January 10, 1912, New York Times, "$18,000,000 Equitable Building Destroyed by Fatal Fire,"
Fast Sweeping Blaze in New York's Financial Zone Razes City's First Skyscraper Causing Loss of Life.
APPEALING HANDS IN RUIN
Reach Out in Vain Appeal from Ice-Clad Debris Where Others Are Buried.
Fire Chief Walsh Gone
Sinks with Floor After Sending Men of His Company to Safety.
BILLIONS IN THE VAULTS.
All Securities Probably Safe -- Equitable Counts Building No Loss -- Plans to Rebuild.
Safe Deposit Company President Saved After Two Hours -- Priest a Rescuer.
FIRE STARTED IN THE CAFE
Costly Delay in Sending an Alarm -- Lawyer's Club Loss Heavy -- Tenants Find New Quarters.
All but the outer walls of the Equitable Life Assurance Society Building at 120 Broadway was destroyed yesterday morning by a fire that grew from a small blaze in the basement to one of the most memorable in the history of the city. It was discovered about 5 A.M. by employees within the building, who for half an hour trusted to their own powers to conquer a fire that the full department forces of Manhattan, aided by reinforcements from Brooklyn, did not have under control until 9:30.
In that interval devastation was done that is now estimated at $2,000,000, the building that originally cost $18,000,000 being considered no asset, and at least six lives were lost. There were probably more, but the full ruin of the building was still all but impenetrable. Darkness settled on a structure in ice with the blaze of the timbers within still red.
The fighting of the fire was marked by act after act of heroism and in the fiercest of the fighting Battalion Fire Chief Walsh lost his life. Repeated attempts to find his body were made, but the faint hope that he had escaped by some miracle died in the early hours.
Fire in the Heart of Big Business.
The fire gripped a whole block in the part of Manhattan that is given over to big business and tall buildings, and destroyed the homes of Equitable Life Society, the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, of Kountze Brothers, bankers; the Lawyers' Club, and of many professional men.
Its basement housed vaults in which were deposited several billion dollars in securities, stocks, and bonds. These, it is believed, were untouched, but they were beyond the reach of hands as well as flames, to the embarrassment and inconvenience of the whole financial district.
The owners of the building carried no insurance for it, and their tenants have their losses covered only slight degree. An estimate of the total insurance at $50,000 was considered generous. A quarter of a century ago the Equitable was looked upon as one of the show buildings of New York, and in that day and generation it passed for fireproof. The tradition survived through a day of higher standards in fire prevention. The wreck of the building itself is not lamented by the owners, who had planned to rebuild, but the destruction of the Lawyers' Club and the wiping out of the rich law library bulk large in the $2,000,000 loss.
The financial district showed itself recuperative, and business pushed doggedly on its way, the homeless institutions finding temporary quarters and the Equitable proceeding unperturbed to the Hazen Building, where much of its business has been transacted for two years.
Handicap of Cold and Ice.
It was the bitter cold and the high wind that marked the fire as a fearful thing from the firemen's point of view. With the mercury sinking below the twenties and the wind stiffening to a sixty-mile-an-hour gale, Chief Kenlon led a desperate resistence to this the first big fire that he has had to meet since Chief Croker went out.
Ice seemed to form in the very air. It clogged the apparatus, rooting the pieces to the frozen streets. It settled in cloaks over the men themselves, so that they had to be chopped and thawed out from time to time that they might go one with the work.
And it settled over the building in a gleaming sheath of white that made the fire a wonderful thing to see. Ice converted the ruined building into a fantastic palace, with the rainbows arching at every turn as the sunlight filtered through the spray and smoke. Last night the shifting shafts from the searchlight of the Singer Building tower took up their task of adding mystic glamor to the horror.
And of all the spectacles that kept crowds staring fascinated from opposite streets and windows the strangest was that of two despairing hands---a dead man's hands thrust through the bars from one of the basement vaults. It was all of the man that could be seen, and as the afternoon drew to a close the ice mound on the pavement grew layer by layer, til even the hands were hidden from view.
When the Fire Started.
The Equitable's big clock, that has been one of the landmarks of lower Broadwat for so many years, showed that it was 5:20 o'clock yesterday morning when Sergt. Casey and Policeman Foley of the John Street Station passed by. It was freezing cold and Broadway was as old Trinity Cemetery across the street. Suddenly a man on his way to work came running into Broadway from Pine Street and, seeing the policemen, shouted to them that there was a fire in the Equitable Building.
Casey and Foley ran around into Pine Street, and about half way down that street from Broadway, on the ground floor, they found the fire. It was in the part of the building occupied by the Cafe Savarin, in a kitchen and storeroom that adjoins the elevator shaft. Apparently it had started in a pile of rubbish, from a cause not yet determined. William Davis, the Chief Engineer of the Equitable Building, and a score of other employees of the building were fighting the blaze with lines of hose running from the standpipes in the building.
