Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Biggest Fire in Years Destroys Equitable's Home

January 10, 1912, New-York Tribune, "Biggest Fire in Years Destroys Equitable's Home,"


Six Lives Lost and Nineteen Persons Injured but Result as to Property Value Is a Gain to Assurance Society.


Blaze Kept from Spreading Despite High Winds. Cold Weather Adds to Firemen's Troubles, Water Freezing Almost as Soon as Pumped on Building. Battalion Chief Missing

The most extensive fire in this city since the burning of the United States Express Company building, in lower Broadway, six years ago, destroyed the eight story structure of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, covering a block in the financial district, early yesterday morning.

Though many millions of dollars had been expended on the building, its destruction resulted in a gain in property value for the Equitable Society, which no doubt now will carry out plans filed in 1908 for a building of sixty-two stories.

The property was recently appraised at $13,000,000, of which $2,000,000 was for the building itself.

Six persons lost their lives in the fire and a score or more were injured. Two employes of the Savarin restaurant were dashed to death on the sidewalk below when a rope on which they were descending from the burning building was severed by the flames, and a third perished in the furnace. A porter jumped from a window. The fifth was a watchman, who refused to leave the vaults and was suffocated.

Battalion Chief William Walsh was one of several firemen to be caught under a falling ceiling, on the fourth floor. The others escaped, and Chief Walsh, who has not been seen since, is believed to have perished

Practically a gale blew during the fire, making the firemen's work all the more difficult, but the blaze was confined to the Equitable Building. The cold weather further hampered the firefighters. Water froze not only on the building, which at length came to be a mass of wreckage encased in ice, but also on the firemen themselves.

The vaults, containing $1,000,000,000 of securities, were reported at a late hour yesterday to be intact, though buried under a mass of ruin.

The famous old Equitable building built a generation ago of granite and trimmed with rare marbles and wood yielded up its seared and weary soul yesterday in red flame and yellow smoke. Late last night its open shell alone remained standing.

Within the shell the wreck still smoldered and blazed fitfully, gleaming red through the frost bound window holes. In front on Broadway and on all three sides in the narrow canyons of
Pine, Nassau and Cedar streets the firemen kept pouring into the blackened cavern streams of water pulverized by the gale from the harbor, which drifted in clouds of freezing spray over the entire neighborhood, binding everything in ice.

Though the Equitable Building, from its inception in 1869 until completed by additions twenty years later cost millions to construct, and the manner of its passing paralyzed the business heart of the country for twenty-four hours, yet its loss has actually added several hundred thousand dollars to the value of the most valuable block in New York. In the heart of the Wall Street district, this land is now worth more than when covered by an outworn encumbrance.

But the lives of six men were sacrificed for this gain, among them Battalion Chief William J. Walsh, who vanished from the sight of the living somewhere on the fourth floor of the building, and William Campeon, captain of the watchmen employed by the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company.

Campeon, faithful in death, still watched last night over the millions of valuables trapped in the Mercantile's vaults. Passersby in Broadway, such few as the police allowed in the block, got a glimpse of hands frozen to the steel bars of an outer door, where he had vainly clamored for help. The other victims of the fire were three employees of the Cafe Savarin.

Famous Law Library Burns

There burned with the building also the valuable law library on the seventh floor gathered by the late Henry Baldwin Hyde for the Lawyers' Club, which occupied half of the building's fifth floor; oceans of papers and records belonging to such tenants as the Union Pacific an Southern Pacific railroads, and the many lawyers with offices there. But the $1,050,000,000 in cash and securities which the fireproof vaults of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, the Equitable
Assurance Society, Equitable Trust Company, and the half dozen other banking houses in the building held is considered safe.

The Equitable Assurance Society has been keeping the originals of its policies and all its more valuable records in the Hazen Building, at No. 2 Albany Street, for over a year, so that its loss in this respect, supposed at first to have been irreparable, is really negligible.

The biggest single fire that New York has had since that which destroyed the building of the United States Express Company six years ago started in the storeroom of the Café Savarin about 4 o'clock In the morning. The Cafe Savarin occupied the southwest quarter of the basement, at Pine Street and Broadway. There the bakers were at work early in the morning, and the police say they fought the fire for two hours before making its existence known.

