Friday, July 22, 2011

The Sun, January, 11, 1912, "Policies Are Safe And Billion Too,"

The Sun, January, 11, 1912, "Policies Are Safe And Billion Too,"
Thursday, Page 1, Column 1,


Experts Find Equitable Vaults Withstood Fire and Securities Are Preserved.
Flameproof Safes,. Uninjured Amid Debris—Open in Three Days.
Pile Big as an Ordinary House Towers Over the Body of Battalion Chief.
American Exchange Tenants Ordered Out—Gas Explosion Feared—Wall Street Resumes Rush.

The biggest news that came yesterday from the ice palace that was once the Equitable Building was the announcement by President. William A. Day of the assurance society that the securities, worth $1,000.000.000 or more, stored in the vaults of the Equitable and the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company are unharmed and the 90,000 policies on which the Equitable had loaned $70,000,000 had been found intact in the steel cases on the second floor.

The ruined building, crystalled with ice on all four sides, but simmering and smoking here and there within, where the wreckage mounts high, still holds the bodies of Battalion Chief William J. Walsh of the Fire Department and John Campion, the safe deposit company's watchman, who died with his hands gripping the steel bars of the Broadway grill. It is probable also that the body of Frank J. Neider, another Mercantile watchman, lies somewhere under the massed debris in the rear of the safe deposit vaults.

Weakened by falling floors and the immense weight of ice that clings to it, the north wall of the building has bulged four feet out of plumb and threatens the tall building of the American Exchange National Bank across Cedar street and the Chase National and the Clearing House further east. The Building Department yesterday warned the bank and other tenants of the bank's building to vacate until the suspected wall had been shored up. That will be done to-day by the Thompson-Starrett company. The other walls are apparently secure, supported as they are on the Broadway, and Nassau streets sides by unshattered floors. At 1 o'clock this afterrnoon the American Exchange tenants will be permitted to enter their offices briefly to obtain their effects.

When the order came that the tenants of the American Exchange National Bank Buildng must leave, W.H. Bennett, vice-president and cashier of the bank, was in the vault with three or four other officials. They were getting currency to take to the bank's new quarters at 60 Broadway. A police lieutenant rushed up to them and said that the wall across the street might fall at any minute. The officials grabbed what money they had taken out. Mr. Bennett slammed shut the vault doors and then they hustled out to the street, each with an armful of currency wrapped in brown paper.


Very early yesterday morning, long before the Wall Street district filled and opened for business, the officials of the Equitable Life Assurance Society and of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company sent vault experts into the ruins to determine if possible whether there was any reason to be worried about the securities. E. M. Billings, secretary of the Mercantile, and W.C. Poillon, vice-president of the vault company, climbed over ice hummocks and piles of wreckage and satisfied themselves the fire had done little damage. In these vaults are stored the securities of the Harriman and Gould estates, of Kuhn, Loeb & Co., of Kountze Bros., August Belmont & Co., William A. Read & Co., and others.

Firemen who guided Mr. Billings and Mr. Peillon told them the vaults for a short time had been exposed to great heat but not long enough to char their contents. The rear walls of the Mercantile vaults are intact and the coupon room is undamaged. The Mercantile officials decided that it would be safe to open vaults in three or four days.

Accompanied by Deputy Chief Binns, Vice-Presidents Strong and Thornton of the Bankers' Trust Company visited the great strongboxes of the Equitable Society on the second floor. They assured themselves the vaults were uninjured and that there was no reason to suppose the $271,000,000 worth of Equitable securities stored there were harmed. E.E. Rittenhouse, representing President Day, reported to the meeting of the executive committee of the board of directors that the securities could be retrieved in three days. It was thought best to wait that long to make sure the temperature of the interior of the vaults had cooled down.


Assistant Secretory S. S. McCurdy of the Equitable,who had been inspecting the fire swept offices on the second and third floors, reported cheerful news to the new quarters of the society in the City Investing Building. McCurdy, after a deal of climbing about, got to the

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offices of the secretary on the second floor at the Pine and Nassau street corner.

He discovered at once that the minutes of directors' meetings covering all the years since the organization of the society were safe, together with other records that were lost, it was at first feared.

