Friday, February 21, 2020

The Burlington Office Building Fire, Chicago. (1922)

At approximately 12:50 AM on Wednesday, March 15, 1922, the Chicago Fire Department received an alarm from Box 276, which was located at West Van Buren and South Canal Streets. The fire had been reported by a postal clerk who noticed flames starting to burn through the roof of the building at 517 West Jackson Boulevard.

The fire actually started in the Austin Building on Canal Street and quickly spread to a number of adjacent buildings, including the Canal Street 'L' Station.
The massive fire destroyed the entire city block bordered by Jackson Boulevard, Van Buren, Canal, and Clinton Streets.
Likely based upon this information, the Chicago Fire Department immediately reinforced the initial responding firefighters by dispatching an additional three engine companies, a hook and ladder, two Fire Insurance Patrol units, two Battalion Chiefs, and one First Assistant Fire Marshal to the scene. The First Assistant Fire Marshal noted that by the time that the initial units arrived, the fire had already started spreading to adjacent buildings, suggesting that the fire had burned unnoticed for a considerable amount of time before the fire department responded.
Throughout the early morning of March 15th, the fire continued to spread to adjacent buildings. In all, 13 buildings would be involved in the fire, the tallest of which was the 15-story office building owned by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Company. 

Firefighters attempted to get water to the upper floors of the Burlington office building but were hampered by the fact that the department did not have a high-pressure water system that could deliver water to upper floors of taller buildings. Firefighters were greatly assisted by the valiant efforts of elevator operators in the building who risked their lives to move men and equipment to the upper floors during the fire. Around 2:30 AM, the fire was largely under control, but units continued to be called out to the scene until close to 5 o'clock in the morning. 

Chicago Chief Fire Marshal Thomas O’Connor stated in the midst of the fire that it was the worst in Chicago’s history since the Great Fire of 1871. The report of the Chicago Board of Underwriters on the fire noted many factors that contributed to the size of the conflagration, including floors that were oil-soaked and filled with combustible materials, narrow spaces between buildings that allowed the fire to easily spread, and sprinkler systems with too many sprinkler-heads that discharged the inadequate water supply too quickly.
The fire still smolders.
In total, 80% of the Chicago Fire Department responded to the fire, including 51 engine companies, 6 hook and ladder companies, 7 squad companies, 2 fireboats, and many high ranking Chicago Fire Department officers. Additionally, four Chicago Fire Insurance Patrol units took part in the efforts and the sole fatality at the fire was one of these Insurance Patrol firefighters. Firefighter James J. McGovern of Fire Insurance Patrol 1 was struck by a piece of stone masonry that fell from the Burlington Building on his head, fracturing his skull, causing his death shortly thereafter.

The fire destroyed the following buildings:
517-523 W. Jackson Boulevard. A two-story and basement joisted brick building with multiple tenants. This building had exposed unprotected openings on all sides.

525-531 W. Jackson Boulevard. A one and two-story and basement joisted brick building with multiple tenants. Unprotected openings on all sides.

541-553 W. Jackson Boulevard. Fifteen-story, roof house, basement and sub-basement, fire-resistive building, occupied by C. B. & Q. Railroad Co. as offices, with bank tenant on the ground floor. Detailed data on construction follows. 

309-315 S. Clinton Street. A seven-story and basement joisted brick building. This building, together with 317-319 S. Clinton Street, 306-312 S. Canal Street, and 314-318 S. Canal Street formed the group known as the Austin Building. The occupancy of this group consisted principally of wood and metal workers, printers, electrotypers, and machine shops. The building had a sprinkler system. The sprinkler system was wet except in part of the basement. It was supplied by a 21,300-gallon gravity tank with a 17-foot head, and 3,400 gallons in pressure tank on No. 306-12; 1,590 gallons in pressure tank on the 6th floor of No. 309-15; 2,800 gallons in pressure tank on the roof of No. 317-19; four single steamer connections. The equipment was graded 5/10 of standard. 

317-319 S. Clinton Street. A one-story and basement and seven-story and basement semi-mill building. Exposed on three sides. Communicated to No. 309-315 through unprotected openings in the basement and non-automatic iron doors above. 

306-312 S. Canal Street. An eight-story, basement, and subbasement, semi-mill building. Exposed on all sides.

314-318 S. Canal Street. An eight-story, basement, and subbasement, semi-mill building. This building communicated with 306-312 through common elevator shafts with single non-automatic iron doors, and basement, fifth and eighth through double non-automatic iron doors. 

300-304 S. Canal Street. An eight-story, basement, and subbasement, semi-mill building, sprinklers, with multiple tenants. This was known as the Atlantic Building. It was exposed on north and east, had wired glass windows on the south, and unprotected openings on west above the sixth floor and blank wall below. The sprinkler system was wet, supplied by 20,300 gallons in a gravity tank with a 22-foot head; 3,000 gallons in each of two pressure tanks and two steamer connections. The equipment was graded 9/10 of standard.

324 S. Canal Street. The elevated 'L' station, platform and structure.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The L. Fish Furniture Fire on March 25, 1910, Chicago.

