Sunday, July 10, 2011

Equitable Burns,

This is transcribed from a scan of the original page by an extremely untrustworthy source, Many illegible lines would appear to be scanner artifacts, but then many deliberate manipulations in the text are also evident.

January 9, 1912, The Evening Post: New York, "Equitable Burns,"


page 1, Column 5,


Five Known to Be Dead; List May Lengthen


Deputy Fire Chief "Walsh Probably Lost — A Priest Who Was Administering the Last Rites to a Man Burning to Death on the Other Side of a Steel Grating Had to Be Dragged Out of Harm's Way by Firemen—Big Banks Closed Because of Disaster and All Traffic Is Tied Up.

There was disaster of many angles in to-day's destruction of the Equitable Lite Assurance Society's building on lower Broadway. Merely as an affair of flame and smoke, it was the greatest blaze modern New York had seen. Because of the old stone and wood construction of the building, it offered a new problem to the present generation of firemen, a problem which they could not solve. The money loss was between $15,000,000 and $30,000,000, a record figure for a one-building fire.

Five bodies have been found, and Battalion Chief Walsh of the Fire Department is the only person known to be missing. It is taken for granted that Walsh is dead in the building. The list of missing may lengthen at the roll-call of the companies. Eight persons were seriously injured and six of them were taken to hospitals. But scores of others, including firemen and policemen, were hurt and attended at the fire by the ambulance surgeons.

In addition to destroying the lives and the property, the fire caused an unprecedented tangle of buisness in the financial district. Seceral banks in the immediate neighborhood could not be opened. So many millions of dollars worth of securities were in the vaults of the burned building that the Stock Exchange had to take an unprecedented action in suspending for a day the rule that stocks shall be delivered before 2:48 o'clock on the afternoon following the day of sale.

It was impossible to get to the New York Clearing House, across the street from the smoking shell of the Equitable building, so the business of that institution, so vital to the banking of the country, had to be transferred to the Chamber of Commerce.

Every available piece of fire apparatus in the city was brought to the scene of the fire, in response to the "borough alarm," the call which always indicates a catastrophe. Every fire company in Manhattan below Fifty-ninth Street was rushed downtown, the companies above them being moved down to take their places, while practically all the available apparatus in Brooklyn was summoned and raced across the Brooklyn Bridge, the north roadway of which was closed to all other traffic. It was the most serious fire, in a financial way, New York had ever known.


The vaunted high-pressure system, as well as the alleged fire-proof construction of the Equitable building, utterly failed to do what had been expected of it. In the face of the high wind that came with the renewal of the cold wave, in the early hours of the morning the streams of water from the hose nozzles were broken into showers of spray that blew aimlessly hither and thither, coating the streets and surrounding buildings with glistening ice. Broadway became a miniature mountain torrent, through which water and caking ice swished ankle-deep. Over all towered a vast column of dingy yellow smoke, shot through with blazing sparks that covered the city roofs for an area of a mile or more around the burning building.

The most serious affect of the fire upon business lay in its paralysis of all the downtown banks, most of which had securities in the safe deposit vaults under the Equitable building. It was impossible to open tbe Clearing House in the face of the fire, and after a short delay, the entire force of clerks who transact its affairs were ordered to report at the Chamber of Commerce, when temporary headquarters were opened. Shortly after the Stock Exchange opened, the Governing Committee were summoned to discuss the question of closing the Exchange for the day.

The committee finally decided to compromise matters by merely suspending deliveries.
But they might just as well have closed for the day, as business was practically dead. The only interest exhibited on the floor was when a subscription was offered for the families of the dead and injured.

It is impossible to exaggerate the enormous property losses involved in this fire. Aside from the valuable building, and the contents of many richly furnished offices, not to speak of innumerable law libraries belonging to tenants, there were lost the great law libraries of the Equitable Society and the Lawyers' Club, both of which were numbered among the finest collections of legal records in the country. All of the 1,600,000 record cards of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, which were kept in thin steel cabinets in the secretary's office, have been destroyed. But fortunately a duplicate set of these cards was kept in the Hazen building. It will take five years to copy off another duplicate list, however.