Then he made his way into the Comptroller's office. That had been pretty well cleaned out by the flames, but the steel cases in which were kept the policies that the Equitable people had been worried about, and which were protected by a thick wall of fireproof brick, had hardly been seared. McCurdy opened several, saw that the policies were O.K. and hustled back to the City Investing Building with the good news. Members of the executive committee, some of whom had come from Boston and Philadelphia alarmed over the possibility of lost loan policies and endangered securities, were greatly relieved.


While these investigations were going on the firemen, under Chief Kenlon's direction, trailed through the gloomy shell, dousing out spurts of flame that started up persistently in the out of the way corners and from places where woodwork still remained. Kenlon's men found out definitely where the body of Battalion Chief Walsh is buried. It lies, they made sure, under a mound of wreckage that pyramids fifty feet and is as big as a good sized house. It fills space where three floors were and rises back of the centre of the building about where the intersection of lines drawn from the Clearing House door to Pine street and from the Equitable entrance to the Fourth National Bank would be. Thompson-Startett wreckers said yesterday it might take a week to clear away that enormous pile of debris, close packed and solidly frozen as it is. Chief Kenlon, after looking over the mass, thought Walsh's body was very likely near the bottom crushed by thousands of tons of stone and brick and steel.

Although the firemen were pretty sure there were other bodies in the ruins none were found. Supt. Paul of the building said Frank J. Neider and Conrad Seibert, two watchmen who had been reported as missing, had been heard from, but Lillian Smathers of 66 West 133rd street called at Police Headquarters yesterday and said that Levi Brian, a negro, who had been employed in the Equitable Building, had not been home since the fire. She believed he had been killed. The police, however, have no record of any misssing.


The body of Campion is frozen under masses of ice that reach from the sidewalk deep into the Broadway entrance of the deposit company . All day Tuesday and throughout Tuesday night streams of water were turned into the Mercantile's quarters through the Cedar and Broadway windows. Kenlon feared there might be fire remaining somewhere back in the vaults and was taking no chances. So very slowly, as the water froze. Campion's body was encased, then lost to sight. Unless the cold moderates it will be difficult to reach.

People who adventured yesterday into the ruins of the Equitable got a clear idea of how the fire coursed and spread and of what destruction it wrought. Going in by the Pine street entrance and stumbling through a dark and slippery hall one came first to the rotunda under the dome. The only object that showed no trace of fire was the bronze statue of Henry Baldwin Hyde standing firmly on its onyx pedestal in the exact centre of the building. A fireman early in the day had thrown a rope around the neck of the statue, which gave it in those melancholy surroundings a curious appearance. The strong steel arches of the dome had protected the statue from the downpour of stone and bricks.


The elevator shafts, denuded by the fire, were plain explanations of its sudden and terrific sweep, originating near the elevators on the Pine street side. the flames had shot up these handy chimneys and spread all over the upper floors

The only part of the building that was not fire swept was the northeast extension at Cedar and Nassau streets, occupied by August Belmont & Co. Here there was some water damage, but the offices were not scarred by fire. The air currents and the freakiness of flames carried the destruction away from the corner. Elsewhere, and especially in the centre of the building and on the Cedar street side, the ruin was complete. The shell seemed to be solid enough, but it was nothing more than a shell.

Mounting the icy stairways, where Thompson-Starrett wreckers and firemen passed like gnomes, and climbing by ladder to the fifth and sixth floor, one could see what the fire had done to the Lawyers Club — wiped it out. Of the great law library on the eighth floor nothing remained but blackened walls.


Back of the centre of the ruin were empty spaces made by the down crash of the water tank and of blocks of masonry from the roof. Through these the sky could be seen. There were half a dozen of these. Everywhere save at the northeast corner were shattered floors, piles of masonry and charred wood welded by ice, and a curious litter of insurance literature and documents, ornamental glass, bronze decorations and even small coins. A section of the flagstaff, fallen eight stories, lay in the rotunda just beyond the floor of the dome.