They spoke instead to William Davis, the night engineer, who turned in an alarm in the building itself, calling to his aid a force of cleaners working on the different floors. All the private apparatus available was brought to bear on the flames, but they continued to feed greedily upon the mass of linen and other inflammable material in their path. One of the fighters, realizing the
hopelessness of their situation, rushed out into the Nassau a fixed post at Nassau Street at about 5:30 o'clock and communicated his terror to Patrolman Foley, who occupied a fixed post at Nassau and Pine Streets.

Policeman's Advent Resented

Foley ran for the building, rapping his night stick on the pavement, which summoned Sergeant Casey. They met and entered the building, only to be greeted by Davis with a "What are you
butting in for?"

"Go on, Foley," commanded Casey, and Foley went, returning as quickly to send in an alarm at the fire box on the corner.

Immediately the flames burst with a roar through the storeroom's thin partition into the elevator shafts and seethed up to the fifth floor, where they spread out into the luxurious quarters of
the Lawyers' Club. In the absence of Deputy Chief Binns, Chief Kuss. of the 1st Battalion, was the first on the ground. He immediately turned in a second alarm, which brought Chief Kenlon.

The fire in almost no time had engulfed the three top floors of the eight story building. Chief Kenlon did not bother to turn in a third alarm. He turned in a fourth instead, and then the
"borough alarm." which summoned a dozen engines from Brooklyn.

A gale that froze the blood swept in over Trinity churchyard and tore at the flames, blowing them into a vast torch, which persuaded many a dweller on Brooklyn Heights, across the East River, that the sun had risen In the west. Blazing chairs, desks and rafters were sucked up like sparks, to fall on the roofs of the skyscrapers to the east. Chief Kenlon stationed men on the roofs of every building between Nassau and Pearl streets to nip every incipient blaze in the bud, in the mean time warning Janitors and caretakers to keep all windows closed.

Just as the Brooklyn apparatus, for which the entire north roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge had bean cleared, that it might rush unimpeded to the rescue, had arrived abreast the Equitable Building, in Nassau street, three employes of the Cafe Savarin were seen to climb along the coping of the roof on the Cedar street side, pursued by the flames. Firemen below made out there forms faintly against the dawn breaking in the east. The three gained the cupola at Cedar street and Broadway and shrieked for help. Then they knelt and prayed.

Killed When Life Line Burns.

Five firemen threw scaling ladders against the side of the building and ran up, only to be driven back by the flames, which belched suddenly from the windows. Then other firemen from the windows of the skyscraper across the street shot a life line to the desperate men. They caught it and made it fast, but as two of them grasped it and were being lowered to safety a tongue of
flame from one of the windows reached up and with a lick severed the rope as if it had been twine, and the two men were dashed to bits below.

The third man, at sight of the fate of his comrades, stepped back with horror and plunged into the furnace at the rear. His name may never be known. John Sazzio and Giuseppl Condi were his companions who met death in Cedar Street. Sazzio landed directly in front of Timothy P. Manning, a fireman attached to Truck 6, who immediately became hysterical and was removed to the Hudson Street Hospital. Manning remained delirious up to a late hour last night as a result of his experience.

Kenlon soon had all the streets round about the burning building choked with the black smoke from fire engines, while taut hose stretched from every direction to pour a freezing spray through the windows. His men penetrated to the offices facing the doomed building along Pine,
Nassau, and Cedar Street and fought the fire from them, dragging their hose up through the hallways and fastening the nozzles on the window sills. This they found to be the only effective method of attack in the narrow little canyons. As a result, however, many a lawyer and banker had not only to abandon all thoughts of business during the day, but also to reconcile himself to considerable loss through water damage and more or less inconvenience for some time to come.

While the fire was at its height Battalion Chief William Walsh, at the head of five firemen, made his way to the fourth floor of the burning building on the Pine street side. They had been groping there a few minutes, when, according to one of the firemen, there was a crash, and a large portion of the ceiling fell, and they were all buried beneath a mass of debris.

Firemen in the street who had seen their chief and comrades disappear and heard the crash, shouted a warning. A crew, headed by Captain Sidney Johnson, of one of the patrol companies,
went to the rescue. A line was stretched from another window, and the firemen made their way to the sidewalk. Then it was found that Chief Walsh was missing. The firemen tried to get back into the building, but were forced out.