The police say that Davis told them that he and the force of electricians, cleaners, firemen, etc. at his command could handle the fire, but the police took a different view of the situation, and Casey told Foley to turn in an alarm. Within five minutes the clanging of the fire apparatus could be heard.
When Deputy Chief Binns, who came with the first of the fire fighters, saw the blaze, which by then had eaten its way into the elevator shaft, he instinctively realized that the department had a hard battle ahead. Binns acted quickly. He ordered a second alarm, and then a thrid.
Building Quickly Doomed.
Even while he was turning in these alarms thew fire was licking its way into the vitals of the burning building. Not more than ten minutes had passed since the first alarm had been sent in by Foley, yet the fire had found its way into the elevator shaft and the Equitable Building was doomed.
The building covered practically the entire block that was bounded by Broadway, Cedar, Pine and Nassau Streets. Init were the general offices of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, the splendid clubrooms of the Lawyers' Club, and the offices and vaults of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, offices of the Union Pacific, and scores of offices of lawyers and other professional men. In two hours only the walls of the building was left. The Equitable Trust Company Annex and the Read Building, which occupied an "L" of the Equitable, were also damaged.
It was bitter cold, and the water that the firemen were throwing into the building and on adjoining structures quickly froze, and within an hour Broadway for a block in both directions was a lake of ice that was six inches or more deep everywhere. Engines and trucks were coated with ice, hose was frozen stiff, water towers became pyramids of white crystals, all of which , though picturesque, added to the odds against which the hard-working firemen had to contend.
The second alarm brought Fire Chief Kenlon, just up from his bed, where for weeks he had suffered from a fractured foot, received in another stubborn fire. It was the first big fire that Kenlon has had to handle since he succeeded Edward F. Croker as Chief
"This is a tough one, sure," said Kenlon, as he looked into the raging furnace which the Equitable Building had become by then.
Forced to Ask Brooklyn's Aid.
Fire Commissioner Johnson arrived at about the same time as Kenlon, which was about 6 A.M., and he was with the Chief when he turned in a fourth, and then a fifth alarm, and a moment later, for the first time in the history of the department, Kenlon sent a call to Brooklyn for help to fight a Manhattan fire.
It was then about 6:30 o'clock. The police were notified that the Brooklyn Bridge was to be used by the apparatus from Brooklyn, and Police Commissioner Waldo, who had taken personal command of the police in the fire zone, issued orders to the Bridge Squad to keep the bridge clear for the nine engines, four trucks, one water tower, one searchlight engine, and the engine tenders that were to pass over the bridge. With the Brooklyn apparatus came Chief Lally of that borough, two Deputies, and nine Battalion Chiefs.
All traffic was suspended on the north roadway of the bridge as the apparatus was being rushed over the river. The long line of engines and trucks, each engine spitting fire and trailed by ribbons pf black smoke, was one of the most thrilling sights the city has seen in many a day.
While the Brooklyn firemen were hurrying to the aid of their Manhattan comrades the later were performing deeds that will live in the annals of the department as among the most daring and heroic in that long list of heroic deeds.
Self-Trapped on the Roof.
In the very first stages of the fire, when the flames were still confined to the length of the building facing on Broadway, three men, believed either to have been night employees for the Equitable Company or kitchen employees in the Cafe Savarin, finding escape by way of Broadway impossible, went to the roof of the building on the elevator. This was shortly after 6 o'clock. They were seen running wildly from one side of the building to the other, but nowhere were there any ladders by which they could descend from the roof.
Chief Kenlon saw them and issued general orders to have them brought down. The extension ladders were hoisted, but these fell short by three stories. All the time the men were yelling in a tongue which no one seemed to understand, but it was obvious that the heat had already come up to the roof. Additional scaling ladders could not be used because the copings, extending out on the upper storied fully four feet, prevented. The firemen were seen frantically extending themselves over the roof's edge on the Cedar Street side.
Then Chief Kenlon sent four men to the tenth floor of the National Exchange Bank Building, directly across from the burning building at Cedar Street and Broadway. A window opened shortly on that floor and a life line shot forward over the narrow street from one of the line-shooting guns which the firemen had with them. The shot was a good one and the men caught the thin line and began hauling it in. They soon had hold of the heavy cable rope which was attached and were proceeding in tying one end of the rope to a steam funnel on the roof when the thick rope snapped like a cord. A sheet of flame from the fourth floor had whipped up under an apparent pressure from within the building and had burned the rope in a second.
Three Men Plunge to Death.
