Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dead and Treasure Still In Fire Ruins

January 11, 1912, New York Tribune, "DEAD AND TREASURE STILL IN FIRE RUINS"

Officials Doubt if Bodies and Billion Dollars in Securities Can Be Reached in Less than Week.


Exchange Adopts New Rules to Meet Peculiar Situation---Demolition of Equitable.

The skeleton of the Equitable Life Building, in its shroud of ice, still guards its $1,000,000,000 treasure and its dead, and threatens to crush under its sightless walls those who would approach too near.

Firemen, policemen and a few privileged civilians crawled in through its crevices yesterday and about over its interior chaos and reported optimistically as to the soundness of the different safe deposit vaults, but there was no one to predict that the money and securities could be recovered in less than a week, or that the vast pile of ruin rising five stories toward the back of the building could be made to yeild up the body of Battalion Chief William J. Walsh except after days of delving.

Twenty-four hours of fire fighting had sealed up in a tomb of ice the body of William Campion, captain of the watchmen for the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company. A great drift obscured the steel barred door just below the Broadway curb, near Cedar Street, to which the dead watchman's hands had frozen tight in palin view Tuesday. And yet only a few feet behind this sepulcher the hose still played on the red hot roof of the safe deposit vaults, which sent hissing clouds of steam billowing to the heavens.

Somewhere within the depths of the monster's shell, it is supposed, lies also what remains of Frank J. Neider, a special officer of the safe deposit company, whom spectators saw follow President Giblin into the burning building on Tuesday morning, No one living has seen him since, and his name stands third on the list of the missing.

List of the Identified Dead.

The three identified dead are as follows: John, Sazzio, a kitchen helper of the Savarin Cafe, and Massena Fratti, a porter, of No. 225 East 56th Street. Sazzio and Conti were flung from the Equitable roof to death in Cedar Street at the end of a life line severed by the flames. Fratti was found in the furnace within and died on his way to the hospital.

Nicholas J. Revelle, chief inspector for the Bureau of Buildings, discovered yesterday afternoon that the Cedar Street wall, whose great blocks of granite are knit together by the grace of Jack Frost alone, it would seem, had sagged four feet out of plumb. He reported to Deputy Fire Chief Langford the menace from those eight stories of thick masonry and Langford issued orders that the tenants of the sixteen-story building across Cedar Street, occupied by the American National Bank, vacate. He ordered out of this skyscraper even the few firemen who had been playing two heavy streams on the Equitable ruins from the third floor.

The firemen fastened the nozzle to the window sills and deserted their streams, which continued to pour tons of water into the cavern beyond the threatening wall. Police Inspector Calalane sent policemen through the bank building to warn the one hundred and fifty tenants and their employees to get out at once with as much of their furniture and papers as they needed in temporary quarters. Policemen stationed at the doors barred entrance to all who didn't belong in the building.

The most important work of the firemen during last night was to search for the body of Battalion Chief Walsh and the two other bodies supposed to be in the ruins. The search during the day was discontinued at 6 o'clock, but at 7:30 in the evening, under Battalion Chief Barrett, fifteen men from Hook and ladder 8 enered the building and began once more their task. From the large acetyline torch that the chief carried it could be sen what a hazardous task confronted the men, the floors being still covered with ice and the debris piled as high as their heads in some places.

Later in the evening Deputy Chief Binns arrived on the scene after a much needed rest and took charge of the fifty men at work on the ruins, releiving Chief Langford. Many would-be spectators went to the vicinity of the fire, but they could not get within blocks of the ruins, Captain Ormsby, of the Fifth Street police station, who was in charge, insisting that his seventy-five policemen rigiedly guard the fire lines.

Demolition Begins Today.

The Buildings Department served on William A. Day, president of the Equitable Assurance Society, in his new offices at No. 165 Broadway, an "unsafe order," commanding him to start immediately the shoring up of the outside wall. Mr. Day obtained at once the services of a gang of expert workmen from the Thompson-Starrett Company, who will begin their work of scientific demolition this morning, when, it is expected, the Fire Department will be able

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Dead Still In Ruins,

to turn over the ruins to the Assurance Society.

This will go on under the personal suppervision of Mr. Revelle, who, in climbing up through the Equitable wreck late in the afternoon, slipped on the ice-coated stairs at the third floor and landed teo floors below on one of the piles of debris formed by the fallen floors. The chief inspector received some severe bruises, but was in no way incapacitated, Earlier in the day he had promised Chief Kenlon to set a gang of laborers to work right away at another portion of this same pile searching for Chief Walsh's body.