Charles S. Bass, captain of Engine Company 4, was injured a little later and was carried from the building. He was attended in the street and then removed to the Hudson Street Hospital. When Captain Bass was pulled out of the burning building the rumor started that Chief Walsh had been found, but later this was denied, and the search for the chief was kept up.

Firemen attached to four hook and ladder companies began a systematic search on the fourth floor last night for the body of Chief Walsh. Difficulty was encountered in tearing away the debris, which was cemented into a compact mass by the ice. Chief Kenlon said last night that a fireman attached to Hook and Ladder Company 1 was the last to see Chief Walsh alive. He was then on the fourth floor and was about to descend. Captain Sidney Johnson, of Fire Patrol 1,
later reported that he saw Chief Walsh between the first and second floors of the building, and inspector McClusky reported that be thought he saw Walsh in the ground floor of the structure.
Kenlon. however, was inclined to believe that Walsh lost his life while on the fourth floor

Seven o'clock saw the climax of the fire. Then it was that the roof and upper floors began to fall and carry with them the lower floors, accounting for the loss of Chief Walsh and also for the death of a Massena Fratta of No. 225 East 56th street. Fratta was found by firemen lying unconscious in Pine street, having Jumped from the third floor. Dr. Savage, of the Volunteer Hospital, whose ambulance was handy, found that the porter was suffering from a fracture at the base of the skull. He lifted him into the ambulance and sped with him to the hospital, but Fratta died before the institution was reached.

William Giblin, president of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, was another one to be caught by the falling floors, and after a fireman had sawed through the steel bars of his vaults and extricated him more dead than alive he was carried across the Street to the boiler room of the Trinity Building and revived. There he told this story:

"l was sitting up last night with my wife, who has been very i11, when an employee of the Hotel Breslin informed me that the Trust Company was on fire. When I arrived at the building there were no flames but plenty of smoke. I hurried into one of the vaults to get out some papers, followed by one of the night watchmen. The vault has a spring lock and I left my keys outside. When the man and I started to leave the place the door swung shut and we were both prisoners.

"The smoke was awful. We screamed and shouted, but it seemed as though we were both doomed. The other poor fellow was alive up to half an hour ago, but he fainted just before I was carried out and I think he must be dead by this time." Mr. Giblin was then taken to the Hudson Street Hospital. He was weak, it was said last night, but in no immediate danger.

Broadway surface car traffic was completely blocked, and as the water from the fire hose flowed into the slots and tracks and congealed there several cars became glued in their places by the ice. The streets around became rough glaciers and made the movement of apparatus almost impossible. The ice will keep the streets effectively closed to horse traffic until it is chopped out with pickaxes and cleared away
Some time after 10 o'clock Kenlon and his men were satisfied that they had the fire under control. It burned fitfully thereafter throughout the afternoon and evening, defying Jack Frost to creep into its heart and throw his spell over its havoc.

After a conference of half a dozen of the officers and directors of the Equitable hastily summoned by President Dy to the Hazen Building, No. 2 Albany Street, at 8 o'clock yesterday morning, the president issued a statement to the public that the business of the company would be carried on at No. 165 Broadway, where temporary quarters had been secured.

The question of the future permanent home of the company, it was learned from an official who was present at the conference, was discussed only informally.

"When Mr. Morton then president of the Equitable, figured on the plans for a 62-story building to be built on the site of the Equitable block, at 120 Broadway, he found that it would cost $300,000 to raze the old building," said E.E. Rittenhouse, who acted yesterday as spokesman for Mr. Day. "The destruction of the building by fire will bring no loss to policyholders, because the building, under orders from the State Insurance Department, has not been carried as an asset on the books of the company.

Gage E. Tarbel, one of the directors and formerly vice-president of the Equitable, supported this when he said yesterday:

"The ground without the building is more valuable than with it. As a matter of fact, the building was a detriment to the property."

Informally, it is reported, the officers of the company who joined in the hasty conference summoned by the president, William A, Day, discussed the old plans for the sixty-two story structure, which was brought forward by the late Paul Morton.

