January 10, 1912, New York Times, Big Blaze Started In Rubbish Heap; Fire Marshal Believes Prompt Giving of Alarm Would Have Prevented Disaster.
Employes Fought in Vain
Reaching Elevator Shaft, Flames Rushed Through Whole Building---Johnson Praises Firemen.
The origin of the fire was made the subject of an investigation yesterday by Fire Commissioner Johnson, through John P. Prial, a Special Fire Marshal, and Edward Croker, Jr. an assistent. Their report will go to the officials later.
It is said that they found reason to believe that had the alarm been sent in when the fire was first discovered in the kitchen of the Cafe Savarin, it might easily have been checked. it seemed to be of so little cosequence that the employes thought they could handle it. It was this mistake that let the fire get beyond control and offered to the first arriving companies a conflagration sweeping from the basement to the roof of the building.
The fire got its start between 3:30 and 5:20 a.m., when the police first learned of it. Bakers in the Savarin came to work at the earlier hour and told Sergt. Casey, after the alarm had been turned in, that they had been at work for an hour and a half before the fire was discovered. It began in a pile of papers and empty boxes near the foot of the stairs leading from the kitchen of the Savarin, which is situated in the basement, to the main floor of the building. The first spark might have been from a cigarette, as is considered most likely, or possibly from one of the stoves in the kitchen.
As soon as the flames were discovered the men set about extinguishing them as best they could. When the first attention of the police was attracted to the fire the men told the policemen that they had been at work about half an hour, and that they had the flames under control. They objected to the suggestion of the policemen that a fire alarm be sent in. In this respect, the fire officials say, they may have been carrying out the instructions of the heads of the building, as employees are often ordered never to send in an alarm of fire if it can possibly be avoided.
Following up the stairs, the fire was caught up by the draft of the elevator shafts, to which the stairs lead. In a few minutes they were licking the top of the building and spreading out over the top floor.
There seems to be no evidence that faulty insulation of electric wires had any part in the beginning of the fire. E.E. Rittenhouse, for the Assurance Society, and the officials of the Fire Department agreed as to this. The kitchen of the Savarin contains a number of stoves, and it was the theory of Mr. Rittenhouse that the fire had started from one of these. The fact that the blaze started near the foot of the stairs andaway from the contact of the wires in the kitchen seems to throw out at once the first theory that the fire was the result of the familiar buring out of insulation and ignition of waste material by electricity.
It was learned yesterday that a year ago the firm of Charles G. Armstrong & Co., consulting engineers, at the Singer Building, was called upon by the Equitable Assurance Society to make an examination of the building. What the engineers found at that time and whether theri investigations showed any danger to the building from the wiring, could not be learned yesterday. Charles G. Armstrong, who made the examination, said yesterday that he would under no circumstances give out the results of his work. He considered the report confidential and the property of the Equitable Company. He had given the report to Gerald P. Brown, Controller of the society. When Mr. Brown was questioned in regard to it, he said that the investigation had nothing to do with the wiring. He declared that the owners of the building were considering putting in some new machinery and the Armstrong firm of consulting engineers had been called in to make a report on that subject alone.
Fire Commissioner Johnson's opinion of the building and the fire danger connected with it he made known in a statement issued yesterday afternoon.
"This building," he said, "was an unrelated patchwork, started forty-two years ago, when the paid department was in its infancy. It was known to the underwriters as 'sub-standard construction.' This simply means that the building was not fireproof. But it was permitted to exist in its hazardous condition in the face of modern fire-preventive construction. Upon the character of this building allowed to stand in the heart of the financial district no comment need be made further than to say that its own employees and members of the uniformed force were trapped in it."
With the fire as a text, Mr. Johnson goes on to declare that New York is not free from the danger of a great fire such as has recently visited Boston, Baltimore, and longer ago, Chicago. He said:
"The same fuel for conflagration which exists in those cities exists in Manhattan in the old wholesale dry goods district and in the mass of buildings in 'The Swamp,' and all the way up trhe east side, as well as in several parts of the Brooklyn water front. With weather conditions such as prevailed this morning, and with an area of highly inflammable buildings such as exist in the districts I have described, and with no barriers of fireproof buildings around them, I am somewhat fearful that history will repeat itself.
