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.
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.