Gas Explosion Another Danger

Gangs of "White Wings," with picks and shovels marched into the forbidden blocks between Liberty and Wall Streets, in Broadway, and also in Nassau Street, to chop away the vast accumulation of ice which covered both these thoroughfares within the fire-fighting zone. The Metropolitan Street Railway Company employed its own gang in Broadway to hew a path for the surface cars. But no sooner had this been accomplished, promising the early resumption of street car traffic, than a new danger presented itself.

Chief Kenlon discovered that gas in large quantities was escaping from the mains in the street and the broken pipes leading from them into the Equitable Building. As he feared that an explosion which would tear up the neighborhood, wreck the subway and precipitate the toppling walls upon the surrounding buildings might result from the passage of the cars, he refused to let them by the police lines.

Inspector Edward Hughes of the Detective Bureau, scattered twenty-five of his men throughout the financial district. He let it be known that any banker or broker or lawyer desirous of moving from the fire zone and wishing an escort during the removal of valuable papers and securities could call on him for detectives or uniformed police to guard the transfer

Stock Exchange Still Hampered

Wall Street had recovered somewhat yesterday from the shock of the destruction of the Equitable Building, but business was still hampered by the tying up of a billion dollar's worth of securities in the vaults of the buried building.

The governors of the Stock Exchange again held a special meeting to decide what steps to take as a result of the conditions arising from the inability of brokers to get to these buried securities. After a brief session they reached a decision similar to, but less drastic than, that of Tuesday, when they ordered the suspension of the rule requiring deliveries of stocks sold on the previous day. Yesterday's ruling confined the suspension of deliveries to those directly or indirectly affected by the fire.

The govenors also passed a resolution suspending the deliveries of the securities locked up in the Mercantile vaults indefinitely. It provides that the law committee shall have the power to extend the period in which the delivery of these stocks is suspended, in their discretion, as the occasion may require. The resolution provided further that the law committee shall have full power to rule upon any dispute arising out of the present conditions.

The law committee later in the day made two rulings which it stated must apply to all transactions affected by the tying up of securities through the Equitable fire. The first was that accrued interest on bonds shall cease on the day the contract matures and that the purchaser shall from that day pay to the seller interest at the renewal market rate for money on the amount of the deferred payment until the closing of the transaction.

The second was that where transactions in stocks cannot be completed, the renewal market rate for money shall be allowed and paid on the amount of money involved until the transaction is terminated.

Reports Vaults are Intact.

There was considerable relief in the financial district when it became known in the afternoon that Ernest H. Wakeman, an employee of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, had made a superficial examination of the vault of his company as soon as the walls had cooled sufficiently to permit a close approach and found them to be intact.

As the Equitable vault was not so exposed to the action of the flames, it is cooler now than the vaults of the Mercantile company, and will therefore yield up its hundreds of millions of treasure sooner, it is expected. But both Chief Kenlon and Fire Commissioner Johnson predicted that a number of days would elapse before either could be opened.

The Clearing House carried on its business in its temporary quarters in the Chamber of Commerce Building in Liberty Street without a hitch yesterday, and with no more delay than if it were in its own home in Cedar Street, from which it was driven by the Equitable fire. Representatives of all the banks and trust companies which are members were on time when business started at 10 o'clock in the morning. William Sherer, manager of the Clearing House, said payments were made promptly and that even on Tuesday the only delays in making clearances were due to the clerks of the banks having difficulty in getting through the maze of fire lines.

The Clearing House will remain in its temporary home until the fire and building authorities say there is no danger of the Equitable Building walls falling and damaging the Clearing House Building in Cedar Street.

In dangerous icebound Cedar Street, under the shadow of the threatening wall, and in front of the building in Broadway, employees of the Consolidated Gas Company put in the night digging through ice, asphalt and earth to disconnect the gas pipes entering the wreaked structure from the gas mains and stop the gas leaks. Above the heads of the Cedar Street delvers three hose nozzles, still fastened to windows sills on the third floor of the American Exchange national Bank Building, continued to throw their streams through the blind windows of the Equitable wall onto the steaming roof of the Mercantile vaults. A keen winds racing up from the harbor whipped an icy spray from these streams in transit, which settled in sleet on the backs of the gas man and gleamed in the glare of their torches.

