We Must Never Forget Those Who Willingly Risk Their Own Lives So That Others Can Be Saved

July 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

With the deaths of 10 or 12 first responders (there is some dispute as to the official firefighter status of two of the victims) at West, Texas, in April; four firefighters in Houston in May; and the 19 Granite Mountain hotshot crew members most recently in Arizona, my mind, as well as the minds of the rest of us at the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office, have been occupied with trying to figure out what we and the rest of the Texas fire service can do to lessen the numbers of firefighter deaths. Being a historian by training, I do a lot of reading about the history of the Texas and U.S. fire service, and I’ve got a tragic, largely forgotten story to tell today, a week past its 120th anniversary.

Ten of millions of Americans have heard of the great Chicago fire of 1871, the tragic conflagration that killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres. The fire began on October 8, but continued into and did most of its damage on October 9, 1871. Fire Prevention Week was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire.
But almost no one remembers another tragic Chicago fire that happened nearly 22 years later, on a beautiful summer afternoon at the great World’s Fair of 1893, a fire that exacted one of the deadliest tolls in U.S. firefighter history. This is the story, told just a few hours after it happened.

CHICAGO, July 10.—Death has never done such swift and ghastly work at a fire in this city since the dark days of October, 1871, as that which turned the World’s fair grounds into a scene of mourning this afternoon. The horror of the spectacle will forever remain as a hideous nightmare in the minds of many men and women who gazed upon it. It was intensified by the dizzy height from which the victims were seen to fall into a vast furnace of blazing timber and other inflammable material. Deeds of heroism were done by the firemen who perished and those who live to grieve over their lost comrades. The Columbian guards were not lacking in bravery and devotion to duty in the hour of danger and even in the face of death.
There is mourning within the White City to-night, for the blackened remnants of humanity full of life but yesterday are lying beneath the watersoaked wreck or stretched out in the morgue outside the gates. The loss of property will probably amount to $650,000, but no one except those who have suffered financially is thinking of the money loss.

The sun was shining its brightest from a blue sky at 1:30 o’clock this afternoon, and the pleasure-seeking people passed under the shadow of the cold storage warehouse. Suddenly a boy, Wm. Sheppard, son of the guidebook publisher, saw a tongue of flame escaping from the cupola or observatory, which is the topmost section of the warehouse. From the ground to that first flame there were 380 feet of space. The boy gave the alarm, and in a few minutes the heroes of the fire stations at the Casino and the Terminal depot came dashing along with hose cart, engine and hook and ladder, many alas that never returned alive.
The altitude of the blazing tower, and its isolation from the roof, made the work of the firemen hazardous and slow from the start. Before the men got to work several painters, electric light men and others employed in the building ascended by the elevators to the main roof and afterward climbed up the spiral staircase which was built around the great death trap of a smokestack until they reached the balcony underneath the burning cupola.

They found the fire had gone too far to be smothered by the chemicals at hand. They wailed for the firemen to join them, thinking they could be of help. Capt Harkness of the Guards ordered Sergt. Douglass to take eight men up to the blazing tower and aid the firemen. The sergeant gave his superior officer one look, such as one as the officers of the light brigade at Balaklava may have given the commanding general when he gave the order to charge in the midst of roaring Russian cannon. But the sergeant went, and eight guards followed to do their duty. By a strange chance all are alive tonight and mourn the loss of brave comrades.
Not so with the firemen. They went out on the roof and hauled up the hose with ropes to the first story of the tower on the south side of the warehouse. Others rushed up the spiral stairway to the landing next the blazing top and lowered ropes on three sides to the men below to attach the hose. Until this time the fire resembled the flaming mouth of a small blast furnace, and at a distance there seemed to be no danger. The experienced eye of Chief Murphy, in command of the World’s fair fire department, failed to suspect any danger to his men when he ordered them to go to the tower below the blaze. But, he sent nearly all of them to a death, the horror and agony of which no human tongue or pen can describe. Those few moments of realisation that the flames surrounded them above and below followed by their last act in life must have been as an eternity of hell to everyone.

