Sunday, July 10, 2011

Delays At The Big Fire, First and Second Alarms 21 Minutes Apart,

January 16, 1912, The Evening Post: New York, "Delays At The Big Fire, First and Second Alarms 21 Minutes Apart,"

Kenlon Did Not Follow Bonner - Croker.

Precedent of Responding to Initial Night Alarm in the Financial District — Devanney Waited—Chief Could Have Come in Three Minutes.

Fire insurance men, since the first flush of excitement over the Equitable building fire have been discussing with seriousness the circumstances which contributed to the spread of the flames until property worth millions had been destroyed and six lives had been lost. The unusual lapse of time between the first and second alarms has been the topic probably most often under discussion. The interval was twenty-one minutes.

It was learned, when an accurate schedule of the alarms was verified at the Fire headquarters for the first time, that Chief John Kenlon did not respond to the first call.

In this he violated no set rule, but there was a precedent of long standing, set by Hugh Bonner and followed by [Kidder] F. Croker, that the Chief of Department should "roll" on every first alarm from the financial district in the night hours.

That no subordinate sounded a second call from the Equitable building in less than twenty-one minutes is attributed to the realization of this custom of former chiefs. Underlings, even deputy chiefs, had been accustomed under previous leaders to expect their superior momentarily in the business districts. Incidentally, it is pointed out, the Chief's automobile can speed from night headquarters in Great Jones Street to the Equitable building in less than three minutes.

The following facts may be set down without prejudice: the Equitable Life building caught fire at about a quarter-past five in the morning a week ago today. The Department put out the fire, with the aid of fifty pieces of appaeatus, after six men had lost their lives.


Fire insurance underwriters and other experts who followed the fire wondered why a fire which, when first discovered, was confined to a scrap-basket half full of paper, a desk, and a chair, should in two hours and a half grow to such proportions as to warrant the Chief of [illegible] first time in the Department's history [illegible] borough call.

Those who know about the handling of fires, and who saw how this particular fire was handled, have pointed especially to these two questions. Why did the firemen who responded to the first alarm wait twenty-one minutes before turning in the second alarm? Did Chief Kenlon take charge in person after the first alarm; and if not, why not?

In the official reports of the cause of the fire, these two points were overlooked. The Department put all the blame on the employees of the restaurant where the fire started for not reporting it for twenty minutes. "If the employees of the building had called out the Fire Department promptly, I am sure the fire could easily have been stopped," wrote the Fire Commissioner, Joseph Johnson, to Mayoe Gaynor. No mention was made of the delay on the part of the Department's own officers.

Nor was any mention made of Kenlon's failure to respond to a first alarm call in the heart of the downtown business center. His predecessor, Croker, answered every fire in the financial district at night on the first alarm, and so lived up to the precedent that the Cjief should always be on the spot to handle the fire and turn in a second alarm, when necessary. Chief Kenlon has followed this precedent in some cases, but not in all. He did not last Tuesday.


The delay that covered the fatal period in which the fire got away from the first companies to arrive on the scene is shown by the following table of the official times at which all the alarms were recorded at Fire Department Headquarters:

First alarm...8:34 [sic]
Second alarm..5:35[sic]
Third alarm...6:01
Fourth alarm..6:03
Fifth alarm...6:28
Borough call..7:48

[For the record: see January 17, 1911, New York Times, Answer to Delay Charge]
First alarm.......5:34
Second alarm...5:53
Third alarm......6:01
Fourth alarm....6:03
Fifth alarm.......6:28
Borough alarm..7:48

The first call was sounded at 8:34. [sic] Engine No. 8, according to Chief Kenlon, reached the hydrant in two and a half minutes. Commissioner Johnson said the employees' delay was responsible for the conflagration. Experts point out the inference that the fire had made considerable headway before the engines arrived, and ask, if this is so, why did the ranking officer deem the fire so easy to handle that he did not think of sending in a second alarm for more than a quarter of an hour?

Further light is thrown on the comparison between the delay of the employees and the delay of the Department by the report to the Commissioner by the Acting Fire Marshall, John P. Prial. As a result of examining sixteen witnesses, he found that the fire originated in the "time-keeper's box" at the Cafe Savarin. It was supposedly caused by Philip J. O'Brien, time-keeper, who went into it at five to light the gas. He insisted that he threw the stub of the match on the concrete floor outside, but the Fire Marshall concluded that he must have thrown it into or near a scrap-basket half full of paper that stood by the desk, and so started the fire. The report continued:

"O'Brien left the box at about 5:18 o'clock a.m., which was a few minutes before the discovery of the fire."

