so that their monitors could be used on the fire building or adjacent buildings, should that become necessary. Engine companies with monitors had also been moved into position. The monitors were never used.
The fifth alarm was transmitted at 9:49 and the sixth at 10:17. Each of these alarms brought four additional engine companies. Soon, a total of 23 engines, six trucks, two hose wagons, one rescue, one water tower and at least six chiefs' cars were on the scene. A most impressive assembly of firefighting equipment, but from the exterior, the fire remained remarkably unspectacular. It was apparent that additional alarms were being transmitted to provide more manpower. By 10:40, the smoke had abated and it looked as though a long overhaul would soon begin, but no recall was sent. Some of the buffs left the scene.
Shortly after 10:50, several firemen came running from the building, shouting for ropes and short ladders. It was the only occasion in more than a half century of observing the Baltimore City Fire Department that I ever saw any evidence of their even momentarily having lost their composure. It was little more than a fleeting instant. Composure was quickly regained and a third alarm was struck out for the nearest adjacent box, Box 1222, the house box for the fire stations on Gay Street.
We learned that a building collapse had occurred completely without warning and with almost no sound. Many men were in the collapse, trapped, injured and maybe dead. The third alarm on Box 1222 had been transmitted to bring many additional firemen to the scene to perform the excavation and rescue of those in the collapse.
The awful business of waiting for word on who was trapped, injured, or dead began. We learned that Fire Chief Michael Lotz had survived the collapse, but others had not. Wisely, the firemen withheld details from the buffs and reporters. Later, we learned that there were many fatalities. For the rest of that night and for quite a long time, there was no fun in being a fire buff. We saw that digging out the men trapped would require hours and there was nothing we buffs could do.
Chief of the New York City Fire Department Edward Croker said it best a long time ago, in 1908: "They know it, every man of them...firefighting is a hazardous occupation, it is dangerous on the face of it, tackling a burning building. The risks are plain...consequently, when a man becomes a fireman, his act of bravery has already been accomplished."