This post is about New York City fires and firemen, past and present. I’ll start with fires I have experienced personally, then have a look at fires and firemen of the past. I have been through 2½ fires in the city.
Fire no. 1
My partner Bob and I heard a commotion downstairs, poked our noses out the apartment door, saw a haze of smoke coming up the staircase, and a fireman knocking on doors one flight down.
“Do you want us out of the building?” I yelled.
“Yes,” came the fireman’s answer, “and fast!”
That said, he darted down the stairs into the hazy smoke. So Bob and I tossed on our light jackets and followed him down the stairs into the smoke. Ahead of us we saw Mrs. T., the landlady, who was housebound with arthritis, being carried down the last flight of stairs. Only when we were safe outside, joining the crowd watching the firemen at work, did we realize that we had done exactly what you’re told not to do in a fire: to go in the direction of the smoke.
The fire was in the basement. We later learned that Mrs. T. had once had a perfume business and stored some chemicals there. Another no-no: don’t store inflammables in the basement, and above all, don’t leave them there, forgotten, for years. The chemicals had been a fire just waiting to happen.
The fire was quickly put out, and after the firemen had aired the building to get rid of the smoke, we were allowed back in. No damage except in the basement, so it ended well. Being a bit shook up, Bob and I and our downstairs neighbor Hans joined another neighbor in her room for an after-crisis drink. A real Village scene, we thought: four survivors tippling together in a tastefully shabby apartment.
“Like in La Bohème,” said Hans, a great opera buff.
“Or Götterdämmerung,” I quipped, mindful of Wagner’s fiery finale.
So ended my first fire in the city. No word of it in the newspapers, since such non-events occur all the time, too numerous and routine to merit a mention. But I had learned to be leery of accumulating inflammables. Once, when our trash area was piled high with boxes and newspapers that the super hadn’t bothered to put out for collection, I informed the Fire Department, and they were on the spot inspecting the place within 24 hours. And every time I walk past the Magnolia Bakery, our celebrated ground-floor neighbor, and the Bleecker Street entrance to our basement is open, I peer down the steep stairs, wondering if that shadowy underworld is piled high with the bakery’s empty cartons, as it once was, when I went down to have access to our circuit breaker.
Fire no. 2
One summer many years later there came a sudden knock on the door. Bob was away, so I was in the apartment alone. At the door was our young next-door neighbor, and behind her, once again, smoke pouring up the staircase, this time much thicker and more threatening.
“Get out of the building!” I said, before she could say a word. “Don’t go down the stairs. Use the fire escape. I’ll see you down on the street.”
So she went down the front fire escape to West 11th Street, and after phoning Hans to alert him, I went down the other fire escape to Bleecker Street. It was a mild summer afternoon, so all the tenants joined the inevitable throng watching the fire from the street. Hans told me that another of our neighbors, who was watching the scene with visible anguish, had apologized to him: the fire had started in his kitchen. Long out of work, he watched television day and night and had probably been watching it when he had something on the stove. A quiet, harmless guy, but sad. Another neighbor had told us once of helping him get an ambulance on Christmas Eve. “I’m the loneliest man in the city,” he had confessed, before being whisked off in the ambulance to an emergency room – not a cheerful prospect on Christmas Eve. And now, a fire in his apartment, and all of us routed out to the street.
Again, the firemen had come quickly and soon the fire was out, with damage only to his kitchen. For several days afterward, going up or down the stairs, through his open door I could see workmen working in his kitchen, and him, seemingly oblivious of them, watching television. In time he moved out; I have no idea what has become of him. And that is the story of my second fire in the city.
As fires go, not much, you might say. No roaring infernos, no charred bodies, no tangled, blackened wreckage. Agreed. But I have one more fire to offer.
Fire no. 2½
Why 2½? Because this fire wasn’t in my building, so I wasn’t routed out to the street. One summer night, long past midnight, I heard a commotion on the roof next to mine. Going to a window, I looked out and saw firemen on the roof next door, training hoses on a fire on the next roof over, where the residents had partied quietly the night before. The flames were leaping skyward: a real conflagration devouring everything in its path. I hadn’t even heard the sirens, but there were the firemen, dousing the fire with torrents of water until the flames finally faltered, shrank down, flickered, went out. It was all over in a matter of minutes, but I’ll never forget the sight of that great mass of flames leaping high. The excitement over, I went back to bed.