That would put "discovery of the fire"...

Continued on page 2,

continued page 2, Column 5,

at about... The actual alarm was recorded at 5:53, and the man who sent it had to go a block to the box, which would have taken an appreciable time. In otherwards, the delay, according to the Marshal's figures, was not more than thirteen minutes. He said further on:

"It is evident from the testimony of witnesses that at least from ten to twenty minutes elapsed between the time of this discovery of the fire by the employees of the building and the sending inof the alarm ."


Witnesses giving evidence of the time elapsed are liable to make it too long rather than too short. But, in spite of this fact, and in spite of the above figures, the Department let it be generally understood that there was a twenty-minute delay on the part of the building employees, and made no reference to the fact that there was a delay equally long, and apparently equally fatal, on the part of the officers of the Department.

The officers who responded wi th the four engines and two trucks to the first alarm were George Kuss, chief of the First Battalion; William J. Walsh, chief of the Second Battalion; and John F. Devanney, Acting Deputy Chief. Devanney was the ranking officer, and so gave all orders, including that for the turning in of the second alarm. Devanney is a floating Deputy Chief, or one who substitutes for the different deputy chiefs in rotation. He has not yet made his complete report to his chief on the fire. He has refused to make any explanation of the delay, on the ground that all information must come from the Department headquarters.

Commissioner Johnson, when asked to explain the delay and comment on Kenton's absence, at first said he did not wish to go into details, and would merely be quoted in the following statement:

"A careful examination of the ruins shows that a far greater portion was saved than was at first thought The vaults of the Equitabte have been found intact, and many offices behind are not destroyed The handling of the situation under Chief Kenlon was commendable—he stopped a big fire."


He later explained further that he had not yet received full reports of the fire, and so did not know the reason for the twenty-one-minute interval, he suggested that it might have been due to the fact that the ranking officer thought he could use the high-pressure hydrants north on Nassau Street to good advantage.

"The question is, was there enough water, apparatus, and men put in there at all times?" he added. "The answer to that is, Yes."

Asked if it was not the precedent for the Chief to respond to all alarms in the financial district at night, he said it was impossible for the Chief to go to all first alarm fires. Kenlon, after admitting that he turned out on the second alarm last Tuesday, evaded the question in the same, way

"There's no reason why I should go to all first-alarm fires," he said. "How could I possibly do it? Anyway, some of the best authorities say that a chief should not go to any fires on the first alarm."

He was equally reticent to discuss the interval between the sending out of the alarms. He said he himself ordered the sounding of all the alarms after the second.


"As for that twenty-one minute interval," he added, "when the ranking officer gets on the spot, he has to look over the ground
and study out the problem. All that takes time."

Between the first and fifth alarms there was an interval of fifty-four minutes. Asked about this, Kenlon refused to answer, saying that he saw no reason for making any explanation of his actions.

The Chief has not followed the advice of "some of the best authorities" in not "rolling'' to any first alarm. He has turned out for some, and not for others. Only on January 6, for instance, he turned out to a small fire discovered at No. 620 Broadway, in a loft building. But in the Equitable case he did not "roll" for an alarm that came from the heart of the financial district. The box where it was rung in stands at Nassau Street and Pine Street, directly in the rear of the Sub-Treasury and one block from the office of J. P. Morgan & Co. who are at Wall and Broad Streets.


At the loft building fire mentioned above, Kenlon ordered a second alarm as soon as he arrived on the scene. When the responding companies arrived, there was nothing for them to do, and they returned to their quarters. The reason for the second alarm was not apparent, and when Kenlon was asked about it, he replied that he did not propose to explain or make any statement to anybody about fires.

When Deputy Chief Guerin was in charge of the First Division, with headquarters in Chambers Street, he kept his horse—that was before the day of automobiles—under the harness all night, so that he would lose no time in getting to any first alarm fires in the downtown district. The fact that Croker always dashed to a first-alarm fire at night prompted Guerin to make great haste for fear that the Chief would beat him to a fire.

The Equitable building was not insured in the regular way. If it had been, the Fire Underwriters, so they say, would demand an investigation. Aside from the small policies carried by some individual tenants of the building, the interest of the insurance companies ceased.

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