"Under the conditions which prevailed I think I may say that the work of the Fire Department in confining the fire to the Equitable Building itself was a remarkable performance. Too much cannot be said in praise of the firefighters themselves, from Chief Kenlon down, who were taking lives in their hands nearly every moment."
The Cafe Savarin, where the fire started is owned by the Cafe Savarin Company. Some of its officers are also officers of the Equitable Assurance Society. The President of the company is Louis M. Baily, who is the deputy Controller of the Equitable. The Directors also conmnected with the Equitable are William A. Day, Gerald R. Brown, and Leon O. Fisher.
One might assume a kitchen in a commercial building of the era would be found in the basement, and it would also likely be the locus for an accidental fire, but the Equitable was not the average commercial building---then or now. It was literally a treasure house; a repository for family and corporate wealth whose basement vaults held today's equivalent of hundred's of billions of dollars in cash and securities. And as it turned out, as the "narrative developed," the kitchens for both the Cafe Savarin and Lawyers' Club restaurant were on the eighth floor, which vented odors well away from the public spaces.
Like the 9/11 Commission Report, a very sub-standard investigative effort resulted then too: The Report On Fire In The Equitable Building, which the New York Board Of Fire Underwriters attached its name to. In its heyday, the Equitable Building operated with similar levels of secrecy to the Pentagon and Larry Silverstein's Building 7, so it's difficult to find explicit historic information about the goings-on inside, and even this report is inconsistent ---stating in a summery that the "Cafe Savarin occupied large areas in the basement, ground floor, 8th and 9th floors"; but then in a detailed breakdown, listing only a wine cellar and other storage in the basement; the Savarin dining room on the ground floor; a "ladies" dining room on the 1rst floor; the Lawyers' Club dining rooms on the 5th and 6th floors; with kitchens (and the Law Library) on the 8th floor; and lastly, on a partial 9th, or penthouse floor, offices and supply rooms.
If bakers in the Savarin came to work at 3:30 a.m. they would be far removed from the origins of the fire.
In addition to the supposed recalcitrance of the night security staff, who the Times fails to mention, and who would have accessed the basement then supposedly failed to alert the fire department for help, the fire report attempts to pin the blame for the rapid advance of building failure to the presence of a dumbwaiter system.
Report on Fire in the Equitable Building
New York City; JANUARY 9, 1912
February 29, 1912
ORIGIN AND SPREAD OF FIRE.The occupancy consisted principally of offices. The Cafe Savarin occupied large areas in the basement, ground floor, 8th and 9th floors.
The timekeeper of the Cafe Savarin arrived at the building about 5 A.M., the day of the fire, and went immediately to his office, a small frame enclosure, 4x12 feet, in the receiving room, located in the basement of No. 12 Pine Street. He lighted the gas in his office and threw away the match. At about 5:18 A. M. another employee discovered the fire in the timekeeper's office. The wastepaper basket, chair and desk were burning briskly.
The fire did only moderate damage in the receiving room but spread to a tile enclosed shaft containing two elevators and eleven small dumbwaiters enclosed in wood. The dumbwaiters and elevators served the dining rooms of the Lawyers' Club and the Cafe Savarin, from one kitchen on the 8th floor. The shaft had openings directly to each story except the 4th. It is claimed that some of the openings had rolling iron shutters. They were evidently open or defective. The other openings had wood doors. The flames quickly extended throughout this shaft and entered the upper stories almost simultaneously. The fire in the shaft did not communicate with the lower floors; the shaft acted as a chimney, the draft being inward at the lower levels and outward at the top. The fire traveled fastest through the large area of the club rooms and kitchen which were almost without sub-divisions by even ordinary partitions and contained much combustible trim and furnishings.
A summary of the occupancy of each floor follows: Basement: Boiler room, 9 boilers located on the Nassau Street side of building, steam engines and pumps. Mercantile Safe Deposit Co.'s vaults. Cafe Savarin, wine cellar, and storage of supplies.
Ground floor: Cafe Savarin, dining room;
1st: Cafe Savarin, ladies' dining room;
8th: Kitchen for Cafe Savarin and Lawyers' Club restaurant; 3 sets coal heated French ranges, a number of steam heated boiling kettles, small gas heated testing oven, 3 large bake ovens, brick set, coal heated. Balance, offices.
9th (roof structure): Disused laundry. Offices and supply rooms of Cafe Savarin.