The next morning I looked out and saw two of the residents poking about in the charred ruins of what had once been a charming roof garden. Among the wreckage were glasses from the partying of the night before. They saw me, gestured, shrugged. I shrugged too and told them of the spectacle I had witnessed well past midnight. And that was the end of the rooftop partying. One cigarette, not quite out, had probably been left behind, when the revelers quit the roof and went downstairs; that’s all it took to kindle a blaze.
New Yorkers and fires
New Yorkers tend to shrug off fires. Not in their own building, of course, or in a building nearby, but otherwise they don’t pay much attention. Fire engines race down the streets every day, their sirens wailing, and they’re just a part of the usual hullabaloo, along with police and ambulance sirens, rumbling trucks with screeching brakes, horn blasts of irate drivers, and altercations – often shrill – of motorists. But New Yorkers don’t resent those sirens, annoying as they can be, since they are rushing aid to someone who needs it, and fast. Here the city’s congestion is actually advantageous, since firemen, once an alarm is sounded, can be at the scene of the fire within minutes. Congested cities don’t harbor the worst risk of fires; it’s those handsome dwellings out in the country, in idyllic settings, that risk burning to the ground before fire engines from some distant location can arrive. There are fires in the city, but they tend to be put out fast.
An exception to my statement that New Yorkers shrug off sirens: my partner Bob. Once, when he was fourteen, he and his family were routed out of the floor they rented in a three-story tenement in Jersey City when, in the wee hours of the morning, a fire raged next door. They were soon allowed back in, with no damage to their building, but the experience marked him for life. Whenever he heard a fire engine’s siren in the street below our West Village apartment, he would listen intently, nervously, until the engine raced on past our building. And if the siren stopped near us, he would peer out the window to see if our building was involved. It never was, and he always breathed a sigh of relief. Overly cautious, needlessly fearful? Maybe. But he was the best fire detector our apartment could have had.
New York City firemen are generally admired. Yes, their union long resisted admitting minority applicants and had to be coerced by the courts, and yes, occasionally a few of them get into off-duty brawls and scrapes, but our firemen emerged as the heroes of 9/11, when so many of them died in the collapsing Twin Towers. We need the police too, but they have been tainted by corruption in the past, and the recent stop-and-frisk practice offended the minority youths who were arbitrarily harassed, and alienated the general public as well. Luckily, the firemen have escaped such controversy. When our friend Barbara visited from Maine, she watched in admiration and awe as firemen performed some routine task in public. And another woman, a passerby and total stranger, joined her, professing the same admiration of these burly stalwarts going about their business, totally unaware of two admiring females watching discreetly from a distance.
Great fires of the past
Thanks to the city’s frequently updated Fire Code, regulating fire prevention, the storage and handling of combustibles, and related matters, and its regulation of building materials, the chance of a great fire today is vastly reduced. And New York has never been devastated by a city-wide conflagration like the ones that leveled Chicago and San Francisco. But in earlier times, when building materials were inflammable and regulations minimal, there were not one but two great fires in the city.
The evening of December 16, 1835, was unusually cold, with high winds hammering the city. Toward 9 p.m. a watchman smelled smoke and, joined by other watchmen, traced the smoke to a large warehouse on Merchant (now Beaver) Street. Forcing the door open, they found the interior ablaze and watched helplessly as flames burst through the roof and, whipped by the wind, spread quickly throughout the downtown commercial district. Bell towers and church bells clanged the alarm, and the city’s firemen, exhausted from fighting two fires the night before, turned out to haul their engines to the scene of the blaze. But by midnight the freezing wind had lashed the flames into an inferno so bright that the glow could be seen in Poughkeepsie, New Haven, and Philadelphia, where firemen also went into action, thinking their suburbs were on fire.
