Rekindles: September 1996

Sept. 3, 1896: BEDFORD COUNTY, PA

Sept. 3, 1896: WARSAW, NC — Two of the largest stores in town were destroyed by an early-morning fire. Flames leaped from one big general store to another and spread to additional buildings.

Sept. 4, 1896: FALL RIVER, MA — The steamship E.P. Shaw caught fire at about 4:40 P.M. The ship blazed at its berth at Dighton Rock Park and set fire to the wharf before the ropes burned away and the ship, a mass of flames, drifted across the Taunton River. One fireman was rescued unconscious from the dense smoke.

Sept. 5, 1896: NARRAGANSETT, RI — Fire broke out in large wooden structure and quickly spread to Halcyon Hall next door. Flames threatened the entire village and local firemen, hard pressed by the raging inferno, called for help from Wakefield and Peacedale. The combined forces were able to stop the blaze.

Sept. 6, 1896: BENTON HARBOR, MI — An advanced fire condition took hold in the four-story brick Yore’s Opera House before an alarm was sounded. Immediate help was called for from the St. Joseph Fire Department. Shortly after fire operations commenced, a wall collapsed and 15 firemen were trapped beneath the flaming mass of wood and bricks. Firemen rushed to aid their comrades but fire conditions were severe and other walls threatened to fall on the would-be rescuers. Six firemen from Benton Harbor and five from St. Joseph were killed; four others were dug out of the wreckage with serious injuries.

Sept. 10, 1896: MONTEREY, MEXICO — The Progresso Theater was destroyed by fire. The loss also included the entire wardrobe and scenery of the Mexican Opera Company.

Sept. 10, 1896: NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — An exploding oil lamp trapped two guests in the Chi Phi fraternity’s building on the campus of Rutgers College. The two people, a mother and her daughter, were rescued by firemen over a portable ladder.

Sept. 15, 1896: BREWTON, AL — The entire plant of the Peters Lumber Co. was ablaze as flames spread from the saw and planing mills to the drying houses and machine shops. Besides the $100,000 loss in buildings, more than 1 million feet of lumber burned.

Sept. 19, 1896: NEW BEDFORD, MA — A major storm that featured the touchdown of a tornado swept through the city and left a wide path of destruction. A lightning strike sparked a fire in the large cotton shed of the Bennett Mills. It took firemen three hours to contain the fire. During the battle, another tornado touched down near the fire, forcing the crowd of onlookers to take shelter in a nearby building which promptly collapsed. Only one person was trapped by the failing timbers and this person was removed by firemen in critical condition.

Sept. 19, 1896: TOMPKINSVILLE, STATEN ISLAND, NY — An arson attempt was made on the Kiernan Hook & Ladder Company’s firehouse at midnight. A passerby noticed the smoke and arriving firemen quickly quelled the kerosene-fed flames.

Sept. 23, 1896: SAVANNAH, GA — While battling a blaze in a wholesale grocery building, Fireman Frank McStay fell 40 feet to his death through an open grating. A former employee of the business was arrested for starting the fire.

Sept. 23, 1896: BALTIMORE, MD — While responding to a fire in a shoe factory,the Ladder Company 5 apparatus overturned, severely injuring five firemen. The fire required a second-alarm assignment to control.


The Baldwin, NY, Fire Department marked its 100th anniversary on March 5, 1996 ... Lawrence, MA, Engine Company 6 was formed on Sept. 12, 1896, at 480 Howard St. The company still responds out of that building.


SEPT. 8, 1934: THE MORRO CASTLE FIRE - Just out of Havana, Cuba, and on the second and final leg of a Labor Day cruise, the SS Morro Castle was steaming home toward New York when things began going wrong.

On Friday night (Sept. 7), the passengers were informed that the parties planned for that evening were canceled because the captain, Robert Wilmott, had died suddenly. Despite his death, many unofficial celebrations were held prior to the landing scheduled for the next day.

At about 2:30 A.M., a fire was discovered in the ship’s writing room and the flames spread quickly as the crew, unpracticed in fire suppression, was unable to get a line in operation. The fire was soon spreading down the ship’s corridors unchecked. The only real attempt at organizing an attack was made by an FDNY fireman on vacation but his efforts had little effect on the fire, now raging out of control.

The actions of the officers were as ineffective as the nonexistent fire- fighting crews. The ship, under the command of Acting Captain William Warms, continued ahead at 20 knots directly into a strong wind that only fanned the flames and forced them deeper inside the ship. The radio operator, later believed to have started the blaze, sat at his post for more than 15 minutes until he was allowed to send an SOS. (The acting captain may have been afraid of salvage and other fees that might be charged.)

The lifeboats were proving difficult to lower and many passengers were forced to jump into the storm tossed seas with only life rings and life jackets between them and the cold depths below.

The early-morning light showed hundreds of people, both dead and alive, floating in the waters off the New Jersey coast. A small armada of private boats and boats from ships answering the SOS moved in to pick up the living and gather the dead. One hundred thirty-four people had lost their lives.