Know Your Enemy #40

May 6, 2004
A veteran fire officer tells a gripping story of a fatal collapse that caused compulsory retirement to be instituted in New York.
Disaster on Broadway

By John J. Cashman, Lt. (Retired) FDNY. Deceased, February 2002. RIP

This article was published in part by Firehouse Magazine in 1993.

A veteran fire officer tells a gripping story of a fatal collapse that caused compulsory retirement to be instituted in New York. Those familiar with Herman Wouk's Caine Mutiny will see again the agonizing question, how does a subordinate officer react to a disastrously incompetent order?

Comments on disaster on Broadway by Frank Brannigan, SFPE (Fellow) and Author of Building Construction for the Fire Service.

I thought it would be more helpful to the reader to provide these comments before the article, so you would understand certain terms used.

About The Author

Jack Cashman and I were friends for over 60 years. We met in 1937 when we were fellow buffs at 24 Truck in Midtown Manhattan.

Like myself he was a founding members of the Fire Bell Club. I am now the only survivor.

Jack entered FDNY. He came from a fire fighting family. His grandfather was a volunteer who joined the new paid department in 1865, and rose to Deputy Chief. His grandmother was a sister in law of James Dale, the last Chief of the Brooklyn City Fire Department. His uncles were respectively, Captain of 71 Engine, FDNY Assistant Chief of the Fire Patrol, Fire Marshal, Chief of Ridgefield Park; NJ His cousin was a Battalion Chief, FDNY.

Jack was active in the organization of the Levittown, New York Fire Department formed to protect the huge community that sprang up in potato fields to house returning veterans. He was it's first Chief.

After he retired as Lieutenant of 5 Truck after 26 years "south of 14th St", he was Chief of the Barrington, RI Fire Department for ten years. After a standing ovation from the citizens at a public meeting he was fired by the city manager for refusing to sign documents saying that an old three story school being converted to senior housing, was only two stories high and thus did not need sprinklers.

Those of you who study "Building Construction for the Fire Service" are the beneficiaries of a number of nuggets of his hard won experience worked into the text. He is a charter member of the FDNY Honor Legion (At least 5 citations for bravery). He holds the Delehanty and Department Medals for valor. One of his several citations is a Class II for his great personal risk in the Broadway collapse rescues.

About The Fire Department

During the depression there were many officers and firemen acting out of rank to save money. There was even a helmet frontispiece, "Acting Battalion Chief". The fact that command officers were acting above their usual rank was crucial to the disaster which occurred. Acting officers are naturally reluctant to dispute the orders, however incompetent, of a superior. This was especially true in the New York Fire Department of that era.

It was founded in 1865 and many of its original officers had served in the union army. Blind obedience to incompetent superiors cost thousands of lives in that war, but the same military tradition permeated the fire department. All reports began Army style: "Sir, I have the honor to report.....;

Officer's uniform coats were a copy of a cavalry officer's complete with a split back and buttons for horseback riding etc. Firefighter deaths were considered a demonstration of how dangerous a firefighter's job was. In the decade 1930-39 the 6000 man department suffered 82 line of duty deaths which were accepted as part of the job, much as military casualties are accepted in battle.

The area below 14th Street was considered by the fire department to be special. Originally, firefighters had to serve several years below 14 Street before they could be transferred elsewhere. The firefighters who served there were called the "Iron Men" and they perpetuated this sobriquet as they were transferred to other areas, by telling sea stories. I can testify from personal observation that the truth was tough enough and needed no embellishment.

The old "Loft Buildings" of New York tenant factories are well described in an excellent article in December 1992 Firehouse by Lt. (now BC) Harry Hill. Most of the buildings dated back to a building boom right after the Civil War. They had heavy fire loads and provided desperate battles even today, unless sprinklered. We should note however, that any tenant factory in New York is called a Loft Building so this includes high rise fire resistive sprinklered garment, millinery and fur lofts in Midtown Manhattan.

New Years Eve 1946

New years eve 1946 was solemn in the fire department. Six companies were to be disbanded as of midnight, victims of stiff-necked official pride. It was customary to downplay the number of units that served at a fire. If two engine companies combined to get a line to the sixth floor rapidly and cut off the fire (a common practice today), only the engine which supplied the line was credited and so forth. When the city asked the Rand corporation to provide recommendations for elimination of companies, the "no duty" reports doomed several first class units. The breakup of a fire company can only be compared to the breakup of a family of orphan kids, farmed out to relatives. Three of the six disbanded units were involved in the disaster. There was no ceremony honoring those who had served the city so well over the years. At midnight chauffeurs from the shops arrived on the fire ground to take the apparatus of the disbanded companies to the shops.