The contents of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company's vaults must be worth millions, and it is as yet unknown whether any of these securities have been melted or incinerated. One man wandered about the corridors of an office building across the street all the morning, wailing that his entire fortune was buried beneath the smoking debris that towered in a heterogeneous mass two stories above the safe deposit vaults. The biography of the late E. H. Harriman. which was looked forward to by the whole financial world as one of the most important contributions to the literature of business, was among the other records which perished, along with practically all the records of the Union Pacific Railway, the Equitable Trust Company, August Belmont & Co., Kountze Brothers, and a number of other well-known firms.


Three banks—the Chase National, American Exchange, and National Bank of Commerce—which are in the block on Broadway fronting the wrecked building were not opened at all, as owing to the fire lines it was impossible for people to get to them. Together with the hallways of other office buildings, notably the Trinity building, they were turned into temporary hospitals and first relief stations for the dozens of firemen who reeled or were carried out of the seething chaos.

Other banking and brokerage firms in the neighborhood soon followed the example of the three banks mentioned above and suspended business to care for the injured firemen. [...] Raymond A. Pinchon, No. [..] Broadway, the entire business force [...] the firemen in relays of twenty-five each with food and coffee, relief that the tired smoke-eaters were much in need of, for many of them had been working since before seven o'clock in the


It was twenty minutes after five o'clock this morning when Sergeant Casey and Patrolman Foley of the John Street police station were standing at the corner of Nassau and Pine Streets and a man told them that there was a fire in the Equitable building. They ran around the corner to the Pine Street side of the building, where the ground floor, from the Broadway corner half-way down Pine Street, is occupied by the Savarin Restaurant. They entered the restaurant, and found that there was a fire blazing in the storeroom adjoining the elevator shaft. William Davit, chief engineer of the building, was already fighting the blaze with several lines of hose connected to the standpipe.

According to the two policemen, Davis told them that he had twenty assistants in this building, including cleaners, electricians, firemen, porters, and watchmen, and that the force could manage the fire by themselves; but Casey, after a look at the situation, thought it best to turn in an alarm. That he was justified in his action was amply proved by the time Deputy Chief Binns, in command of the First Division, arrived in his car. Before this the fire in the storeroom had eaten its way into the elevator shaft, up which it shot in a powerful draught and spread out on all the floors above the third.

Binns promptly turned in a second and third alarm, which brought Chief Kenlon and Joseph Johnson, Fire Commissioner. It was still dark, and in the scanty light the firemen began to set about their task of locating the source of the fire. Rhinelander Waldo, the Commissioner of Police, also drove up in his automobile about this time, and directed the disposition of the reserves from all the downtown precincts who were there shortly after the second alarm was sent in.

Kenlon gave one glance at the interior of the structure, rearing and blazing with flames, and sent in a fourth and fifth alarm, which he quickly followed up with the "double nine," the "borough call," that brought fourteen companies from Brooklyn under Deputy Chief Lally. The north roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge was closed to all traffic while the racing engines were rushed across the river to the aid of the hard-pressed companies which had hurried from all of lower Manhattan. The re-

"Equitable Burns, [Page 3, Column 1,]"

...nit, of course, the congestion of all roadway traffic far across into King County, a congestion that extended to the Brooklyn elevated and subway line. The Broadway cars, which run directly under the burning building, were tied up throughout the entire day.

The Brooklyn apparatus arrived on the 1 Nassau Street side of the burning structure just as an unidentified man appeared at a window on the next to the top floor of the structure. The man was seen to run wildly from one window to another. There was no chance of a rescue, as the flames first pouring from the lower floors on this side and sweeping up to the top corners on the Nassau Street side. It seemed only a matter of a few minutes before the man trapped on the seventh floor would jump to the street or be engulfed in the flames.

The firemen from across the East River immediately got into action. Twenty-one streams were directed against the Nassau Street side, but the water was blown back by the wind before it could strike effectively. There were three water towers sent from Brooklyn, as well as other apparatus.