A sixteen-foot ladder was placed from the first section of the tower to the landing where the men were, but no one thought of placing a big ladder from the main roof to the tower so as to connect with the small one at the main roof. The men were at work on the east and south sides. All this time the flames were burning through the larger section of the tower. The first intimation of danger came to the victims when the smoke appeared under them, and as the wind blew it into their faces they retreated around the landing to the north side of the tower with the exception of one man, a painter, who slid down the hose, which had been brought up to the south side of the tower. It may be that more would have taken this apparently sure means of escape had it not been for the smoke which enveloped them. It seemed as if the victims changed position because they feared the flames would soon follow the smoke which they saw.

Death quickly came to put an end to it all. The flames had been devouring five feet of framework which surrounded the cast-iron shaft that pierced the tower below the men. Quick as a flash, like a band of molten gold, flames burst through the square. The gold letters, “Hercules Ice, Skating Rink and Cold Storage Warehouse” were in the center of the tower, and around them the flames circulated and raised to mock and torture the poor wretches to whom the eyes of thousands were turned. In a few seconds the imprisoned ones felt the fire coming, and with one impulse of self-preservation, the men moved quickly to where the ropes were attached at the northwest corner.

They could not look down and see the flames because of the projecting cornices, but they knew where the ropes were. There they stood, huddled together, some without their coats, others hatless, and all preparing to save themselves if they could. The man nearest the rope grasped it and descended. But for only a dozen feet. The flames had no mercy. The rope was burned in two, and, with feet downward, the first victim shot through the air to the main roof. He turned partly over before he struck and bounded up.
A great cry of anguish and fear came up from thousands on the ground where the first of those awful leaps could be seen. Strong men wept and became hysterical. They cried aloud for God to save those poor souls. They fell on their knees and prayed to God that all might not perish. Women could be seen everywhere fainting and wringing their hands, turning away their faces and crying at the sickening sight. An Intramural train facing the fiery spectacle had to be stopped by some of the women on board fainting and becoming hysterical.

But worse was yet to follow. No sooner had one man struck the roof than another leaped from the tower before the horrified gaze of the spectators. His body kept straight feet-down until near the roof when he turned a somersault, and a second cry of horror came from thousands of throats. The two ropes on the north side of the tower where the doomed men were huddled were almost useless for the saving of life, yet for the first possession of the corner at least ten men fought as savage beasts. They only prolonged their consciousness of life, for all were doomed to die; yet they struggled to catch at anything which seemed to hold a chance to live. One by one, they dropped from the burning tower, some clinging to the burning rope as far as it afforded them any hold, and then shooting through a solid sheet of flame to the roof.
The sight was too much for the military men who beheld the scene from the ground to bear without a shudder and a turning away of faces. Human forms leaping through flames 100 feet or more, down, down to sure death, presented a sight the stoniest heart could not witness unmoved.

The last man on the tower died the hero’s death among all those heroes who faced the furnace below. He had waited without apparent fear until there was only himself left, like Casablanca, who stood on the burning deck. He was a fireman and he grasped the remnant of burning rope just as the whole tower structure parted diagonally and fell towards the north, right over the prostrate bodies of the poor fellows who had leaped to escape the pitiless flames. The last man who went down to death with the tower kept feet downward as far as the rope went and then the rush of flames and air was so great that his body was turned round and round in the passage within sight of all and the blazing tower fell over his form making a funeral pyre and ending his agony, if he was not dead before striking the roof.

When the tower toppled over there was no hope of saving any who had not been taken off the roof. The bodies, on striking had become imbedded nearly three feet in the gravel and tar between the wooden joists, and only a few could be taken to a place of safety before the great central tower crashed over.
The most sublime deed of heroism was performed by three firemen in an attempt to save the life of their superior officer whom they loved, Capt. Jan Fitzpatrick, the assistant fire chief at the fair. He was on the roof when the tower fell over without warning and his log was broken, being crushed by falling timbers. Being on the east side of the roof, thought he was in no immediate danger as a track ladder was close to the edge ready for any emergency. The captain crawled to the edge of the roof already on fire and held out his hands in a mute appeal for help. The hand which is now stilled in death was seen by Capt. Kennedy, of Hook and Ladder No. 8. He and two of his men climbed up the ladder, fighting their way through the flames which burst through the whole east side and from the roof, while three streams of water were turned on the brave men to keep their clothing from catching fire.