Chief Kenlon gave out yesterday the estimated cost of fighting the fire and saving the adjoining property. The total cost to the city, as estimated by the Chief, amounts to $92,100 for the two days' work of the department. The estimated items are as follows:

Saleries, two days, 1,000 firemen $12,000
One hundred tons of coal $800
Damage to apparatus $45,000
Hose lengths destroyed (100 lengths) $5,000
Hose damaged (can be repaired) $2,500
Loss of tools, implements, etc. $500
Fixed charges $26,300
Total (estimated) $92,100

The Chief estimates that between ten and fifteen million gallons of water were thrown into the building and on the adjoining structure and that the value of the apparatus called to the fire was $375,000.

The officers and directors of the Equitable Life Assurance Society held a series of informal conferences yesterday, and although no official announcement came from them it was understood that the plan for a sixty-two story skyscraper was thrown into the discard.

It was said the general impression among the officials was that the supposed advertising value of such "cloud brushers" was vastly overrated, and the directors felt that it would be wiser to build only such a home office building as would adequatetly care for their business needs and follow the legitimate advertising field of newspapers and magazines for their publicity.

More than that, it was reported that there was a feeling among the directors that the society would do better to sell the valuable block on which the old Equitable Building stood and build the new home office further uptown.

Meanwhile the Equitable has taken a three-year lease on the quarters rented on Tuesday in the City Investing Building, and those, together with the Hazen Building, at No. 2 Albany Street, which is occupied solely by the Equitable, will constitute the headquarters of the company until the question of a new home is definitely decided.

"It is likely that the directors will not take up the question of a new home office building for several weeks at the least," said W. T. Rittenhouse, speaking for the company yesterday, "and it is also probable that not for several days will there be any possibility of getting at the securities which are in the Equitable vaults."

William H. Hotchkiss, State Superintendent of Insurance, sent the following telegram yesterday to the heads of the insurance departments of every state and territory in the country, and to similar officials in the provences of Canada, with the object, he explained, of allaying the fears of any policyholders of the Equitable:
'Effects of fire in Equitable Life much exaggerated. Security and policy vaults thought intact. Surplus adequate, hence no possible loss to policyholders. Records, save those of executives, correspondence and acturial departments safe in another building. Home office building for years not counted asset above land value. Company's officers active in meeting situation. Probably little disturbance of company's regular business. Am in close touch with situation. Please give publicity to this, that policyholders may be assured.'
Mr. Rittenhouse, for the company, explained the matter of the Equitable carrying no fire insurance with the fire insurance companies on the old building at No. 120 Broadway. The society, he said, owned about twelve to fifteen buildings throughout the world, and on all of them, except the home office building, it carried regular fire insurance. On that building, however, the rates had been so high, he explained, that the directors decided several years ago that it was useless to pay out premiums on a structure which the Insurance Department did not even allow them to carry as an asset of the company. It had been decided then that ultimately the building would be torn down, as a detriment to such valuable property, so the directors established a small insurance fund of their own to carry on the building, and discontinued outside fire insurance.

"It is nonsense to argue or to advertise, as someone has done, that the Equitable had done away with fire insurance," said Mr. Rittenhouse, "for not only does the society carry regular fire insurance on all its other buildings, but also on all buildings on which we hold mortgages. Indeed, we insist that such buildings be insured.

As to the records of the acuarial department, mentioned in Supervisor Hotchkiss's telegram as not having been in the Hazen Buildin, Mr. Rittenhouse said that there was no one who could tell yet whether those records were safe or not.

"As a matter of fact," he added, "we believe that they are safe, because they were in steel boxed, in vaults other than the big main security vault, but even if they should have been destroyed there are duplicates of everything, and the expense would be only that of having the records tabulated again for the use of the actuaries."

The story printed in a morning newspaper, not the Tribune, yesterday that the society might lose $70,000,000 worth of policies, owned by policyholders, on which the society had made loans, was characterized by Mr. Rittenhouse as ridiculous.

"Those policies also were in vaults," he said, "and it is possible that they represented nearer to $100,000,000 in policy value than $70,000,000, but though we are practically sure that they are safe in the vaults, which are intact, even had they been destroyed their replacement would have been simply a matter of clerical work in copying from the record of the names and data on duplicate policies."

Alvin W. Krech, of the Equitable Trust Company, pointed out a new feature of the fire's effects yesterday, when he said that the old Equitable block sheltered probably one hundred law offices.

"Bankers and insurance companies," said Mr. Krech, "keep their securities, cash and other valuable papers in vaults, and none of them doubtless lost anything of that nature by the fire, but lawyers have on hand in their offices innumerable records and papers belonging both to themselves and to litigants, some of which it would be impossible to replace, and for the most part they keep them in steel boxes piled on shelves in their offices. The destruction of such records might tangle up litigation of various kinds for years."

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