Heavy black smoke his the desperate men from view for fully a minute. When the haze cleared the men were seen crouching on the four-foot coping. The roof on which they had stood only a few moments ago had fallen entirely away. Still there seemed to be no flame where the men were, but even before the firemen from across the way could shoot another line one of the men was seen sliding, slowly but certainly losing his ground, and plunged into the fiery furnace behind him.
The other two held on only a few moments longer. It is probable that there was no other channel, for the heat was pressing them closer and closer to the coping's outer edge. They were seen to jump together, not into the fire, but clear of the coping and down into ice-covered Cedar Street. One of the men struck a ladder and bounced fully twenty feet. The other made a straight descent to the street.
"Too bad, too bad," sighed Fire Chaplain, Father McGean.
He reached the side of the men and administered the last rites in their few remaining moments of life. They were Italians, named John Sazzi and John Conti. No one could be found who knew them, and their bodies were taken to the Old Slip stattion.
From that instant, ith the spread of the flames to every part of the Equitable Building there were incidents on the four streets bounding the fire every moment.
The arrival at 6:30 o 'clock of William Giblin, President of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, which had its offices and vaults in the north end of the ground floor, precipitated what was probably the most dramatic scene and rescue of the day.
President Giblin Locked In.
President Giblin had been notified of the fire by a clerk in the Breslin Hotel and had made the trip in a taxicab. Despite the objections of the police he made his way to the Cedar Street entrance of the burning building. There is a heavy steel door at the entrance which locks with a spring lock. Mr. Giblin unlocked this door and forgot to take the key out of the keyhole. A watchman, whose name Mr. Giblin did not even know, accompanied him, and the door seeung shut on the two and locked itself.
It was dark on the ground floor, and Mr. Giblin and the watchman groped their way to the front of the building. No one missed them, apparently, for Cedar Street at that time in the morning was so dark that forms could be distinguished only vaguely, and the dangling, shining keys in the blackened steel door were forgotten or not even seen. There was little fire on the ground floor near the Cedar Street side at that time, but of smoke there was a great deal, and Mr. Giblin and his aid reached the Broadway windows with difficulty.
Within fifteen minutes after Mr. Giblin had entered the building there was a crash. A heavy safehad tumbled from an upper floor. The inrushing air brought the fire with it, and soon the ground floor was a mass of flames. Mr. Giblin, however, did not see this, for he had stepped into his big vault, big enough to conceal a company of men, and the door was keeping both flames and smoke from him. He was busily engaged looking for the papers which he had come to save. It was only when he had obtained what he wanted that he opened the door of the vault to retrace his steps. A rush of smoke almost overcame him instantly. He pulled the door behind him and realized that he was a prisoner. He glanced about for the watchman but did not see him. He knew then that his life, too, was only a matter of time, and he waited for that time.
The rumor spread outside that a well-dressed man who had entered the building had perished in the flames. Some said that his name was Gilbin, but the busy fire fighters soon forgot this incident, for there were other things which kept them alert every moment. It was stated by a watchman in the employ of the Cafe Savarin that eight men were asleep in the building somewhere, and these men had not been accounted for.
Walsh Calls for Volunteers.
Battalion Chief Walsh stepped forward and asked for volunteers to try and save the lives of all men still in the building. Fourteen men rushed at the opportunity. An extension ladder was raised to the fourth floor and the troop of fifteen, Chief Walsh leading, started up the ladder. At 7 A.M. the last of them was seen entering the window on the fourth floor.
They searched the fourth floor and found no sign of human life.
"We'll go down the stairs," said Chief Walsh to his men, "and search the third floor. Then we'l go to the second floor."
The firemen darted ahead and the Battalion Chief loitered a while on the fourth floor where something had attracted his attention. The fire was licking the fourth floor even as he loitered. There was also a rumbling sound as of crashing floors overhead.
"Go ahead, boys. I can take care of myself," the Chief's voice was heard through the smoke as he was trying to make his way down the stairs in the wake of his brave firemen.
There was a crash, followed by many other crashes, and by seething and whipping flames which made the fourth floor a furnace within a few moments. Walsh was last seen half way down on the stairs leading from the fourth floor to the third. Whether he tripped and fell or whether a part of the floor overhead fell down on him will perhaps never be known.
His men ran to the windows of the third floor on the extreme east, where there was least fire. They called for ladders, and one by one, until the count of fourteen was reached, Walsh's volunteers, with tears in their eyes, climbed down to the street.
"Have you seen Chief Walsh? Have you seen the Chief?" was asked of everyone, while the news was carried to Chief Kenlon and Fire Commissioner Johnson that the Battalion Chief was missing.
No one had seen him climb down a ladder. Joseph Brown of Truck 61, one of the men who had answered Chief Walsh's call for volunteers, was seen to tip Chief Kenlon on the arm and say to him:
Walsh Never Seen Again.