The fiery gauntlet was run to the top. Capt. Kennedy climbed over into what seemed a bed of flame, but he reappeared in a few seconds with the body of Capt. Fitzpatrick. A rope was fastened about the unconscious and dying captain’s body, and with difficulty he was lowered to the ground, enveloped in flames, hurled partly back by streams of water. The noble rescue, although it only resulted in saving the captain’s body from further mutilation by fire, was watched by thousands of people in breathless suspense and rewarded by a mighty cheer. But the doctors shook their heads doubtfully when the burned and broken form was carried in. The captain never recovered consciousness.

The foreign commissioners and United States army officers acted promptly in regard to furnishing men for guard duty during the height of the excitement which almost reached a panic when it was feared the blazing wreck would explode on account of the ammonia stored there. But the word was soon passed around that the ammonia was in solid form. All the men of the third infantry, U.S.A., on duty at the fair, the French marine corps and “Buffalo Bill’s” cowboys reinforced the 800 guards and uniformed guides, the ambulance and hospital corps were worked in order and effectively until the inflammable, towering mass had become only a smoking, black ruin, a hideous disfigurement on the fair landscape of the White City. Later in the day the most effective cordon around the ruins was formed by immense pools of water from bursted pipes, hydrants and hose. This served the firemen in good stead when they were engaged in soaking the debris and pulling away blackened timbers to get at the bodies of the victims or what remained of them.

Director-General Davis, President Palmer, Col. Rice and Director of Works Burnham were early on the scene. They were too much overcome to say much on the spot. The director general stood with blanched face like Napoleon at Waterloo when all but honor was lost. The horror of the sight forced him to turn away. He said the exposition officially had nothing more to do with the Hercules Iron Co., its exhibit and concession to supply ice and store perishable goods, than it had with any other exhibitor or concessionaire. He complimented the foreign commissioners and others who had offered their services in obtaining subscriptions for the families of the firemen. Col. Rice said but little, but that went a long way: “This is the result of the reduction of the guards by the administration. If the two guards who were taken from the warehouse last week had been there they could have extinguished the fire with the chemical at hand as they have done before in the same place. The guards were there to take precautions against fire because of the dangerous construction of the building.”

As soon as the ruins were cooled by the firemen, the work of searching for bodies began. The first body was taken out about 6:30 p.m. It was evidently a fireman, as a blue shirt covered the trunk, which was all that was found of the man. A short time later two more were taken out. Under one of the bodies was found a broken sword, a mute informer of its wearer’s identity—a Columbian guard. The other body was unrecognizable as it was charred to a cinder. Two more bundles of flesh were found at intervals about 8 o’clock and one more at 9. In all eight bodies were taken out by 10 o clock, when operations were stopped for the night on account of the risk in working under beams and iron columns and the absence of light. The search for bodies continued the next day.

More than 20 firefighters had lost their lives, along with another dozen or so fair visitors.
Two hours after the extent of the calamity was known, $24,000 had been subscribed for the families of the men who lost their lives. By July 15, about $35,000 had been contributed to the relief fund. At the pass gates at the World’s fair nearly $1,500 was dropped in by the pass holders. About the same amount was received from exhibitors on the grounds. Haverly’s Criterion theatre gave an entire week’s proceeds to the fund and there were many more benefit performances and individual contributions.

Not to devalue the role of our military and its dedication to protecting our country all over the world, but take at least a moment to also remember and appreciate the fact that your community’s firefighters protect you and your neighbors 24X7, and in Texas, 80 percent of them do it out of the goodness of their heart, as unpaid volunteers.

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