"It is probable," Mr. Ritterhouse said, "that the Equitable will build its new permenent home office on the site of the old Equitable block, but as to whether the new building will be the immense structure at first planned is a serious question. The State Insurance Department would have something to say about that also, because the law gives that department a measure of supervision over the building plans of an insurance company."

In a statement given out later in the day Mr. Ritterhouse said:

"The loss of furniture, fixtures and such papers as were not in the vaults will doubtless be about $200,000. The destruction of the building itself will make no reduction in the society's assets, as, on account of its smallness, its age, and the very high value of the land on which it stands, the building has not been carried as an asset, and the Insurance Department of New York has not allowed it as an aseset for several years in checking up the resources of the society. The land is worth more with the building off it, because of the cost of tearing it down. The total loss, therefore, should be well within $300,000, which will be offset by the society's insurance fund."

The site occupied by the Equitable block, Mr. Ritterhouse said, was valued at from $12,000,000 to $15,000,000. The Equitable discontinued its insurance with fire insurance companies something like two years ago, he said, and established a fire insurance fund of its own, which fund, he thought, would cover the loss on property burned in the building. That included the law library which the Equitable had furnished as part of the inducement to the Lawyers' Club, which had its rooms on the eight floor.

Judge Day began the rounding up of his assistants and of other officials of the Equitable soon after 7 o'clock yesterday morning, and before 8 o'clock he had directed Leon O. Fisher, auditor, and Gerald Brown, controller, to secure other quarters for the executive offices, the cashier's department and the offices of the metropolitan agency division, the three departments which had been housed in the old home office. By 9 o'clock in the morning these officers of the company had negotiated for three floors of the City Investing Building, and soon after that hour the company officially moved there, and by afternoon sufficient furniture had been acquired to give dignity to the transfer, but in the mean time the actual business of receiving such premiums as came in the mail and the disbursing functions had been proceeding without obstruction at the offices in the Hazen Building.

The Clearing House Association, in its offices across Cedar Street, accomplished propably the most rapid transfer of the day, when A. Barton Hepburn, as president of the Clearing House and president of the Chamber of Commerce, made his dual official capacity serve the banking community to good account.

First, as president of the Clearing House, Mr. Hepburn took due note of the fact that it would be next to impossible to carry on business there yesterday. Then, as president of the Chamber of Commerce, he generously offered himself himsewlf, as president of the Clearing House, the use of the Chamber of Commerce rooms. Next= he accepted the offer of the Chamber of Commerce rooms with thanks, and then ordered the transfer of the Clearing House equipment to the Chamber of Commerce rooms. There, by 10 o'clock in the morning, the regular hour for bank clearings, William Eherer, the manager of the Clearing House, announce that $361,000,000 in bank clearings had gone through in twelve minutes. Today, Mr. Sherer said, the Clearing House would continue in the Chamber of Commerce rooms, and by tomorrow he hoped their own quarters would be in shape to use again.

Equally quick moves were the rule, and not the exception, with the banking houses which tenanted the old Equitable block, The Equitable Trust Company, in the southeast corner of the block, was undamaged by fire, but was in an impossible condition for business because of the flood of water. Alvin W. Krech, R.R. Hunter, F.W. Fulle and H.J. Cooke, officers of the company, with twoscore or more clerks, moved their necessary working equipment, first to the Hanover National Bank, and later to the old offices of the Carnegie Trust Company, at No. 115 Broadway, and by noon the Equitable Trust was taking deposits and paying checks there as if it had been at home there all its business life. H.C. Cahill, the mail teller, took the morning grist of mail to the offices of the State Banking Department, and, getting the use of sufficent room there to do his work, had all the Equitable's out-of-town clearings, amounting roughly to $500,000, at the Clearing House before 10 o'clock.

August Belmont was an early bird at the fire. He superintended the removal of the working equipment of his banking house to No. 111 Broadway, and personally directed the movements of one of the porters, who gathered ap an armful of prints, mostly of racing scenes and famous horses, which Mr. Belmont valued highly.

William A. Read & Co., the bankers, who occupied the main floor of the northeast corner of the Equitable block, at Cedar and Nassau Streets, paid their checks yesterday through the national Bank of New York, got their securities and other papers over into the vaults of the Hanover National Bank by 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and before that had established their own banking offices at No. 33 Pine Street, and were going along smoothly with their business.

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