"Chief, he's gone. I know he's gone. He was still on the stairway when the floor began to give way. I heard him cry to go ahead, and that he was all right and could take care of himself, but he was hurt then, I;m sure. I think something struck him in the leg even before the floor gave way. Me and Capt. Bass, who was injured too, went back to the stairway and yelled the Chief's name, but we didn't get any reply except the noise of the flames. I'm afraid he's gone."
Chief Kenlon ordered a search for the battalion chief, and Battalion Chief Binns, with ten selected men, volunteered to go through the fourth floor. The search at best could not be thorough, for the fourth floor was like a furnace by that time. He and his men remained aloft for fifteen minutes and returned without the missing chief.
A fireman walking through Cedar Street at 8:30 A.M. discovered the keys which Mr. Giblin had unconsciously left behind him. He found that the door opened with the turn of the key. From within he thought he heard noises. He reported the matter and six firemen, under orders, entered by the Cedar Street entrance to investigate, pushing their way forward with the aid of a line of hose. Within a few Moments there was a tugging at the line and those behind knew that help was wanted inside. It came promptly and strong arms carried out three of the six firemen. They had been overcome by suffocating fumes and were bruised by falling grating. They were taken to the Hudson Street Hospital. Those who retained consciousness, however, admitted that they also thought they had heard a faint voice coming from near the Broadway windows on the ground floor.
It was recalled about this time that Mr. Giblen had not been heard from. The vaults, it was known, were in the northernmost wing, very near the Broadway windows, and the most hopeful advanced what at that time was the most problematical of vain hopes, that the faint cries might be those of Mr. Giblin.
Search for Mr. Giblin
Chief Kenlon ordered half a dozen streams to play directly on the vaults where the fire, at 8 o'’lock, was not nearly as hot as it was in the centre of the building. The windows on Broadway nearest the vaults were incased with burglar-proof steel bars, and these were so thickly coated with ice that there was barely room to play strema between them. The water spalshed until it rebounded to the west curb of Broadway, but when axes were used to break the ice the stream shot far into the interior of the ground floor.
When the section in which the vaults are located seemed sufficiently cooled to begin action at close range, two firemen, with steel saws, began sawing through the bars. Each bar measured fully half an inch in diameter, and it was 8:45 when the third bar gave way.
Twenty firemen pulled at a rope which was attached to the end of one of the disjointed bars and succeeded in twisting it fully sixty degrees out of plumb. The other two bars were similarly treated and the aperture then was large enough for a man’s body to slide through.
“I’m going in there first, said Father McGean, Chaplain of the firemen, who knows every brave fire fighter and who is as brave as the bravest.
Chief Devanney was in charge and objected to the Chaplain’s determination to go into the burning building. It was compromised then to let Chief Devanney go first. Father McGean, who weighs 250 pounds and is a powerfully built man, crawled after the Chief, his clerical robes dragging in the slush, to the door of the vault, which is about fifteen feet from the Braodway window.
The door was closed and just as the two men were about to pull it open they saw the form of a man lying about six feet awy, toward the interior of the building. A mass of wreckage covered part of his body.
“For God’s sake, save me,” plaintively cried the man.
Chop Wreckage from Him
The wreckage that covered him was mostly of iron frame work and yielded readily to the axe. While Chief Devanney was working with all his might Father McGean knelt by the side of the man who was believed to be dying.
Several firemen tugged the priest about the same time.
"Come out of here," they yelled, "the whole building is falling."
Father McGean was carried bodily to the Broadway window where he had entered. The chief and several men of the resuce squadron came behind him with the disable man. The man, already unconscious, was shoved through the aperture in the grating and the others had hardly made a like exit when there was a series of crashes and the sizzling of hot iron and the spot from which the man had been resuced was another heap of ruins.
"Why, it's Mr. Giblin," exclaimed Fire Commissioner Johnson, who was waiting outside the grating of the window.
It was Mr. Giblin and he was hurried to the Hudson street Hospital.
"I saw another man in there," said Father McGean to those who stood around him. "He was buried even more than Mr. Giblin. I am sure that he was dead for he did not even stir. I did not have time to reach him for the firemen did not think it would be safe for me. O, I shall never forget this. If I had administered the last rites to Mr. Giblin we might all have been buried. This is awful. It is the worst fire, I believe, that I have ever seen. First I saw those three men lose their lives on the roof. Then I saw this close escape of so many men. I shall never forget what I have seen and experienced.”
The spread of the news that Mr. Giblin had been found alive after being imprisoned amid the flames for two hours led to the hope that Battalion Chief Walsh might yet be saved. Chief Kenlon kept a steady stream of water playing into the fourth floor, that his men might be able to enter the building again when the fire should be extinguished, but the fire seemed only to be increasing in vigor every moment.
