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May 9, 1903: BELLEFONTE, PA - The University Inn on the campus of the state college caught fire, forcing 35 students, faculty members and their families to run for their lives. The building was a total loss, with the occupants escaping with only the clothes they were wearing.
May 18, 1903: NEW YORK CITY - Firemen responded to a fire in the top floor rear of a three-story commercial building on Worth Street. A violent backdraft greeted the forcible entry and nozzle teams, hurling 10 men down the stairs. Regrouped, they plunged into the dense smoke along with members of 27 Engine. Fireman after fireman was overcome by the thick smoke and had to be dragged out. One unconscious fireman, working his first fire, regained consciousness, sprang up and returned to the blaze, not wanting to be labeled as a "quitter." He was dragged out two more times before he was ordered to the hospital.
May 20, 1903: ST. HYACINTHE, QUEBEC - A fire started shortly before noon in a shoe factory and was quickly raging out of control. Fanned by strong winds, the flames leaped from structure to structure. Overwhelmed firemen struggled with low water pressure and sent out a mutual aid call to Montreal. More than a half-dozen commercial structures and 250 homes were destroyed by the blaze.
May 20, 1903: PHILADELPHIA - Lightning caused two fires that destroyed $75,000 worth of property. The first fire, in a manufacturing plant, destroyed one building and threatened several others. A separate lightning strike ignited a private dwelling that quickly became fully involved.
May 21, 1903: BRONX, NY - Firemen battled a dangerous fire in the Mott Haven Yards of the New York Central Railroad. An explosion set fire to a two-story gas house and rapidly spread to adjacent structures. Two 400-cubic-foot gas tanks then exploded, igniting a huge 90,000-cubic-foot storage tank. Arriving fire companies were faced with several structures and large gas-filled containers raging out of control. Twelve engines set up a water relay to overcome a lack of hydrants in the yard.
May 22, 1903: HARRISBURG, PA - A boiler plate mill of the Central Iron and Steel Company was destroyed as a fire on the roof spread with amazing speed. Fed by oil-soaked timbers, the entire roof was ablaze before an alarm could be sent. Flames leaped to the adjacent mill building and it too was a total loss.
May 22, 1903: BROOKLYN, NY - Two afternoon fires in Williamsburg stretched the department's resources thin. A fire in a wood-frame blacksmith's shop spread to a four-story brick building next door. Several people were rescued from the upper floors of the dwelling as firemen made an aggressive attack to quell the flames. Three hours later, as companies were just starting to take up, a blaze broke out several blocks away. Flames soon engulfed a commercial building and a half-dozen homes. A collapsing roof injured several firemen.
May 23, 1903: NORFOLK, VA - A fire started in a paint shed of Seaboard Lines and spread to a warehouse, offices and carpenters' shops. One worker, trying to save the tools of his fellow craftsmen, was burned critically and died in a hospital.
MAY 24, 1903: MILLION-DOLLAR FIRE IN PHILADELPHIA WAREHOUSE
A cellar fire burned unnoticed in a large warehouse building on Front Street and gained great headway. The alarm was finally sent in as the flames ate through to the first floor and began to spread. Each floor was packed with items from several different companies, including matting, 1,500 rolls of carpet, 500 barrels of molasses, light and heavy machinery, a carload of wines and other liquors, and a carload of matches. Three firemen were injured battling the stubborn blaze.
Paul Hashagen, a Firehouse® contributing editor, recently retired as an FDNY firefighter assigned to Rescue Company 1 in Manhattan. He is also an ex-chief of the Freeport, NY, Fire Department. Hashagen is the author of FDNY 1865-2000: Millennium Book, a history of the New York City Fire Department, and other fire service history books.