Most of the efforts of the Brooklyn companies were directed toward saving the building at the corner of Nassau and Cedar Streets. In the "L" of the Equitable building, occupied by W. A. Read & Co. bankers.


The Brooklyn reinforcements also bent their efforts to saving the Belmont building across Nassau Street from the Equitable building. An aged woman, a caretaker in this building, absolutely refused to leave it, despite the warnings of the firemen, and caused considerable trouble for them by running back and forth from floor to floor, throwing up the window shades. Finally she was escorted to a place where she could not interfere with the firefighters, and the building was flooded with water as a precaution.

Thanks to the early hour at which the fire started—in the basement supply rooms of the Cafe Savarin, according to one report—the building was practically deserted, which explains the comparatively small loss of life.

All through the early hours of the forenoon the firemen worked desperately, handicapped by the bitter cold and the fierce gale that swept the nozzles of their hose and robbed the streams of their initial power. At eleven o'clock, although the wind had diminished. It was still blowing fifty-four miles an hour. It seems superfluous to mention the heroism, because heroism is a commonplace with New York firemen. The fact remains, though, that whenever word came that a man was missing or that some one was trapped on the upper floors a score of volunteers rushed forward to offer their services, and the scaling ladders were always manned by some willing to take any risk.


It was a little more than an hour after the fire had started that the figures of three men were made out on the roof of the cupola at the corner of Broadway and Cedar Street. Their forms could be dimly seen through the gloom and smoke out-side, against the glare of the flames
[unintelligible] then they were seen to kneel on the [unintelligible] and lift up their arms in prayer or supplication toward the first level rays of the sun, just breaking across the tops of the tall buildings over toward the East River.

A shout went up from the firemen in the street below, and five men of one of the patrol companies seized scaling ladders and made a plucky effort to work their way up the side of the building so that they could get at the trapped men. But flames shot out from the windows of the fourth floor directly over the firemen's heads, and they were compelled to drop to the ground. Simultaneously, a portion of the roof near where the men were standing fell in, part of it falling to the street, and part into the pit of flames.

Stone of many tons' weight began to drop among the ranks of the firemen and they were obliged to break and run out of the danger zone. The three men on the roof had risen to their feet when the roof began to fall and stood hesitating on the edge of the coping. As the firemen ran away they threw up their hands, then two of them jumped, their bodies twisting and turning in air as they plunged down on to the Cedar Street pavement. The third man fell back into the well of fire.

At the Greenwich Street police station the bodies of the two who had jumped were identified as those of two kitchen helpers in the Restaurant Savarin. John Saxslo and Gulaeppe Condi.


Fear that William J Walsh, chief of the Second Fire Battalion, had lost his life in the building grew to a certainty when afternoon arrived with no trace of him being found in any of the hospitals to which the injured had been rushed. Sidney Johnston, captain of Truck No. 1. was the last man to see Walsh alive. He and Walsh and three other men went into the building with a line of hose early in the morning. They dragged the heavy roll upstairs to the fifth floor, and started for the rooms of the Lawyers' Club in the rear.

At the entrance to the club rooms, the party was halted by a scorching back draught. All five turned and fled to the floor below. Things were little better here. The smoke and heat were unbearable.

"For God's sake, every man look for himself." were Walsh's last words, according to Capt. Johnston.

The men took Walsh's advice. When they reached the street, each expected to see Walsh following at their heels. Walsh didn't appear.

It was hours before the firemen would consent to give their battalion chief up for lost. Chief Kenlon was at first of the opinion that Walsh might have been one of the injured men taken to the hospital. The coating of ice on each fighter's face was so thick that it would have been easy to have mistaken Walsh for someone else. So the Chief had a thorough search made of the hospitals in the fire zone. Then, after his men had all brought back disheartening reports, Kenton and his staff admitted that Walsh had perished in the building.

One of those who kept up the hunt even after that, was the driver of Chief Walsh's runabout. The man seemed dazed as he went from hospital to hospital saying "I've lost my chief. I've lost my chief."

Some believe that Walsh's body lay some where under the pile of ice-caked and charred timbers, more than a score of firemen began appealing to Chief Kenlon to let them go in and hunt for their battalion chief. They had, of course, abandoned all hope of finding him alive, but they wished to recover his body before it was too late. Walsh had always been a favorite among the men in the Department.