High Pressure System

Early in the 20th century, it was evident steam pumpers could not reliably deliver the water quantity and pressure needed. A system of high-pressure mains and hydrants was laid in the severe hazard areas. On a box alarm the pressure was raised to 125 psi. (the pressure required to raise the watertower). The pressure could be raised in increments of 25 psi. to a maximum of 300 lbs. The highest pressure I ever saw however was 225 psi. at the Furman Street warehouse fire in 1935. The system was so reliable that on the first alarm, pumpers were left in quarters with the chauffeur, and engine companies responded with just the hose wagon. Pumpers did respond on greater alarms.

It was quite a sight to see all the deck pipe and water tower streams increase in pressure simultaneously. When a hand line was taken from the high-pressure hydrant, a control valve was attached first and set to a suitable pressure. It was like having a pumper already hooked up and lines were placed in service in very short order. The system was really a rapid supply system. Lines could be gotten into service very rapidly. It was abandoned many years ago.

Alarm Responses

In those days companies were heavily manned. A downtown first alarm brought more personnel than all but a few major fire departments had on duty, and very severe fires were fought with just the first alarm assignment. Note that 72 Engine could have a hydrant man, a man on the deckpipe, a man back in quarters with the pumper, and still stretch and operate a 2 1/2 " line on the third floor for over an hour.

During daytime the last due engine was held back for economy. In those days without radios, the signal calling for it notified the buffs of a working fire.

The Fire Patrol

The New York Fire Patrol is the last of the salvage units maintained by insurance companies in a number of cities. The patrol has a proud record. Over the years "patroleos" have made many good rescues. All patrol units carried scaling ladders. To my personal knowledge, Deputy Chief Cashman was a very astute fire officer and this story would not have been written if ACXX had followed his example. He earned a Fire Department medal for rescuing Fireman Harry Murphy of Engine 26 at another fire, the only one ever presented to a non-member of FDNY.

Assistant Chief Tommy O'Brien

Tommy O'Brien is one of my real heroes, and mentors. I first met him as Captain of 65 Engine in 43rd Street opposite Stern Brothers Department Store where I was auditor. He taught me more practical fire fighting hints than I can name. One saved the day at the last fire I commanded for the Navy in 1949. He was always calm and mentally organized at a fire, and gave clear and explicit orders.

It is my opinion that if Tommy O'Brien had been on the scene, the tragedy would never have occurred. He would have told off ACXX in unmistakable "New Yorkese". A man who spent 180 days on the front lines in France in WWI as a machine gunner in New York's Famous Fighting Irish 69th regiment, would hardly back down to an Assistant Chief. He retired as an Assistant Chief.

My pet story is: A lady stopped at 65 one day and asked if fireman Doe was on duty. "Madam he is not on duty but let me tell you, to the longest day he lives he will never be a FIREMAN. He is simply a member of the uniformed force."


Today the word buff is accepted as the designation of an unpaid enthusiast of a field for which others are paid. There are railroad buffs, airline buffs ski buffs, theater buffs or whatever. The word has been used in England.

At that time, the word buff was confined to aficionados of the New York Fire Department. Boston has Sparks, Chicago has Fire Fans, San Francisco has the Phoenix Society. If you said you were a fire buff you had to explain it and people shook their heads.

New York Volunteer Fire Houses had no sleeping accommodations. "Red hot" members would sleep in, on the floor, rolled up in buffalo robes. When the department went paid in 1865, those civilians who hung around were called buffs.

Gordon Mullins, a well known Bell Club member, brought around a Journal American reporter named Johnnie Weisberger who was a red hot buff and later very active in the Eastern Division of the IAFC. John had a friend; a corpulent sports reporter named Syd Livingston. Syd was not a buff, but he would watch a fire if he fell over it. He took the word buff over to the sports pages and now we have all sorts of buffs.

Could A Similar Disaster Happen Today?

Certainly not in New York, and probably not anywhere in the same way. Too many TV cameras around.

But some Neanderthals are still out there. A ladder company officer in Florida, familiar with the dangerous roof of the fire building, refused to put his people on the roof and was never thereafter assigned to command of the ladder. A former officer of a fire department that lost two firefighters in a truss roof collapse, told me that at a fire he had refused to take his men up on a dangerous roof. The chief said, "you are suspended". Seconds later the roof collapsed. "Forget about the suspension."