On the upper floors gas, ignited when the pipes were broken, was burning in vivid flares, throwing yellow light through the desolation. The firemen had not considered these uncontrolled lights dangerous apparently, because there was no order to shut off the flow. There was a strong smell of gas throughout the building last night, which worried the police and made them figure on the possibility of an explosion. That induced the Interborough to send a staff of fourteen men into the uptown subway to see if gas had seeped into the tube. They reported no gas there. Anyway, Chief Kenlon thought it best at 8 o'clock last night to stop Broadway car traffic between Wall and Liberty streets. That made it uncomfortable, of course, for the folks who had to make a detour. The police lines were drawn tightly.

The chief confined the work of his department to wetting down thoroughly the piles of debris that still smouldered and gave off thick smoke.


In the upper corridors were squads of wreckers sizing up the job they are to go at briskly to-day. Chief Inspector Nicholas J. Revelle of the Building Department, who was looking over the ruins and swinging from crag to crag like a mountain climber, was injured painfully while investigating on the fourth floor. Loose flooring gave way and dropped Revelle twenty feet. He landed on a pile of stone and brick and was knocked out for a few minutes.


Police Inspector George McClusky had a big squad of bluecoats shooing away the curious. People from all over town went, down to see what was left of the Equitable and pressed hard on the police lines. But they couldn't get closer than Liberty street or Wall street unless they could show a pass. Nassau street also was blocked off by the police between Cedar and Pine streets, but employees of the Fourth National and Hanover National Banks had free passage.

Police Capt. Ormsby of the Fifth street station was put in charge of a temporary police station at 80 Broadway on the ground floor. That is the Union Trust Company building, which had a firescare of its own shortly before noon yesterday. From some cause not known to the employees a blaze got going in a room where waste paper was collected. Smoke surged up the elevalor shafts and spread through the corridors. Attaches of Stock Exchange firms and of other concerns in the building were nervous having, the Equitable fire fresh in mind, and there was a rush to put cash, securities and valuable papers in vaults and safes. There was no excitement, in the Union Trust Company's offices. An alarm was sent in, but before the firemen got around some of Kenlon's men on duty at the Equitable hustled down the street and doused out the blaze with buckets of water.


Fire Commissioner Joseph Johnson, Jr., and Fire Marshal Prial started an investigation yesterday as to the cause of the fire and as to who was responsible for half an hour's delay in notifying the department. They learned that the fire originated in the booth used by Philip O'Brien, timekeeper for the Cafe Savarin. Employees of the restaurant testified there was a gas stove in the small room and that they saw O'Brien light the stove some time previous to the outbreak of the fire that swept through the whole building. These men thought O'Brien might have thrown a match into paper rubbish.

Commissioner Johnson said at night that he had learned the fire was discovered at 5:11 A. M. by William Davis, the chief engineer of the building, and that Davis and his men had tried for twenty minutes to extinguish it without letting the Fire Department know there was trouble. Sergeant Casey of the Greenwich street station said the first he knew of the fire was when Policeman Foley told him about it. With Foley he went into the Savarin and found Davis and a squad using chemical extinguishers and two lines of hose.

Fire Marshal Beers opened an investigation also. He had before him O'Brien, the timekeeper. He said he got to the Equitable Building at 5 o'clock on Tuesday morning, that he went to the basement, where he has a room that contained a stove and a waste paper basket among other things. He lit the gas, he says, and then, walking to the door, threw the match outside upon the asphalt flooring. He left the room shortly and was gone about fifteen minutes. There was no fire there when he returned, he says, and it was not until he had gone upstairs once more that he was told that the wastepaper basket in his room was ablaze


Chief Kenlon called on Fire Commissioner Johnson yesterday and enthusiastically commended Seneca Larke Jr., the fireman who rescued William Giblin, president of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, by sawing the bars of the Broadway grill and making a hole through which Giblin was dragged just in time. Larke is an Indian, the only one of his race in the Pennsylvania station, Thirty-second street and Seventh Avenue, room No. 33


It was learned yesterday that while the records in many bankruptcy cases pending before Nathaniel A. Prentiss, official referee, who had his office in the Equitable Building, were destroyed, in most if not all cases which had not been finally disposed of there are duplicates of the records in the offices of lawyers concerned.

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