The rumor went the rounds at noon that Chief Walsh was in Gouverneur Hospital, where he had been quitely taken under a wrong name, as the mistake of an ambulance surgeon. An afternoon paper printed the story thus, and most people at the fire believed it was true. The report at least played a good role when Mrs. Walsh and her 18-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, came to the fire to ask about the missing Chief.
Tries to Cheer Mrs. Walsh
Chief Walsh's brother-in-law, who said he was a Captain in the United States Army, quieted the wife and daughter.
"See, here is an account of Chief Walsh’s rescue," he said, handing Mrs. Walsh the newspaper.
Mrs. Walsh wept for joy. Then she and her daughter were bundled into an automobile and hastned away, obviously on their way to the hospital.
Chief Walsh was not at the hospital, however. Many inquiries had come there for him, and always it was denied that he had been seen there.
Among the inquirers was Timothy F. Manning, Chief Walsh's driver. He ran all the way to the hospital from the scene of the fire, and, appearing at the desk, asked breathlessly:
"Have you got Chief Walsh here?"
"No," answered the clerk; "you’re the fiftieth one to ask that."
“I’ve lost him, I’ve lost him!” wailed Manning. He seemed dazed, and ran around the office as if crazed. Later he was found at Broadway and Cedar Street, acting hysterically and crying bitterly. He was taken to the Hudson Street Hospital and treated for hysteria.
No Help for Appealing Hands
The most ghastly incident of the day occurred late in the afternoon. When the icy and ghost-like hands of a man were seen stretched appealingly in the directions of the very windows on the Broadway side of the ground floor thorugh which Mr. Giblin’s rescuers had passed. The hands were within two feet of the window, and tons of wreckage had dropped in the path which Father McGean and the firemen took. Yet Father McGean is certain the hands were not there when he entered the building. Nor is it considered likely that they could have been those of the Italian who fell backward from the coping on the fourth floor at the first stages of the fire.
The left hand was held a little in advance of the right and could easily be reached from the window grating. All afternoon, even after the discovery of these hands, the firemen played streams of water over them. They did not bend even under this pressure. They merely seemed to glisten more in their iced encasement.
Some thought it was the watchman who went into the building with Mr. Giblin. It was suggested that it might be William Camplian, a watchman of the Mercantile Save Deposit Company, who is among the missing. Campian’s two daugherers, Eta, 18 years old, and Helen, 21, came to the scene of the fire early in the afternoon. They also went to the police stations in the neighborhood. They feared that their father had lost his life. The white hands near the windows had not been discovered when they left the scene in tears.
William Brown and Peter Donavan, firemen working on the Nassau Street side, fell on the ice in the early afternoon. Brown’s right arm was broken, and Donavan suffered a bad scalp wound. An ice splinter cut a long gash across the face of Samuel Diamond of Engine 17, and Patrick Healy of the same engine company was stunned by another splinter which struck him in the face.
John Roth of Engine 32 fell from a slippery window ledge two stories up. His led was broken, his back injured, and his head was cut. He, as well as the others, were taken to St. Gregory’s Hospital.
Charles Bass, captain of Engine 34, was taken to Hudson Street Hospital badly cut and burned after a fall on the ground floor of the ruins.
During the day there were many other injuries, none of them serious, but all of the ambulance doctors, as well as the twenty-five doctors from the White Cross Hospital in Brooklyn, who came in the Subway with their satchels, were busy tying up the wounds of the firemen.
Cuts His Way to Saftey
Leander Delk, an Equitable watchman, who was caught in the burning building, was rescued after he had cut his way from the basemen with a pick and a crowbar.
“When I reported for work this morning,” he said, “I found the men fighting a fire. At that time it did not look to be much of a blaze and I did not think the building was in danger. Then all of a sudden it got away from the men and I knew that it was going to be a hard one to handle. Suddenly, I don’t know how it happened, it was so quick, the walls began to fall, and Gustave Peterson, the day watchman, who was with me, and I ran for the stairway leading from the basement to the first floor. We were cut off, and like trapped rats we ran back and got into the vaults. The heat was something awful and the smoke was so thick that every minute I expected to be my last. Finally the firemen got to me and I was pulled out of the hole. They soon got Peterson out after me.”
How the Fire Was Fought
In the midst of the rescue work the Brooklyn apparatus arrived. The Manhattan firemen were then fighting the fire from every point where a stream could be played. The Equitable Building was then a mass of flames from basement to roof, and the walls seemed momentarily on the point of crumbling back into the ruins of the interior or into the streets.