Many fatalities have resulted because personnel have not been adequately informed or have not understood potential failures in structures. I was told point blank by a fire chief, "I don't want my guys even hearing you speak. I want them to do what I want done, period"!

This attitude is illustrated by two almost unbelievable cases of fire officers who took state wide promotion exams. In both cases they were failed for indicating fire ground operations which took the safety of fire fighters into consideration. In my "The Building Is Your Enemy " Column on, a fire officer tells of twice telling a captain that a collapse was imminent, and "he just walked away". Shortly thereafter the collapse occurred.

Some of these attitudes will change over time and some will be changed after civil or criminal legal action is taken. The Seattle fire department was assessed a substantial fine by its State Labor Department for safety deficiencies. The retired Safety Officer won a very substantial judgment from the city for the bad treatment he received.

The Montreal Fire Department was found guilty in the death of a firefighter in an abandoned building. The warning to Chief Officers is clear. You may bury the firefighter with an impressive funeral, but your problem may not be buried.

There was no administrative system by which men who observed Assistant Chief X's erratic and dangerous conduct on the fire ground to pass this situation up to the top, and it is not clear that if this was done that there would have been any action.

With shootings by disgruntled employees even in a firehouse seemingly a regular occurrence fire departments should be more aware of the possibility that an officer might cause deaths by his incompetence.

Live Fire Training

Live firefighter training may inadvertently be delivering the wrong message. The training often emphasizes taking the punishment and putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. There is no need to be concerned about collapse or hidden fire in the training building. However, hidden fire and collapse are major hazards to fire fighters despite the fact that they are too dangerous for live training. Classroom lectures and discussions should present these hazards so forcefully that they become equally as important to the fire fighter as hitting the fire.

Now Jack tells the story in his own words

The Background

In December 1946, I was aide to Chief Fred Kaiser of the 6th Battalion FDNY. For an extended period he was Acting Deputy Chief of the Second Division. We covered a large portion of the old loft district in Manhattan South of 14 Street.

Chief Kaiser was on vacation so I reverted to the 6th Battalion as aide to Acting Battalion Chief Albert Ermentraut (Captain of 28 Engine). Battalion Chief Bill Hogan was acting 2nd Division Deputy.

The Assistant Chief of Department (ACXX) on duty was 70 years old. He had had an excellent reputation as a fireman and officer but little experience in loft building fires. Firehouse gossip of his fire ground incompetence was rife. His decisions and orders were beyond understanding. He had stayed too long, and a common expression was, "He's going to kill somebody".

The Fire

On Dec. 31, 1946 at 5:27 a.m., Box 396 Broadway and Eighth Street was transmitted. Engines 72, 33, 25, H&Ls 3 and 20, Rescue 1, Water Tower 2, Fire Patrol 2, Battalion 6 and 2nd division responded. The high pressure system was automatically raised to 125 PSI.

The fire was on the 3rd floor of a seven-story loft building 25'x100' on the W/S of Broadway. Heavy smoke condition was found on arrival. At 5:51 a.m., the last due engine (held back for economy reasons) responded on a 7-5 signal (send full assignment).

Engine 72 stretched a 3" high pressure line to it's deckpipe and a 2 1/2 " handline up the stairway backed by a second hand line by 33 Engine. The tower and deckpipe were operated on fire showing from upper floors. A second alarm at 5:57 a.m. brought five more engines, a truck and the Third Battalion Chief.

Within 15 minutes a third alarm was sent bringing five more engines, another truck, the Second Battalion Chief and Assistant Chief XX. The high pressure was raised to 175 psi. The Water Tower and three deckpipes were operating into the upper floors.

The contents of the second, third and seventh floors were bedspreads. On the fourth floor there were slippers stored. These materials are ideal for soaking up the tons of water being poured into the building from high volume, heavy caliber streams.

When ACXX arrived after the third alarm, he assumed command and ordered ADC Hogan to take command of the rear of the building (New York has sectored fires from the beginning).

During this time, I was on the stairway just below the 3rd floor landing with ABC Ermentraut who was trying to push Engine 72 & Engine 33 onto the floor, which was impossible.

After almost an hour, he said to me, "this is a real old building. I don't know how long it can withstand the weight of all the water that's being poured into it. Go down and tell the Assistant Chief that he'd better back us out of here". I went down and there was no sign of the Assistant Chief. The only officer I saw was my Uncle Bill Cashman who was Deputy Chief of Fire Patrol. He told me that he had backed four units of the Fire Patrol out of the building 30 minutes earlier because he sensed an impending collapse. He told me that ACXX had gone to the rear.