Kenlon would not think of letting the men enter the building. He told them they would never get out alive if they stepped into that furnace, but that seemed to make no difference to them. They kept imploring for permission to undertake the job, and it was all Kenlon could do to deny them. One of the four men who went into the building with Walsh was Joseph Brown of truck No. 61.

"The Chief was quite a distance ahead of us," said he, "when suddenly we felt the floor begin to give way under us. Capt. Bass was in our party. A stone arch fell on him, and I saw he was badly hurt. I got my arm around him and managed to drag him to the street. On going back I went as near as I could to where we had been and called Walsh's name several times. I got no answer. I believe he was caught in the falling floor."


"Walsh was one of the best fire chiefs we ever had in the Department," said Edward P. Croker, former chief of the Department, this afternoon when he heard that Walsh had been killed.

Walsh was married and had seven children. He lived in Brooklyn at No. 1170 Forty-second Street. In May this year he would have completed twenty years of service in the Fire Department, for he received his appointment on May 1, 1892. Three years later be was promoted to engineer, and in July, 1902, he became an assistant foreman. A year later he advanced to foreman, and held that position until last year, when they promoted him to battalion chief. Walsh was born in this city October 29. 1867, and on two occasions his name has been placed on the roll of merit for bravery.

Only last fall, Walsh all but lost his life in a fire in Brooklyn. The building was at No. 81 Duane Street occupied by the International News Company. Walsh stepped into a triangular air well, at the bottom of which were eight feet of water. The only thing he could hold onto in order to keep his head above water was an iron shutter, behind which the fire was raging; the heat of the shutter took the skin from his fingers, but he clung there until someone got a rope and lowered it to him from the top of the shaft many feet above.

Walsh's wife and one of his daughters went to the Equitable building that afternoon, but remained there only a short time. One of the sensational rescues was that of William Giblin, president of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, whose vault contain many of the valuable securities, the loss of which is tying up the city's financial business. Giblin heard of the fire soon after it started. He rushed downtown immediately, being one of the first to arrive at the scene.

When he arrived at his office, the safe deposit vaults were the only part of the building not in flames. He went to Fire Commissioner Johnson and told him he wanted to go inside to get at some records. Johnson warned him not to, but Giblin persisted, and opened the door with his pass-key, taking with him one of the company's night watchmen. Strangely enough, he neglected to take his keys with him, and as he and the watchman passed in the door swung shut after them, closing with a spring lock and making them prisoners in the smoky atmosphere of the vaults.


Commissioner Johnson saw that Giblin was caught, and so did Father Mc[O]ean, one of the Fire Department chaplains Johnson and the priest called to some of the firemen near them, and they began to work to cut through the steel doors to get at the imprisoned men. For nearly two hours the firemen worked in the midst of a shower of granite blocks from the roof that threatened to crush them every moment. And throughout these two hours the Fire Commissioner and the chaplain stood by the firemen, encouraging them to greater exertion, while Father McOean, his head protected by a heavy fireman's helmet, knelt at the bars of a grated window, praying with the men inside.

Led by Fireman Larkin of Engine Company No 20, the little squad of smoke-eaters hacked away at the steel bars of the huge door, alternately dodging stone blocks and burning timbers, until at last Larkin, almost exhausted, sawed through one of the bars so that it could be dragged to one side by a file of men with a heavy rope. Then regardless of danger, the firemen pushed their way into the vault and lifted Giblin and the watchman out onto the street. They were taken over to the first-aid station set up by the ambulance surgeons in the lobby of the Trinity Building and then removed to the Hudson Street Hospital, where it was said that Giblin might not recover.

As soon as it was seen that the adjoining buildings were in great danger, Chief Kenlon tapped in the borough call. This is the first time in the history of the department, according to the officials at Fire Headquarters, that the call has been sent in. It called for all of the Brooklyn companies, due on third alarm at Box No. [M] in that borough, to proceed to the fire in Manhattan. There responded to this call nine engine companies, four trucks, one water tower, ten battalion chiefs, and one deputy-chief. This made the working force fighting the blaze 31 engines, 10 trucks, 3 water towers, 5 fuel wagons, 1 searchlight, 20 battalion chiefs, 2 deputy chiefs, and 1 chief.


