Friday, August 5, 2011

The Chicago Day Book, Jan. 9 & 10, 1912

January 9, 1912, The Day Book, Chicago, Tuesday, "SEVEN DEAD IN FIRE THAT THREATENED TO WIPE OUT HEART OF NEW YORK."

Heroism Marks Work of "Smoke Eaters" Scorched by Flames, Drenched in Freezing Water, as Equitable Building Crashes Into Ruins.

The reported dead:
Battalion Fire Chief William K. Walsh.
Conrad Siebert, special policeman.
Gulseppi Conti, porter.
John Savzi, porter.
John Campeon, Captain of vaults.
Unidentified porter.
Unidentified citizen.

New York, Jan. 9. Seven men lost their lives today in a fire that destroyed the home of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, 120 Broadway, paralyzed the greatest financial centre in the world, and entailed a property loss variously estimated at from $15,000,000 to $30,000,000.

The fire started at 5:20 o'clock. It was under control four hours later. During its progress every single piece of fire apparatus in New York was summoned for the first time in the city's history. Buildings valued at hundreds of millions of dollars were menaced.

It will be weeks before the property loss can be accurately estimated. Before the insurance investigation committee it was sworn that the Equitable Building itself, now a total loss, cost $18,781,640 to build, and had a book value of $15,510,000.

The loss to the tenants of the building will be immense, but until the great vaults are opened, no idea of the amount of this loss can be come to.

Wall Street, cut off by the fire lines, was paralyzed today, and business all throughout the financial section was reduced to practically nothing.

At 2:45 this afternoon, Fire Chief Kenlon ordered rescuing parties within the wavering walls of the building. He took this action on reports from persons who worked in the building, and from whose stories he now estimates the number of dead at a possible 25.

Kenlon's orders were: "Search everywhere, and bring out the bodies."

The fire was discovered in the basement, near the engine room of the building. Sucked up through huge air shafts, the

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flames spread like lightning, and before the first firemen arrived from six blocks away, the entire building was burning fiercely, every floor was on fire, and flames were shooting from hundreds of windows in each of the four sides.

Three sides of the buliding were bounded by streets that elsewhere would be called alleys. Rising on all sides were immense sky-scrapers.

Even if they stood with their backs against the buildings on the opposite sides of the streets, the firemen were forced to approach within thirty feet of the inferno that raged about them.

Alarm followed alarm, until three thousand firemen were fighting---and suffering.

Flames rose, and billowed hundreds of feet in the air, cutting surrounding sky-scrapers in a frame of dull, wicked-looking red.

As the morning progressed, hundreds of thousands of men and women employed in the financial district, began disgorging from subway, elevated and surface lines. They tried to force through the fire lines, half mad with hysterical curiosity, al-tumbling walls were falling about them.

More than a thousand policemen, with fire lines drawn, were required to fight them back.

Scores of buildings in the vicinity were ordered closed by the police and firemen, and thousands of men and women thus denied access to their places of business, poured to the fire, and tried by every method to get inside the fire lines.

At 8:30 a great section of the Equitable walls facing on Broadway crashed into the street. Another section fell at 8:35.

At 8:56 Fire Chief Kenlon sounded a "five borough" alarm, bringing to a fire for the first time in the history of New York, every piece of fire apparatus in every borough of the metropolis.

It was feared at this time that the flames were going to spread, and that a frightful conflagration would ensue.

Only a few blackened, stricken walls are left of the Equitable Life "palace" now, and even these are wavering, shaking, likely to crash in ruins at any moment.

And over, the debris inside, firemen are crawling, looking for bodies, hoping only to know just who has fallen a victim of the flames.

They are risking their lives. If the walls fall they are doomed. The firemen of New York are doing their duty.

The fire was accompanied by wonderful rescues and heroic deeds on the part of the firemen, who worked in a temperature below freezing. A temperature that froze the water as it came from the hoses, and that caked the suffering firemen from head to feet in solid ice.