There is rarely easy access to the rear of New York buildings. In order to get to the rear of the fire building, it was necessary to walk down 8th Street to the second doorway, climb the stairs to the 2nd floor, go out a window onto a so-called party fire escape which ran continuously the length of the rear of the Broadway buildings including the fire building #749. Engine companies were up on that fire escape trying to move in, but they were encountering stiff resistance.

I finally found the Assistant Chief up on the rear fire escape bellowing at ADC Hogan and the company officers telling them that they should push their units in on the floor. They in turn tried to tell him that the position was untenable and that a collapse was imminent!

His reply was to scream that they and their men were a bunch of fakers, that he never saw fakers like that where he came from. I in turn, tried to give him ABC Ermentraut's message but he paid no attention to me.

I walked back and met ABC Ermentraut on the corner of 8th Street and Broadway and he had the men of Engine 72 and Engine 33 with him. When I told him what happened he said, "I had the companies lash their lines, and then I backed them out for their own safety. They have taken severe punishment for over an hour and I am going to take them into the Drugstore where Dr. Archer has a first aid station set up and see that they get oxygen treatment."

I then went to the front of the fire building where I met ACXX who had just ordered H&L 3, H&L 5 & H&L 9 along with ADC Hogan and BC Kirschenheiter (2nd Battalion) to go into the stairway, recover the two lines, advance them into the 3rd floor and stretch a third line to back up the first two.

They were only in there a couple of minutes when Chief Hogan, Chief Kirschenheiter and Captain Maguire, H&L 5, came out and told ACXX that there was an impending collapse and that the companies should be backed out. Chief XX used the same language that he had used in the rear accusing them and their men of being a bunch of fakers and cowards.

At that point the three officers complied with ACXX's orders and went back into the building. At that point I went over to the front and was just about to start up the stairway when there was a tremendous roar and a push of smoke and heat. I thought that the building had exploded. I had never seen a collapse before so I made a run for it and wound up under Water Tower 2. When I regained my feet I went back to the doorway where I met Captain Winter and a couple of men from H&L 3 staggering out and obviously injured. They told me that a collapse had occurred and the others were trapped in there.

At that point I went looking for ACXX in vain, but once again did find Fire Patrol Deputy Chief Bill Cashman. He told me that Fire Commissioner Quayle was in the First Aid Station on the corner and to tell him what happened and that a fourth alarm was needed.

Commissioner Quayle, who had attended many big fires, had a sort of "what did you expect?" attitude when I told him that the interior had collapsed. "There are three truck companies in there and we need a fourth alarm!" I shouted. "Send it by my orders" Quayle said. In fact as a civilian commissioner he had no such authority. The dispatcher taking the alarm by telephone wisely covered himself by noting that it was ordered by the Commissioner, on his work sheet. The time was 7:16 a.m., nearly two hours into the fire department response and Lord knows how long into the fire.

The fourth alarm brought six more engine companies, an H&L company, and the 7th Battalion in the person of a most competent chief officer Thomas P. "Tommy" O'Brien. He naturally looked for ACXX to report in, but he was nowhere to be seen.

At that point he spotted me and said, "Jack, what's going on here"? When I told him that there had been a collapse and that three companies were trapped, he seized command.

At that point things started to go right for the first time in the entire operation. O'Brien characteristically took a few seconds to calm down a firefighter who was crying. With an arm around his shoulder he said, "We're going to get organized here and get those guys out. Help raise that 35' ladder to the third floor."

He ascended it followed by his Aide (his brother Eddie) and myself. We were only able to walk in about 25 feet when we came to the rim of the collapse. Chief O'Brien ordered up a 25' ladder. When the ladder was lowered down on the pile, Chief O'Brien descended the ladder followed by his brother Eddie and myself. We had only gone a few feet onto the pile of debris when we heard cries and moans from the trapped men. One man, Harry Harriendorf (Aide to ADC Hogan of the 2nd Division) was lying on top of the pile. We aided him up and down ladders to the ambulance.

In the meantime, Acting Chief of Department Frank Murphy took command. Fire Commissioner Frank J. Quayle talked to ADC Hogan in the hospital before he died, returned to the scene and ordered ACXX back to quarters, there to submit his retirement application forthwith.

One by one the entrapped men were removed in an operation that lasted into the night and early morning hours until the last man was dug out. There was still heavy fire in what remained of the upper floor necessitating the use of the water tower and the deckpipe streams. That added to the danger of the rescuers.

There was still some stock on what remained of the upper floors and from the time to time that along with building material would come crashing down. Fortunately, no one was hurt in those secondary collapses.