The Brooklyn firemen were distributed at points of advantage on the surrounding skyscrapers, from the roofs and windows of which the firemen perhaps accomplished the best work. One of the strongest positions was the roof of the Clearing House, which was just high enough to make it possible to hurl several big streams into the very heart of the furnace which the Equitable had become. The roof of the Fourth National Bank in Nassau Street was another vantage point used by the firemen in keeping the fire in the Equitable and away from the nearby buildings. The roof of the Schermerhorn Building in Cedar Street was still another strategic point the firemen found use for, and the same was true of the Trinity Building at 115 Broadway; in fact, every building in the fire zone.
Little Loss to Belmont
One of the hardest fights, and a fight that was won, was the saving of the Read Building, which is in the “L” formed by the Equitable Building at Nassau and Cedar Streets, and the principal occupants of which are W. A. Read & Co., the bankers, and August Belmont.
The upper stories of this structure were badly damaged, but the firemen stayed the downward progress of the flames every time it seemed that the building would suffer the fate of the Equitable.
Mr. Belmont arrived at the scene of the fire early in the morning, and tried to get through the police lines, but a policeman blocked his way. Mr. Belmont argued and then pleaded, but the policeman assured him that his orders were strict, and that everybody, including the tenants of the buildings in the immediate neighborhood, would have to keep out until further notice. Mr. Belmont had to stay away, but was finally permitted to enter his offices when it was seen that the fire was under control. His offices and their valuable contents, among the latter several fine paintings and prints, were not damaged to any extent, according to the report given out later in the afternoon.
Another building that was in great danger was the Equitable Trust Company’s home on the southwest corner of Nassau and Pine Streets. The damage to that building was principally due to the water which was kept playing on it for hours. The books and records of the trust company were removed to the Hanover National Bank Building across the street.
By 8 o’clock the Equitable Building was only a shell. Its four masonry walls and the great iron doors fronting on Broadway were all that was left standing of the original structure.
But the ruins within the walls burned as fiercely as ever, and the contrary winds that prevailed made the firemen’s fight all the harder. But shortly after 9 o’clock they mastered the blaze, and at 9:30 Chief Kenlon announced that the fire was under control.
The shifting winds, however, made the withdrawal of any of the apparatus out of the question, and until after noon the debris within the wrecked building burned furiously, and every now and then a long tongue of flame would shoot up from the ruins while, the smoke, thick and black, poured upward in a steady cloud. Not until after 2 P.M. could the East River be seen from the Broadway window of the skyscrapers opposite the burned structure, so dense was the blanket of smoke that intervened.
At times the water pressure was so feeble that the streams did not reach the top of the Equitable’s famous iron doors. But fortunately this weakness came after the fire was under control.
Fire Dressed in Robes of Ice
It was the weather that made the fire not only one of the most terrible to fight in all the history of New York’s Fire Department, but cast over the whole scene a magical mangle of glistening white. Those hundreds that by hook or crook evaded the police lines and made their way within sight of the burning building saw a towering mass of ice. It seemed at first glance as though it could not be that within those coated walls a flame could live, and then here and there people watching from the frozen sidewalks or from the windows of the buildings across the way could see beyond the red of the fire still blazing.
This fire broke forth under conditions that stirred in old fire fighters the memory of the burning of the bag factory on South Street nearly ten years ago, when the men and the bulding were encased in ice. At 5 o’clock, a little before the fire was discovered, the mercury in the Weather Bureau registered 34 degrees. During the first fierce period of the fighting it sank, degree by degree, until at 9, a half hour before the fire was under contorl, it registered 23. By noon it had fallen to 19.
But this was not all, nor the worst, for a cutting northwest wind was blowing – a fearful blast, whipping across the business section at a rate of forty-four miles an hour. As the fire apparatus charged upon the burning building, and the men came hurrying to do battle with flames, this stiff wind had stiffened till by 9 o’clock it was a gale, sweeping and whistling through the caverns of the great building at sixty miles an hour.
At first the spectacle was as other fires – terrible, threateneing, a blaze showing fitfully through the windows and walls that later gave way, and over all a giant smuge of smoke that could be seen in the far sections of the city. But with the growing cold and the increased bitterness of the wind the ice came. It incrusted the building, it covered with a silvery film all the buldings around about, and the firemen themselves looked like fantastic figures from some fairy spectacle of the Far North.
With the coming of nightfall, the ice that had accumulated layer upon layer upon the sidewalk, rose into a mound of several feet.
Ice Shuts Out the Flames
By noon, the flames within the Equitable Building were invisible from the streets. One simply saw from Broadway a structure that had turned into a gleaming white. The noon sunlight, striking down thorugh the open space of Trinity Church yard, made it radiant. The pillars were enlarged and ghost-like like giant icicles, and around the Broadway entrance, the encrusted white was so thick that all the tracery and decorative carving was obliterated. There stood out with a new distinctiveness, however, the letters which proclaimed that within was the home of “The Equitable Life Assurance Society.” Something of the same covering was bestowed by the showering spray upon the buildings all about on Broadway, Pine, Cedar and Nassau streets, so that by noon-time, every horizontal line and every arch that beautifies the front elevation of the Fourth National was outlined in a frosted coating and the dome of the Clearing House was a gleaming mound. When the smoke cleared away and the steam and spray would shift, the scene suggested the spangled white of the Christmas cards.