This force was distributed by Chief Kenlon to points of vantage in the surrounding skyscrapers, from which tons of water were thrown in to the gridiron of the Equitable building, while all other property in danger was kept "washed down." From the Broadway side the Hamas was fought from the office buildings opposite. On the Nassau Street side the firemen were stationed on the Fourth National Bank building with lines of hose. From the top of the Schermerhorn building, on the Cedar Street side, the firemen also directed their lines, while on the Pine Street side the point of vantage was the Chase National Bank building.

In the square space in the " L" of the Equitable building at the corner of Nassau and Cedar Streets is an office building occupied by W. A. Read Co., bankers. In this building are also the offices of August Belmont. A great deal of damage was done to this structure, especially by water, and it was only after the hardest kind of a fight that the complete destruction of the building was prevented. During the fire Mr. Belmont tried to go to his office, but was prevented by a policeman.


By nine o'clock the fire had gained such proportions that it was evident to all that the building could not possibly be saved. The whole interior of the great rambling structure was ablaze. One could not understand how such a pile of granite could burn so fiercely. It was as if the structure had been built of pitch-pine. Whatever inflammable stuff there was in the many rooms caught fire at once, and the stone seemed to crumble and melt under the caustic touch of the flames.

The firemen were exposed to the greatest danger at this period of the fire, and many of them were hurt by falling debris, exactly how many could not be determined. It was considered highly probable that a number had been lost, as no recall had been held, and the majority of the battalion chiefs and captains had only the vaguest idea as to the whereabouts of their men. One officer, Lieut. Humphries of Truck No. 1, was injured by a stone falling from the coping, and was removed to company headquarters in an ambulance.

Great sections of the cornice and ornamental works on the roof became detached from all four sides of the building and toppled over into Broadway, Cedar, and [Fine] Streets. From the windows of some of the taller skyscrapers around the Equitable building, especially on the western side, which was free from smoke, one could look down upon its gridiron mass and into a cauldron of smoke and flames, from which at frequent intervals came the crash of falling floors and the battering roar of undermined partition walls as they tottered and fell. It was positively dangerous to walk past the building in the narrow streets that surrounded it. The firemen moved in consent danger, and they refused to allow any except policemen to share their risk.

Gustavo Peterson, the day watchman, who was rescued from the basement, told the firemen that he thought there were a number of other employees trapped in the building. He said that he and some others arrived at the building after the fire had started, and that they had gone inside, thinking that the firemen would soon have the fire under control. There were at least eight night watchmen in the building at this time, according to him, and he and the other day men had not yet relieved them.

Peterson and a negro named Lee Delt were taken out through a hole in the sidewalk. They had gone down to the basement to change their clothes, so confident were they that the whole excitement would be over in a few moments. But while they were downstairs the ceiling of the basement suddenly collapsed, and they were forced to run into the vault extension under the sidewalk. There they found a pole and commenced to break the little glass disks which form the vault roof. This attracted the attention of firemen in the street, who took axes and smashed in a whole section of the sidewalk, making a hole big enough to draw the two men through. Both were on the verge of a collapse, as much from fright as anything else, although they had not been any too fortunate in the matter of air

Lieut. Hart of the First Precinct, with Patrolmen Crotler and Johnson, tried to enter the building to look for the missing watchmen. but they made little headway where even the trained firemen had been obliged to fall back. On their retreat the two patrolmen were injured by falling stone, so were removed to the street with difficulty. Both were sent to the Hudson Street Hospital.


One of the features of the fire that attracted a great deal of interest throughout the financial district was the fate that must have befallen the bronze statue of Henry B. Hyde, which stood in the lobby facing the Broadway entrance. The owners of the building recently expended about $60,000 in renovating this lobby, and making it bright and cheerful, rather than the place of gloom it used to be. It was fitted out with stained glass and concealed electric lamps, that shed a soft light over the interior. Booths and shops of many kinds lined the sides, and the place was noted as a lounge during the luncheon hour.