Fire Chief Kenlon said today that the suffering endured by his men was a thing he had never dreamed of, far less seen before. Men came from the blazing building scarcely able to move on ac-

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count of ice cakes in which they were enclosed.

The first four men who died in the fire were porters. Twenty minutes after the fire started they were seen at a window, in the fifth story. They made frantic gestures, and then three of them jumped to the street. Each was crushed to death as he struck Broadway. The fourth wavered for a moment, then fell back into the flames and perished.

Fire Chief William K. Walsh is missing. He was last seen on the sixth story of the building furiously fighting the flames.

Captain of the Vaults John Campeon is dead. He was trapped in the very vaults that were under his care and protection.

The body of Conrad Siebert, a watchman, was found, burned and frightfully crushed, on the first floor.

The fire started at 5 :20 o'clock this morning. It spread with such frightful rapidity through he amazing labyrinths of the great building that by 8 o'clock he entire building was doomed eyond all hope.

At 9:30 o'clock only the bare walls of the Equitable building stood, and police reserves were driving back the firemen and the thousands of spectators. For the tons of water that had seeped through cracks in the building were freezing, shaking and throwing down walls as though by high explosives.


The Equitable building was eight stories high on the Broadway side and twelve on the Nassau street side. It covered an entire block and cost $14,000,000.

It grew from the smaller structure first planned by Henry Baldwin Hyde when he organized the Equitable Life Assurance Society, into the great palace of finance first occupied in 1870. It sheltered yesterday business representing $2,000,000,000.

There was not another building like the Equitable Society's in the world. There was a lawyer's club on one floor, an insurance men's on another, a free library and a dining room. The famous Lawyers' Club grew into a membership of, 2,000 shortly after the building was opened.

For many years the building was one of the show places of New York. It was the scene of many splendid dinners and other social events.

The building was deliberately planned by Hyde for the purpose of advertising his insurance concern. It was widely copied after its success was assured.

The entrance from Broadway was through a wonderful arched portal set with ornamental grill of solid bronze. Colored marbles massed in columns and arches gave a magnificent effect of richness. The corridor that continued through the block to Nassau street was lined with other costly marbles and hundreds of incan-

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descent lights turned the otherwise darkened interior into brilliancy as they flashed on the glittering marble and bronze.

The first floor and a portion of the basement was occupied by the Mercantile Safe Deposit company, which was controlled by the Equitable. The famous Cafe Savarin, scene of many a gay party, occupied the remainder of the basement.

The main office of the Equitable on the second floor consisted of a lofty hall, in which stood two rows of colored pillars, the working offices and the cashiers' department.

In the rear was a magnificent stained glass window to which a marble-lined and marble-floored corridor led. Another passage led to a huge vault where at least $200,000,000 in securities were kept.

On the same floor were the offices of August Belmont & Company, the Mercantile Trust Company, and the Equitable Trust Company.

The public quarters of the Equitable Society contained an insurance library of more than 8,500 volumes. In this library was the entire history of life insurance.

The greater portion of the library was in a large room, with a gilt-fretted vault overhead and wonderful allegorical painting on the walls. This room was used as a banquet hall.

The president of the society and other high officials occupied seven rooms on the third floor of the Broadway side.

Lawyers were the chief tenants of the remainder of the structure, although the Southern and Union Pacific Railroad companies, where Harriman once held sway, and the banking firm of Kountze Brothers also had their general offices there. The Western Maryland Railroad, once a Gould concern, also had excutive offices in the building.

The lawyers' club took up the entire fifth and sixth floors. The law library was on the seventh floor. It was a library that never can be duplicated, and was almost of priceless value.

The upper floors of the building were most magnificent. A corridor lined with black-stained marble, led into a smoking room that dazzled the eyes with the lustre of its squared columns. The suite included a main dining room and a dozen more which were used for private parties. All of them were decorated in white and pink or hung with splendid brocades that produced a bewildering effect.

From the main entrance to the top of the entire building, nothing was left undone that might add to the gorgeousness of the decorations.

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The Story of a Fight for a Man's Life That Will Stand Forever in the Records of Heroism.