But this same hand of Winter that cast a spell of beauty over the disaster made the whole section a fearful place for those whose business took them there yesterday, and a more than fearful place for the fire fighteres. These men had to be literally thawed out from time to time, when they would be so sheathed in ice that for all their dogged bravery to go on was not humanly possible.
At 9 o’clock Fire Chief Kenlon, who worked like a Trojan at this--his first great fire--was actually weighted down with icicles. They had formed on his eyebrows and hung from his mustache like dumbbells. From his shoulders and arms the men on the lines had to chop away the coat of ice. He looked like a man from another world. It was so with all the firemen whose work took them into the zone of the shifting spray, and it was soon found necessary to open relief stations in the entrances to the various office buildings which faced the building that was in flames. Here police and men detailed from the Fire Department bent over the half frozen men, pressing their stiff gloves onto the radiators, cutting, scraping, and chopping the ice from their helmets and hair and shoulders, and here and there furnishing them with the hot coffee for the glow to send them back to the hose and the wreck of the Equitable.
Scenes at the Fire
It was the coffee man who was treasured and hailed as the most welcome visitant of those hard hours. With his constantly refilled can – the milkman’s variety – he darted here and there, looming up now and then out of the smoke and mist, darting under the streams of the hose and coming unexpectedly from behind the ice mound that was once a useful piece of fire apparatus. Not only he, but volunteers, did this Good Samaritan work. More than one woman, heavily wrapped in furs, drove to the edge of the danger zone, showed to the police lines credentials in the form of coffee cans and boxes of sandwiches, and, armed with these, made their way to some corner whence the provisions might be dispensed.
One young woman, who declined to give her name, but who the small boy acting as her lieutenant called Miss Ducey, arrived early and stayed until dark, her stock of coffee and sandwiches contantly replenished. She took up her stand in the vestibule of the United States Realty Building, and there dealt out the warm drink to the frozen firemen who were led up to her by the policeman guarding the entrance. One of the Equitable’s officers took note of the work, wished he should share in it, and put $20 in her hand, a bill that soon added to the stores.
There were many such instances of help volunteered. One man saw a priest hurrying by with a coffee cup abrim in either hand.
“Are you selling those?” he asked.
“Of course not,” was the wondering rejoinder, and for answer, so the story runs, the man thrust two yellow bills at him and asked that he might thus help him to keep it up.
One of the girls who was dispensing refreshments in this fashion saw the figure of a big man, wrapped in a big coat that glistened with its covering of ice. He looked as though he had seen hard service in the fire, and she touched him on the arm.
"Have a sandwich, Chief?" she proffered.
"I am not a Chief," he answered, gently shaking his head; "I'm only a priest, and I – I do not think that I care to eat."
He had indeed seen hard service. The man was Father McGean.
Everything in Ice’s Grip
But it was not only the people that were hampered in their work by the ice that formed all about. It formed as well on the many pieces of fire apparatus, and several trucks, so placed as to catch the wind-driven streams where the hose was playing, were gradually rendered quite useless. Here and there stood trucks, so swathed in ice that it was hard to believe they had ever moved or would every move again. The ice that gripped and held one hose wagon on Broadway was, more than two feet thick in some places, and with the coming of darkness people within the building could hear the firemen outside chopping away and casting great chunks down on to the street.
The water tower that was reared on Nassau Street between Pine and Cedar was soon a stationary thing, its every cog and wheel lost from sight in the ice coating and embedded in a fast thickening foundation of ice. It was part of the street itself, it seemed, and the street itself was ice. The part of the street immediately in front of the destroyed buiding on Broadway all ice, so that the end of the asphalt and the beginning of the sidewalk was indistinguishable.
Not only the firemen themselves but the policemen who formed the fire lines but passers by were caught and coated with ice before they could get beyond reach of the spray that the wind kept ever whirling through the air. A messenger boy darted out of the doors of the Fourth National at noon and made his way north. To run that block was to make one’s way through an all-cloudy mist that shut out of sight of the buildings all around and made the street a ghostly place with long lines of shrouded hose to trip and stumble over. A block away, with the air clearer, the messenger boy stopped and found that ice had formed over his eyebrows and that his face and clothing were drenched. It was the experience of everyone, and silk hats fared no better than the messenger boy’s cap.
