The last water tower purchased by the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) is shown to the public at City Hall in 1930. This 65-foot American LaFrance was assigned to Water Tower 6. (Photo courtesy of the Paul Hashagen collection.)
In this month’s column, I present historic fires or significant events in the fire service from December 1916. A reminder: Readers are encouraged to share information from their departments.
December 6, 1916: Tarrytown, New York: Tarrytown firefighters (a department John D. Rockefeller, a local land owner, generously supported) aided by 300 brothers from the Christian Brothers’ institution, battled a dangerous wildland fire sweeping across an estate in the Pocantico Hills. For a time, the fire, fanned by strong winds, threatened to destroy James Stillman’s home. The brothers formed a line with brooms, sticks, and cedar branches and beat back the flames for a half hour before the Pocantico Hills Fire Company arrived. With these reinforcements, the battle continued, also aided by firefighters from North Tarrytown.
December 10, 1916: New York, New York: Flames broke out in the stairs of a theatrical lodging house at 155 West 54th Street in Manhattan. Many of the 30 people living in the building had their exit blocked by smoke and fire. Many of the tenants were acrobats and actors and they helped save those trapped. The first to arrive at the scene was Deputy Chief George Ross, who called on a group of chauffeurs working nearby to help him with the rescue work. One spectacular rescue was made by Mr. Moore, who took his wife and child and headed to the roof. On the roof, he realized his wife was not there. Leaning over the cornice, he saw her at a top-floor window. As a man held his legs, Moore leaned over the cornice and stretched down as far as he could. Moving in, he was able to grasp his wife by the wrists. Showing amazing strength and acrobatic skill, he pulled her from the window and then swung her up to the roof. Some of the more agile tenants saved themselves by sliding down knotted sheets onto a rear extension roof. Others were assisted by their acrobatic friends.
December 11, 1916: Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: An explosion and fire destroyed the Quaker Oats factory building, taking the lives of eight people. Two hundred people were at work in the huge plant complex when the explosion, believed to have been a result of spontaneous combustion, occurred. The blast ignited the damaged building and a strong wind spread the flames to nearby homes. Dozens of workers sustained injuries.
December 22, 1916: Wichita, Kansas: On a freezing cold night, oil pumps feeding the heating plant of the Masonic home spread flaming fuel inside the basement. The building was a mansion converted into a home for retired masons or their widows and children. The flames raced through the building, trapping many inside. A general alarm brought the entire fire department to the scene. Attempts to push hoses into the blazing basement and first floor proved impossible. Ladders were rushed to the dormitory windows. Within minutes, 19 girls climbed down to safety. The boys’ dormitory would prove more difficult, being directly above the spreading fire. Firefighters climbed in through windows and searched deep onto the smoke-filled floor. Scores of unconscious boys were carried to safety. On one last trip into the choking smoke, firefighters found three additional boys unconscious in a closet. In all, 26 boys were rescued. Amazingly, all the children were rescued. Five adults perished in the flames.
December 27, 1916: New York, New York: Ammonia fumes released in a smoke-filled sub-cellar 30 feet underground caused more than a dozen firefighters to fall unconscious. The fire was inside the Park & Tilford Building on Columbus Avenue and 72nd Street. Exploding carboys spread the fumes, knocking out the members of Engine Companies 56 and 74 and Ladder Company 25. These firefighters were rescued by other members of their companies as Rescue 1 was special called. The new rescue company donned smoke helmets and plunged into the noxious fumes to search for down firefighters and to extinguish the flames. John McElligott, captain of Rescue 1, was also knocked out when he remained after his air supply ran out. Amazingly, no lives were lost, but many firefighters suffered lasting effects from the smoke and fumes.
December 31, 1916: Halifax, Quebec, Canada: Forty-five female patients were killed as fire swept through a mental health facility. The large building, run by the Quebec Sisters of Charity, was filled with 180 female mental patients. The sisters had great difficulty moving the excited patients to safety. Firefighters, who responded from a long distance, could do little as strong winds rapidly spread the fire. In all, 135 patients were saved by the sisters. The building was destroyed.
Paul Hashagen is a 40-year veteran of the fire service. He retired from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) after 25 years of service, with 20 of those years in Rescue Company 1. Hashagen is a former chief of the Freeport (NY) Fire Department and is still an active member of Truck Company 1. He has written several books and numerous stories on the history of the fire service including Fire Department City of New York: The Bravest; An Illustrated History 1865-2002; and One Hundred Years of Valor: Rescue Company 1 New York City Fire Department Rescue 1915-2015.