50th Anniversary: Tru-Fit Clothing Company Fire

Feb. 16, 2005, started out as a sunny day with the temperature hovering just above 50 degrees. Just about noontime, a weather front blew in from the west, bringing cold rain showers and blustery winds. The Baltimore City Fire Department had planned a ceremony to honor six of its members who were killed at the Tru-Fit Clothing Company fire on Feb. 16, 1955. The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 6:30 P.M. and the weather was causing great concern that the ceremony would have to be relocated from the site of the tragic fire in the 500 block of East Baltimore Street to the Baltimore City Fire Museum and quarters of Box 414, six blocks to the north on Gay Street. As a decision was being made, the skies cleared, but the cold northwesterly winds remained. The decision was made to proceed with the original plan at the Baltimore Street location.

On Feb. 16, 1955, Box 12 at Baltimore and Frederick streets was sounded at 9:02 P.M. for a fire at the Tru-Fit Clothing Company at 507-509 East Baltimore St. This location was less than a block away from the quarters of Engine Company 32, Truck Company 1, Hose Company 1 and Deputy Chief 2. Confronted with a very smoky fire in a three-story commercial building, additional alarms were sounded quickly. The second alarm was transmitted at 9:06, the third alarm at 9:13, the fourth alarm at 9:33, the fifth alarm at 9:49 and the sixth alarm at 10:17. During the years that Baltimore City used a fire alarm system based on bells, street boxes and prescribed responses with box assignment cards, only six alarms would be listed for each box. If additional alarms were needed, the next-closest street box would be used and was known as "the adjacent box."

Shortly before 10:55 P.M., a collapse of the rear one-story section of the building occurred, burying many firefighters who were involved in the overhaul operation. Fire Chief Michael H. Lotz, who was also injured, ordered three additional alarms from "the adjacent box," which happened to be the "house box' of Truck Company 1 on Gay Street just south of Baltimore Street. This call summoned additional units to assist in the rescue and recovery of those who were buried and trapped in the debris.

This year's ceremony commenced at 6:30 P.M. with simulated dispatch messages that were broadcast over the department's 800 megahertz radio system and simulcast through a patch to one of the department's VHF channels as well. Those in attendance at the ceremony heard the dispatch message through the public address system at the podium. As the names of those who were lost 50 years ago were broadcast, a wave of emotion swept through the audience. The surviving family members were especially impacted, as were retired members of the department and others who were on the scene of the tragic fire 50 years ago.

Baltimore City Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. offered an inspiring message to everyone, offering assurance that those who were lost will not be forgotten. He unveiled a commemorative plaque that will be placed on the wall of Baltimore's Central District Police building just opposite the site of the fire. Goodwin presented replicas of the plaque to the presidents of the fire officers' union and the firefighters' union for display at their respective headquarters, which both happen to be former Baltimore City firehouses.

Fire Commissioner Stuart Nathan concluded his remarks from the podium by saying, "We must never forget them. We will never forget them." Several speakers gave personal accounts of their experiences at the scene of the fire. Included was James Crockett, who is the current president of the Board of Fire Commissioners and one of the first African American members of the Baltimore City Fire Department. He recalled that all of the city's off-duty members reported back to work on that fateful evening and that he and others dug through the rubble to rescue or recover those buried in the collapse. Retired Captain John Harvey described his experiences surrounding the moment of the collapse and his perception of what is was like to remove the dead and injured from the debris.

Staff Chief John R. Frazier Jr. offered his remarks from the perspective of the son of a chief officer who was called to fight the fire. Chief John R. Frazier Sr. had responded as an acting battalion chief. At this year's ceremony, Frazier presented bricks that he had recovered from the debris to Goodwin, the presidents of the unions and the president of The Box 414 Association for its museum.

Surviving members of the fire from the BCFD and others who were on scene provided many stories associated with the events at time of the collapse. Firefighters sliding down wooden truss ladders, some clinging to parts of the building, descriptions of how it feels to fall several floors, and vivid recollections of the aftermath in terms of facial expressions and statements made by those who "just got out in time" are very representative.

One compelling recollection was of Captain Martin C. McMahon, head of the ambulance service, administering morphine to a trapped lieutenant amid the debris and rubble. McMahon, who subsequently retired as an acting deputy chief, and who was known as the father of Baltimore's EMS and a pioneer in the integration of what is now known as CPR into the fire and EMS service, unfortunately died the week preceding the ceremony.

At the conclusion of the ceremony on Baltimore Street, many of those in attendance marched behind the Baltimore City Fire Department's Color Guard and the Bagpipe Band from the Baltimore County Fire Department to the Baltimore City Fire Department's Memorial Statue at Gay and Lexington streets. This short impromptu parade of two blocks filed past apparatus and firefighters who were positioned along the curbs of Gay Street. Included was a floodlight wagon from the Fire Museum of Maryland that had responded to the fire. A memorial wreath was placed next to the statue by the Baltimore City Fire Department's Emerald Society.

The evening concluded with a reception at quarters of old Engine 6, now the quarters of The Box 414 Association. The association's museum featured helmets of those lost at Tru-Fit and other related memorabilia.

Six members lost at the fire at The Tru-Fit Clothing Company fire was the greatest loss sustained in the modern era of the Baltimore City Fire Department. More than 20 were injured and required hospitalization. Thirty-five engine companies, 10 truck companies, four hose companies, one water tower company, seven battalion chiefs, two deputy chiefs and more than 20 other specialized apparatus/vehicles responded. The investigation of the fire has never been officially closed. The file is still open.

The Baltimore City Fire Department's Worst Night

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 2½-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."

Donald W. Heinbuch is a division chief with the Baltimore City Fire Department. He has been in the fire service for more than 35 years and has served as a chief officer in the Baltimore City Fire Department for more than 21 years. Heinbuch also is a member of Firehouse Expo Committee.