About 5 o’clock in the afternoon a sinister red gleam appeared on the very edge of Broadway, in the ground floor of the building. It showed with fitfully shifting brilliance behind a grating of iron bars all of them white. The firemen watched this fascinated, but to attack it was needless. It was the blazing of record books, papers, and accounts of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, stored there in vast quantities, out of reach, and threatening nothing else. Until late last night this was still a red glare matched by another that showed in the darkness from one of the highest remaining parts of the ruined structure.
How the Police Helped
A block beyond the burning square on all four sides was the line drawn by the police lines, maintained all day. This cordon was put into effect by Inspector Daly, Cahalane, and McClusky, who had in charge. 250 officers and patrolmen.
They went over at the sound of the third alarm. Forty detectives were sent to the fire and to the surrounding district of disturbance to prevent sneak thievery. Last night Commissioner Waldo assigned 80 patrolmen in uniform and another forty detectives to keep the night watch. With the coming of 7 o’clock this morning the Traffic Squad will take charge of the vicinity. It is promised from Headquarters that every effort will be made to permit the usual business and street traffic to be resumed in the financial district.
Yesterday both were paralyzed. The police lines were tightly drawn, so that those who would pass had to show a police card or some excellent reason. Impatient silk-hatted folk were held back with eager newsboys, and one policeman was peculiarly obdurate to one woman spectator who held her lorgnettes poised to catch what glimpse she could from beyond the fire lines.
The traffic was badly prostrated. The surface line on Broadway was obviously and completely thrown out of business, but the fire unexpectedly halted even the subway trains for as much as half an hour in the morning. That was when it was feared that the sidewalk would cave in.
As for the trolley lines from the Battery to City Hall Park, there was no sign of life on them after daybreak, and the first interruption caused by the arrival of the fire fighters. Then, as the ice settled in a heavy coating over Broadway, it was plain that the few cars stranded further downtown were there for some time to come. Unless there was a marked change in temperature, there will have to be some hard chopping done to clear the tracks for use within the next few days. Yesterday all cars halted at Murray Street, the South Ferry ones switching there to the uptown tracks.
Great Throng of Onlookers
Despite the holdup in the Subway and absolute collapse of the trolleys, crowds poured into the stricken section all day long. Few stayed, for the police were not cordial, and only the most curious and hardy could withstand the cold and the wind and the wet for more than just long enough to take a glimpse. The arrival of the army of clerks at 9 blackened all the side streets with a pressing crowd, and throughout the day a glance at the windows of all surrounding skyscrapers suggested that within many an office business slackened yesterday. Yet in many institutions the work went relentlessly on, and the doorkeeper at the Fourth National Bank was surprised when he was asked if any clerks had been eye-witnesses of the fire. “They had to open the mail and get ready the exchanges,” he said in the voice of one who knows that banks wait for no fire.
As he spoke the bank was filled with the placid hum of routine business, yet the windows looked upon a ruined building, and Nassau Street in front was all but impassable, fire badge or no fire badge. It was that way all through the section yesterday, tremendous effort of rescue and alleviation going on amid scenes of destruction the while that ordinary business, hampered and blocked here and there, went on its unemotional, unpreoccupied way.
Kenlon Proud of His Men
Late in the afternoon Chief Kenlon came into the Trinity building and began to break the ice that formed a covering an inch thick on his big white helmet.
"It has been a great battle," he said. "It was made all the harder because of narrow streets, weather that approached the zero kind, and the fact that it was in an old building. The work of the men was superb and they never showed better than they did in keeping this fire in the building in which it started. I cannot say too much in praise of them, and I would be a strange man if I was not proud of them. As for poor Walsh he was a brave and able fireman, and now that it seems certain that he is lost I can only say that great as is my feeling of sorrow over his death, it must be a source of comfort to all who knew and loved him that he died like he did, in the heroic discharge of his duty."
At that hour the roof of the Equitable building was still on fire, and Chief Kenlon said that it would be several hours before a search could be started for the bodies of Walsh and others supposed to be in the ruins. And that night, working under the glare of search lights, the firemen of four hook and ladder companies began the search for the bodies. The ice which had formed in some places over a foot thick greatly hampered the firemen. It is uncertain in which of the ruins the body of the dead battalion chief is.
So high is the pile of destruction the building that the firemen who were making the search said last night that it would probably be some time today before they find Walsh's body.
Chief Kenlon, who was called to Brooklyn by two four-alarm fires last night, was back at the Equitable Building by 9 o'clock and after looking over the situation ordered the Trinity Building, 115 Broadway, which had been closed for the night, opened. He then sent a number of firemen in the building and ordered streams thrown from the roof of that building into the ruins of the Equitable Building.
Charles E. Knobluch, R. Lansburg, R. H. Mainzer, and H. H. Hallgarten of the Stock Exchange firm of Hallgarten & Co., 5 New Street, gave an order last night that food and hot coffee be served to the firemen and police at their expense.