The north wall at the first floor level had been breached from a store at 751 Broadway under the direction of Deputy Chief "Wild Bill" Taubert who, although off duty, had come in to offer his services along with hundreds of other men and officers who gave up plans for a festive New Year's Eve when they heard that their comrades were caught in a collapse.

Rescue Co. 1 got into that hole and they started to use their jacks and other tools to lift beams and shore them up. Finally, they heard some one talking to them and they realized they were about to uncover another victim who it turned out was the last of the 21 men who had been trapped when the collapse occurred. This was about six o'clock in the morning.

It turned out to be Lt. Jerry Cronin, H&L 9. "Jerry is there anything that I can get you?" asked a rescuer. "Get me a priest and a blanket that I can chew on so I don't scream out with pain". He was pinned between two floor beams. It took about another half hour before he was finally removed about 6:30 a.m. having been buried for almost 12 hours. He remained on light duty for a long time, but finally returned to full duty and was subsequently promoted to captain and battalion chief, all the time on full duty.

I worked in that neighborhood for years after, both as a fireman and company officer and I never passed that building without thinking of the night we spent there and about the guys who were killed and injured there.

The Aftermath

Within a month, an order came down ordering all firemen, company officer and chief officers over 65 to the Medical Office to determine their fitness to continue on duty. Strangely enough, there were quite a few men in that category especially captains and chief officers. There was a holdover from the days of steam fire engines.

Eugene Pallett, the last Engineer of Steamer, 80 years old, was an early physical fitness enthusiast. When he was examined and told that he failed, he did a hand stand and walked back and forth across the office on his hands asking the doctors if any of them could do the same thing! The premise, and I believe it is still valid, was that any man over 65 years of age did not belong on the fire ground in any capacity much less command responsibility. Shortly thereafter the mandatory retirement at age 65 rule was adopted.

The Agonizing Decision

Chief Kaiser returned and resumed duty as Acting Second Division Deputy. He told me to drive down to 749 Broadway. He said, "I want you to go through the events of that fire from beginning to end."

He then said, "From the time I heard about that fire I was greatly upset by it, first of, all because Bill Hogan was a good friend of mine. Secondly, he was taking my place and I tried to put myself in his position. I have decided that if it was me I would first make sure that I had company officers and chief officers along side of me as you described happened and I would have told the Assistant Chief, I refuse to comply with your ordering units into this building. Undoubtedly, he would have threatened me with charges and done a lot of shouting and screaming. But if that action had been taken, undoubtedly those men would be alive today and the other men would not have been injured. Knowing Bill Hogan as I did there is no way he would not comply with an order even though deep down in his heart he disagreed with it."


Sixty-nine members received citations for bravery at this fire. The list is led by the two fatalities, Chief Hogan and Fireman Winfield Walsh of H&L 9.

A Brannigan footnote about The Levittown Fire Department

Levittown consisted of thousands of mass produced, reasonably priced homes for returning veterans, encouraged by GI mortgages at reasonable rates. The department was organized by men and officers from New York City.

For their first public meeting they asked a buff with the impressive title of "Assistant Chief of the Safety and Fire Protection Branch of the New York Directed Operations of the United States Atomic Energy Commission", to be the speaker. When I arrived they told me that they had a problem of a number of people who wanted to join to sell tickets etc., but had no intention of fighting fires and asked me to do what I could in my speech to discourage them.

I must say I rose to the occasion telling about pouring whiskey in your boots as antifreeze, etc. The faint hearted withdrew.

Years later I was a member of a fire department of a Virginia suburb of Washington. The department was dominated by a group that wanted no assistance or ideas from "outsiders". The despairing secretary of the company (a CIA employee) told me that he had known nothing of fire fighting until he joined the Levittown Fire Department after hearing the most inspirational speech he had ever heard at the organizational meeting!

My text, Building Construction for the Fire Service, 667 page third edition that has been credited with saving lives, was written by a firefighter for firefighters, primarily to save lives. It is available from NFPA.

The NFPA price is $$74.95 plus 6.95. I offer the book autographed and postpaid at a substantial discount. Call 301 572 7517 or email [email protected] for information. It makes a fine Christmas or promotion gift, or for a mate who is a firefighter. The text is updated in my Ol Professor Column in Fire Engineering. For information ask for updates at my email address.

My last fire ground command was in 1949 but I never forgot the fundamental responsibility of an officer. Bring your people home. As my friend Vincent Dunn says, "No building is worth the life of a firefighter." FLB

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