|The burning of the Merchants' Exchange, 1835.|
Firemen arriving on the scene found the wells, cisterns, and hydrants frozen solid, and when the firemen, chopping holes in the frozen East River, tried to pump up water, the water froze in the hose. Meanwhile merchants dragged goods out of warehouses to supposedly safe locations, only to see them consumed in the spreading conflagration. Racing north, the flames engulfed the supposedly fireproof Merchants’ Exchange, a handsome cupola-topped, marble-faced structure on Wall Street that was the pride of the city and a tribute to its commercial success. Rescuers managed to save records of current stock transactions, but barely got out in time before the great cupola came crashing down. Scraping together supplies of gunpowder wherever they could be found, fire fighters blew up buildings along Wall Street and succeeded in blocking the fire’s progress and thus saved the northern half of the city from destruction. By morning thirteen acres of the downtown commercial district were still aflame, and rivers of burning turpentine rolled out across the frozen East River to set several vessels on fire. When the fire finally subsided, the ruins were littered with scorched silks and satins and laces, bottles of wine and champagne, and a mountain of coffee on South Street. Looters were prowling about, getting drunk on scavenged liquor and gloating at the misfortune of the affluent, until state militia and U.S. Marines were brought in to put a stop to the looting.
|The Merchants' Exchange, where merchants met to buy and sell |
commodities, real estate, stocks, steamboats, whatever. Before the telephone,
merchants made themselves available to one another by going "on 'Change."
What was the toll of this, the city’s worst fire ever? Some 674 buildings had been destroyed, with losses estimated at from $18 to $26 million – for that time, a huge amount more than triple the cost of the Erie Canal. Yet only two people died, since the commercial district was almost devoid of residential buildings. And the Go Ahead spirit of the city was such that reconstruction began at once, with the ground still hot from smoking embers. Within a year some 500 new buildings had gone up, and the whole ravaged area was completely restored.
Ten years later the city suffered another great conflagration in the same downtown commercial area. It began about 2:30 a.m. on July 19, 1845, on the third story of a whale-oil and candle manufacturer on New Street, a block south of Wall Street, and spread quickly to adjoining buildings. When the fire reached a large warehouse on Broad Street where quantities of combustible saltpeter were stored, firemen rushed into the building to drag a hose up to the fourth floor to direct water onto the blaze. When heavy black smoke began coming up the stairway, the firemen were ordered out of the building; five minutes later there was a huge explosion that demolished not just the warehouse but many nearby structures, while hurling bricks and flaming debris through the air, tossing people in the area to the ground, and setting the whole neighborhood ablaze. But on this occasion the firemen were aided by water flowing from the recently completed Croton aqueduct, so that the fire was under control by 1 p.m. that afternoon.
|The warehouse explosion, 1845.|
The destruction caused by the 1845 fire was vast -- 345 buildings destroyed and property damage appraised at from $5 to $10 million -- yet it confirmed the efficacy of building codes adopted in 1815 that banned the construction of new wood-frame structures in the densest parts of the city. When the fire spread eastward toward areas rebuilt after the 1835 fire with stone, masonry, and iron roofs and shutters, it had been checked.
|The Triangle fire. The firemen's hoses could|
reach the upper floors, but their ladders couldn't.
Still, a lot remained to be done. It was not until two tenement fires in 1860 blocked stairways and trapped residents on the upper floors, with consequent loss of life, that public pressure forced the state legislature to pass laws requiring fire escapes on tenements and other structures. Further reforms came only after the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911, when fire broke out on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of a ten-story building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, just east of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. Flames soon blocked one stairway, and the doors to other exits were locked to prevent theft. Terrified employees crowded onto the single fire escape, a flimsy structure that collapsed under their weight, flinging twenty employees to their death on the pavement below. The firemen’s ladders couldn’t reach beyond the sixth floor, and their nets couldn’t withstand the force of bodies falling from such a great height. Crowds below watched in horror as other employees – mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women – jumped from the flaming upper floor windows to their death, landing on the pavement with a thud that would haunt bystanders for months to come. In all, 146 garment workers died as a result of the fire.