At 7:30 o'clock, a fireman came from the building and told his chief that three of his companions were trapped in the basement vaults of the building.

The news spread like wildfire through the ranks of the department and the assembled crowds, and a groan went up.

The building by then was a veritable volcano of fire. Flames were bursting forth from every window, from every crevice. Walls were bulging. Great granite blocks were detaching themselves, and crashing to the ground with thunderous roars. The doors to the basement were clogged with debris.

A hundred firemen volunteered to rescue their comrades, and without waiting for orders sprang toward the basement entrances.

With axes and crowbars, they dashed in and out, scorched by the heat, cased in ice, trying to chop out the three imprisoned men.

At 8 o'clock, a fireman emerged from the building, and spread the news that the vaults were half full of water, and that the imprisoned men were in danger of drowning, but that the pouring in of the water could not be stopped else the men would die of suffocation.

The volunteers redoubled their efforts. They fought among the falling blocks of granite, each one large enough to crush out the lives of a dozen men, with a heroism and disregard of their own lives, that caused the watching crowds to hold their breaths.

At 8:30, the great walls of the building on the Broadway side, burst outwards in an inferno of flame, and crashed to the ground. Mostly the rescuers barely escaped. Tons of granite and marble fell in the street, and perhaps it never will be known how many firemen perished in that moment of roaring horror.

But the rescuers went back to their heroic work before even the last block had fallen, and at 8:50 o'clock they were able to speak to the imprisoned men through a grating in the vaults.

It was then that it was learned they were not firemen, but President William Giblin, of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, and two companions.

After twice being driven from the burnings building by firemen, Giblin had returned a third time to get papers of inestimable value from his desk, and thus was trapped.

At 9 o'clock Giblin reported to the fighting rescuers that the floors of the vaults had given way and that he had dragged the bodies of his companions, now unconscious, into the main office.

One steel bar still remained for the firemen to dislodge. As they worked at it, the falling of blocks of solid granite became more fu-

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But at 9:10, after the most thrilling and heroic work ever seen at a New York fire, firemen fought their way into the main office, and dragged out Giblin, who immediately collapsed. The other two were dead.

Fire Commissioner Joseph Johnson first saw the men. Regardless of personal danger he bent over the grated window and peered into the agonized face of the only one of the trapped men still on his feet.

"We'll get you out, old man," he shouted.

Fireman James Dunn leaped to the assistance of his chief. Before he could reach the window, Father McGeean, chaplain of the department, went to the window. Over his head a dozen streams of icy water were playing against the seething walls. Showers of stone fell about the young priest. Chips struck him on the liead and shoulders, and brought the blood in flowing streams.

Drenched to the skin, as the ice formed about him, Father McGeean stood calmly facing death and moved not until he had administered to the imprisoned man the last rites of the church to the dying.

Then he was dragged away, and the mad work of rescue went on.

Fireman Dunn froze, and cursed, and wept, and worked savagely, heroically, madly. Then his comrades dragged him away, and Fireman Brown took his place with the little steel saw at the bars behind which gloomed Giblin's face.

Brown shouted words of encouragment, and worked as Dunn had worked until he too was dragged away to the hospital. Fireman Young took his place. Young gave out, and William Lark took his place.

And it was Lark who broke through the bars at last, and dived through, and fought fire and smoke and drenching streams of water, until he reached Giblin, and passed him, dying, through the grating.

Later, Lark, returned, and found the body of John Campeon, captain of the vaults. He was dead. A few minutes later he stumbled over another body in that inferno of smoke and flame, and dragging it to the grating passed it out. It was that of William Sheehan. Sheehan was not dead, but is not expected to live.

At 9:15 o'clock, Giblin was rushed to the Hudson street hospital. But the firemen had fought in vain, for the physicians at the hospital report that Giblin is dying from burns and exposure.