L. Fish Furniture was established in 1858 by David Fish and is one of the oldest Furniture Companies in the United States. Shortly before the Civil War, David Fish opened his first furniture store in Chicago. To honor his wife Lotta, David used her first initial in naming the new company, "L. Fish Furniture." 
L. Fish Furniture was in business during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and before the light bulb was invented. Fish lost their Chicago stores in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and rebuilt them. They survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the 1970s Energy Crisis. 

For over 160 years, five generations have carried on Mr. Fish’s tradition of offering the best quality furniture at the lowest price. Mr. Fish’s great, great-grandson operates its 170,000 square foot furniture and mattress store in Indianapolis, Indiana, today.

It's Friday, March 25, 1910, at the L. Fish Furniture store on Nineteenth Street and Wabash Avenue when the company’s auditor asks an office boy to go down to the fourth floor and fill three cigar lighters with benzene. As he was filling the third lighter, the benzene bursts into flame, and he ran out of the building and headed for the alley behind the building, telling no one what happened.
Part of the building was used as a storehouse, and the furniture for sale, which was packed-in on every floor, furnished the fuel for the fire which spread at an alarming rate. About seventy-five people were at work in the building. 

Sigmund Fish was ascending in the elevator and was between the third and fourth floors when the thermostatic apparatus that controlled the doors opening was released by the heat. Fish heard a click. The doors crashed shut. Fish and Geiner, the elevator manwere prisoners. The sliding elevator doors jammed when Fish tried to open them. In the frenzy of his excitement Fish tore one of the doors from its fastenings, burst open the elevator's fire door, and ran through the third floor, shouting an alarm. 

The flames, however, cut off all escape routes on floors four through six. Luckily, the employees on the first three floors were able to make it to safety. 

A "4-11" alarm was turned in, and all the downtown fire companies hurried to the scene. When they reached it, the flames had apparently got to the point that it made it impossible to save the building. Still, several firemen endeavored to enter the building, but were overcome by the smoke and heat and had to be assisted out.

Miss Ethel Lichtenstein was one of the first to reach the stairway. Panicked, she ran away from the stairway towards a window and leaped out, striking the edge of the glass awning at the main entrance, and sustained injuries from which she died at St. Luke's hospital half an hour later.

A number of other girls employed by the company escaped by the stairways but sustained severe injuries. How many were hurt is not known. The fire caused a small panic at the Columbus hotel, a small hostelry adjoining the Fish building, but so far as is known none was injured.

Miss Lichtenstein and the other girl victims were near rescue just before Miss Lichtenstein leaped to her death. The girls were leaning out of the front windows on the sixth floor of the building when the firemen put up a long ladder. Then several firemen started up. When they were halfway, a sudden explosion forced a wall of flames out of the front windows on the fourth floor, blocking their further progress. A few moments later Miss Lichtenstein jumped.

William Peterson and John Schmidt declared the fire had started as the result of a lighted match being dropped into a can of benzene when the boy tried to fill a cigar lighter.

Dr. William Kinsley was badly burned about the face and hands while trying to rescue Miss Lichtenstein and the other girls. He told a thrilling story:

"When I reached the scene," Kinsley said, "the upper floors of the building are a mass of flames. Hanging out of the windows on the sixth floor were five or six girls screaming for help." "For God's sake, save us," they cried. I ran into the building and got as far as the third floor before the fire drove me out.

As I came into the street again, I saw the Lichtenstein girl at the sixth-floor window. She threw up her hands and screamed "LOOK OUT," and the next moment she plunged headlong from the sixth floor. She struck the glass canopy over the front entrance, and her body became lodged in the heavy glass. When we got her to the ground, her face was terribly burned and her body was badly cut and bleeding.

By the time the firemen got their ladders against the front of the building, it was too late and the escape for the people on the sixth floor was cut off.

Shortly before the ruins had collapsed sufficiently enough to allow the firemen to search for bodies. By 12:30 am. all hope that any of the missing persons were still alive had been abandoned. 

First, they came upon the bodies of three girls. All were burned beyond recognition. The fire burned so hot, that the arms and legs of the victims had been entirely burned off. Fifteen minutes later the bodies of two more girls were found and the bodies of two men. 

Eleven bodies have been recovered from the ruins, and one victim, Miss Ethel Lichtenstein, dies after she had plunged to her death in an effort to escape the flames.

Fish, Isaac.
Geiner, Elevator Operator
Kinsley, M.D., William, badly burned about hands and face.
Peterson, William.
Schmidt, John.

Anderson, Ethel, Stenographer.
Bell, Minor, Advertising Agent.
Bruche, Rosa, 17yo, Stenographer.
Burden, Hannah, Foreman.
Green, William, Porter.
Lichtenstein, Ethel,16yo.
McGrath, Veronica.
Mitchell, Herbert M., brother-in-law of Mr. Simon Fish.
Quinn, Gertrude, 20yo, Private Secretary of Mr. Simon Fish.
Sinclair, Bert, Clerk.
Sullivan, Lillian.
Wargo, Mary, Clerk.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.