When the company’s two owners were tried on first- and second-degree manslaughter charges, a skillful defense led the jury to acquit them. But reformers pressured the state legislature to modernize the state’s labor laws, mandating better access and exits, improved fireproofing, the installation of alarms and automatic sprinklers, and better working conditions for employees. Further measures were subsequently adopted as skyscrapers lunged higher and higher into the sky, and still more after the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Fire prevention is a never-ending enterprise requiring constant revision and improvement.
Volunteer fire companies of the past
Long before the city had a professional fire department, there were volunteer companies composed of young men who hauled their engines through the streets, ostensibly because horses would panic at the sight of a fire, but really because they liked the glory and to-do of hauling their prized engines themselves. In the nineteenth century their typical uniform included a wide-brimmed leather helmet with the number of the fire company blazoned on the front, a red flannel shirt, and black pants. The companies were known by such nicknames as Honey Bee, Short Boys, Red Rover, Big Six, Old Turk, and Yellow Birds. Each company had an engine house in a certain neighborhood, and if an alarm sounded, they would rush the engine from there to the site of the fire, while their foreman shouted orders and gave encouragement through a brass trumpet. Rivalry among the companies was intense, and if two of them arrived at the scene of a fire, and only one hydrant was available, fierce fights resulted with fists, pipes, and the blunt ends of axes, while the building continued to blaze. On one such occasion in July 1846 engine companies 1, 5, 6, 23, 31, and 36 engaged in a donnybrook of epic proportions, and on a Sabbath morning, no less, until a superior managed to calm things down; fortunately, no building was burning at the time. Every so often a company was disbanded for brawling, but the brawling somehow persisted.
When not so engaged, the firemen performed valorous deeds in rescuing residents from burning buildings, and in calmer moments took great pleasure in marching in parades. The fire companies, like the militias of the day, were an integral part of working-class society. And they often exerted political influence as well. Nine New York mayors were elected as active firemen or as candidates sponsored by fire companies. To launch a political career, what could be better than having a whole fire company solidly behind you? Which was why Big Bill (not yet “Boss”) Tweed tried repeatedly to get himself elected foreman of a fire company and finally succeeded in 1850, when he became foreman of Engine Company 6, whose tiger emblem later became associated with Tammany Hall. Reformers deplored Tammany's influence on the fire companies, not to mention outright theft; money appropriated for equipment often ended up in the pockets of Tammany politicians and foremen.
|Chanfrau as Mose.|
New fame and glory came to the volunteer firemen on the evening of February 15, 1848, at the Olympic Theatre, when the actor Frank Chanfrau first appeared in the sketch “A Glance at New York” as Mose the Fireboy, conveying with great accuracy the speech and mannerisms of a contemporary Bowery boy “dat ran wid der mersheen” (English translation: “who ran with the machine”). In the audience were Bowery Boys, fire laddies, and their friends, who recognized the character at once and cheered. An instant success, the play ran for seventy nights, which for the time was extraordinary. More plays featuring Chanfrau as Mose followed, and Mose became a staple character, much beloved, of the New York stage.
But reality was something else again. In time, the volunteer firemen’s propensity for brawling, combined with the city’s rapid growth, brought a realization that New York City needed a full-time professional force of fire fighters, resulting in an act by the state legislature in 1865 creating a Metropolitan Fire Department. The era of the fist-swinging volunteer fireman, colorful and rampageous, was over, and it was no doubt all to the good.
|Harper's Weekly celebrates the formation of the New York City Fire Department in 1865. As the |
pictures show, horse-drawn engines were now increasingly in service.
Voluntary or professional – preferably professional -- we need firefighters; we couldn’t survive without them. Risking their own lives, they keep us and our cities safe.
|Pere Qintana Seguí|
And now, a new feature to end on: a photo that expresses some essential aspect of New York – its energy, diversity, congestion, craziness, or whatever.
This is New York
Coming next Wednesday: Prophets vs. Profits of Doom. Or: WBAI vs. Wall Street. Gary Null and Thom Hartmann pronounce. Is another Great Crash coming? Should we hoard gold and silver? Will there be another fearful war? DON’T BUY STOCKS, or should we? Am I a greed creep? Our many, many selves: I have at least nine; how many do you have?
© 2014 Clifford Browder