In the midst of all this luxury stood the plain statue of Hyde, the founder of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, under whose leadership it attained its highest estate. After his death, control of the Society went to the son, James Hazen Hyde. during whose regime the insurance scandals arose that culminated in the Hughes investigation in this State, the departure of Hyde to France, and the sale of Hyde's controlling share to the company to Thomas F. Ryan, and subsequently to J P. Morgan, whose property they now are.


Most Important Safe [1st H u n B a l l d -|B»T T«>.* . o v a r y 4 n r t r n .]

As soon as he learned of the destruction of the Equitable Life Assurance Society building. Superintendent of Insurance Hotchkiss communicated with officials of the Society for the purpose of ascertaining if the records had been saved.

He was much gratified to learn that most of the vital records were kept in the branch offices of the Society in the Hasen building, a twelve-story structure at the corner of Greenwich and Albany Streets. The Hasen building, which is a fireproof affair, was eroded about five years ago to provide a safe place for the records.

"The records of the Equitable or any large Insurance company." said Mr. Hotchkiss. "are of inestimable value, and probably could never be replaced. It is fortunate that most of them have been saved from destruction."

According to an official of the Equitable, all such records, such as the record of policies, medical records, and, in fact, all the essential records of the Society, can be found in the several storerooms in the Hasen building. In the Hasen building are also the quarters of the medical department, with all the records of that division; the accounting and auditors' offices, with all the enumerable books and records at these departments.

Arrangements have been made for temporary quarters for the executive offices of the Equitable in the [Olty] Investing building. No. [ ] Broadway. where the company will transact its business until permanent quarters can be secured. A conference of the officials was held at the Hasen building, at Greenwich and Albany Streets, to get an idea of the extent of the loss suffered from the fire and to discuss plans for the future In all probability, a building committee will be appointed within a few days, so that rebuilding at the present site can be begun as soon as possible, or a new location arranged for.

According to Cage Tarbell, one of the directors of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, the loss will not exceed between [1200.000 and $260,000] This loss is sustained through the destruction of office furniture, fixtures, etc., plus the cost of clerical hire, which will be necessary to copy from duplicate records now i n f e ct in the Hasen building those records which were destroyed by fire in the home office building.

Over 80 percent of the records of the Society, he says, were kept in the [Listen] building, located in Albany Street, and all the records that were maintained in the main office were also held in duplicate form in the annex building of the Society. Known as the Hasen building. According to Mr. Tarbell, real estate experts estimate that the land was worth about [$12,000,000] more with the building off of it than with it standing, because it would cost almost that to remove it.

After the conference of directors of the Equitable in the Hagen building, the following statement to the policyholders was issued this afternoon:

"The burning of the home office building at No. 130 Broadway will cause but temporary inconvenience in the transaction of our business. The securities and important records are protected by fireproof vaults, which are intact. Most of the office force and records were removed some time ago to the Society's new building. No. [ ] Albany Street.

"Executive offices of the Society and the cashier's department have been established in the City Investment building, No. [ ] Broadway. The Society will occupy the second, third, and fourth floors of that building. This will be for the time being the home office of the Society, where all business with the public will be transacted, including the receipt of premium payments."


[R a i l r o a d ' . C S M , Al saewt C a a t a l a t a d , H a d t . • • A d j a a r w . d .]

There was an echo of the Equitable fire at a hearing before the Public Service Commission today on an application of the New York and North Shore Traction Company for authority to issue $11,600,000 in bonds and $771,412 in new stock.

All of the testimony had been put in at previous hearings, and it was intended to have argument heard by the entire commission. But Edward If. Baasett himself formerly a member of the commission, who appeared as counsel for the company, said that some delay was inevitable, in as much as certain papers, including the certificate of consent of stockholders to the mortgage, had been burned in the Equitable fire. These papers can all be replaced in a few days. The papers were in the office of a lawyer for the company, James A. [MacElhittny,] who had rooms, on the seventh floor. The matter was adjourned until January IS.

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