New York., Jan. 10.---Under orders from Chief Kenlon police at 2:10 began clearing the American Exchange National Bank building, at 128 Broadway, of all tenants. The great bank itself was ordered closed. No person is allowed in the vicinity of the Ceder street side of the wrecked Equitable Life building, the walls on that side having bulged two feet and being in danger of falling in momentarily. Great damage to the American Echange National Bank building would follow. The falling of the Cedar street walls would also probably precipitate the front walls into Broadway.

New York, Jan. 10.---Money, jewels and securities to the value of $52,000,000,000 are buried in the seething ruins of the Equitable building.

The financial district of New York is swarming with plain-clothed and uniformed police, watching for the slinking figures of the crooks of the metropolis, drawn by the treasure of the fire.

The flames still are raging beneath the ice encased ruins of the Equitable. Neither crook nor proper owner can reach the vast fortune that is buried there just now, nor will they be able to for days.

Firemen still are pouring tons of water into the building. But they are not reaching the hot heart of the fire. Even as the water leaves the nozzles of the hose, it freezes, and falls in a misty veil of ice to strengthen the ice barrier that is enclosing the fire.

Out on the icy streets, financiers and brokers are standing impatiently waiting for word that will tell them of the safety or the loss of their money, or the money of their clients.

From the tops of adjacent skyscrapers it is possible to look down into the ruins of the Equitable building. From there it can be seen how the firemen are failing to get at the fire. The whole burning ruin of the "palace of finance" is encased in a wall of ice, many feet in thickness. And inside, the fire is burning.

Business in Wall Street is practically at a standstill. From police headquarters a message was sent to all banks and brokers this morning warning them of the danger of sending money or negotiable papers through the streets unguarded.

For the crooks of New York have seized the opportunity presented by the fire, and swarmed down below the "dead line" and up to the very doors of their brothers of "Big Business."

There is grave danger that the massive granite walls of the Equitable will fall crashing into the street today.

The walls are now soaked through and through with water. As that water freezes, it expands,

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with a force, say experts, greater than that of a high explosive.

It is feared that if the walls collapse they will go crashing down through the flimsy floor of Broadway and into the subway.

The billion or more dollars' worth of securities in the Mercantile Vaults are believed to be perfectly safe. These vaults are in the basement. They are modern, and fireproof. It is not believed the fire can reach them.

But even if the wrecking companies now at work could get to the doors of these vaults, they could not be opened. Permitting a rush of oxygen laden air into the vaults would cause spontaneous combustion, and the destruction of everything within vaults.

The vaults of the Equitable Life are on the first floor. They contain securities worth $400,000,000, four million being in actual money. These values, say the firemen, are doomed.

Momentarily the firemen are expecting these vaults to go crashing through the first floor and into the basement And if they should do this, it is almost certain they will burst open, and their contents be burned.

All night long, under dozens of search lights, firemen dug on the main stairway of the building on the second floor for the body of Battalion Chief Walsh.

They took thejr lives in their hands, and they did not succeed. Over 200,000 tons of ice and debris covered Walsh's body yesterday, and shortly before 10 o'clock today, several floors collapsed, and buried the body of the man who gave his life to save those working under him, deeper still.

President William Giblin, who was saved from death by almost superhuman work on the part of the department yesterday, is better today. Physicians at the Hudson Hospital yesterday, declared him to be dying, but there is hope that he will recover.

The securities in the building are listed as follows :
Gould estate $100,000,000.
Equitable Trust Company $50,000,000.
Harriman estate $125,000,000.
Thomas Fortune Ryan $100,000,000.
August Belmont $150,000,00-0.
Kuhn, Loeb & Co. $100,000,000.
Kountze Bros., bankers $15,000,000
Mercantile Trust Co. $70,000,000.
Wm. A.' Read & Co., bankers $100,000,000.
Mrs. Russell Sage $50,000,000.
Southern Pacific securities-Value unknown.

Of course, the vast portion of this great fortune is in registered securities, which are replacable. But the Equitable Life had $4,000,000 in cash in its vaults, the Mercantile Trust Co., $6,000,000, the Belmont, Read and Kountze banks also having millions in actual money in their vaults.

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