|The Cold Storage Building before the devastating fire of July 10, 1893.|
It seemed to this awe-struck audience that the brave men of the Chicago Fire Department and Columbian Fire Department had the upper hand but their cheers very suddenly turned to gasps of horror. The whole while that the men were planning their attack on the fire, it seemed, in retrospect, that the fire was already planning its revenge in the form of an almost perfect death trap. In fact, it later became apparent that the firefighters’ fates were sealed before the opening of the fair when the cold storage building’s smokestack was just an ugly piece of bare metal that extended 191 feet in the air. It was said that Daniel Burnham, Chief of Construction, did not like the stark contrast of the bare metal with that beauty of the “White City” and ordered that it be made to blend in with the surrounding buildings. The facade of wood and white painted staff that was erected around the stack did indeed blend well with the surrounding great buildings but it also created a hollow gap between the façade and the pipe that extended below the main roof of the building. What the firefighters and the crowd didn’t see were the burning embers falling through this gap and slowly igniting the material 70 feet below the firefighters.
A silence fell over the crowd when a lone figure jumped from the 70-foot ledge and frantically reached for the hose that extended down to the roof. He managed to only grab it with one hand but managed to hold on. He slid down the hose into what seemed like a hopeless wall of fire that extended all the way down to the roof. He miraculously emerged from the flame with his clothes on fire but still holding the hose. He managed to make it to the roof and to the north side of the building where he was lowered to the ground. He was John Davis of the fire company stationed on the Midway Plaisance. A split second can mean the difference between life and death in any fire but almost a certainty in a fire of this magnitude. Unfortunately, firefighter Davis’s comrades hesitated and the hose that could have been a lifeline for a select few was consumed by the flames and burned in half. Spectators could see the figure of Captain James Fitzpatrick who was assigned to Engine Co. 2 and also Assistant Chief of Battalion 14 of the CFD. He seemed to be issuing an order to the men and one-by-one they started shimmying along the ledge of the tower to the north side which seemed to offer a few more precious seconds from the fire’s reach.
There was cheering as they all made the perilous journey to the north side of the tower. The celebration was short-lived as the flames quickly looked to finish their morbid task. The men huddled closer and closer attempting to avoid the heat of the oncoming flames. What happened next brought tears and cries from even the strongest men in the crowd. There was an eerie calm that seemed to come across the men on the tower and one man threw his arms around the neck of another in what could be a final embrace. That started a chain reaction of farewell words and hugs between the doomed men. A rope was thrown out and fell almost to the roof but even before anyone could grab it was burnt in two. The firefighters on the roof were frantically calling for ladders to be sent up from the ground but none came.
Without warning a figure took the 7 story jump to the roof below but the flame ravaged wooden roof was no match for the weight of the man and he fell through into a fiery inferno. Now it seemed the only choice was to jump or burn and a second person took the fiery plunge and turned over and over until not landing on his feet but his head and was killed instantly. Seeing the fate of the first of their comrades, the rest of the group hesitated briefly but the intensity of the flames spurred them in their decision making.
There now remained only two firefighters left on the tower, one was Captain Fitzpatrick. He was trying to convince his comrade to go first but to no avail. The Captain jumped to the only remaining rope which had only about 20 feet left and as he reached the burning end of the rope, he swung himself hard to the north avoiding the hottest of the flames. The last of those remaining attempted to duplicate the Captain’s technique but right at that moment the tower could no longer support its own weight and crashed into the burning inferno taking the last unfortunate soul with it.
By the end of the fire, 15 souls had been lost. The blaze claimed 12 firefighters and 3 civilians.
- Captain James Fitzpatrick, Chicago Fire Department
- Captain Burton E. Page, Chicago Fire Department
- Captain James A. Garvey, Chicago Fire Department
- Lt. Charles W. Purvis, Chicago Fire Department
- William H. Denning, World's Fair Fire Department
- Lt. John H. Freeman, World's Fair Fire Department
- John C. McBride, World's Fair Fire Department
- Louis J. Frank, World's Fair Fire Department
- Paul W. Shroeder, World's Fair Fire Department
- John A. Smith, World's Fair Fire Department
- John Cahill, World's Fair Fire Department
- Phillip J. Breen, World's Fair Fire Department
- Ralph Drummond, Superintendent Harter Electric Company
- Norman M. Hartman, Electric Lineman
- Bernard Murphy, Boilermaker
At Oakwoods Cemetery in Chicago there is a monument to those lost in the fire and underneath that monument, according to Oakwoods records, are 7 bodies when there should only be 6!
|The Oakwoods Cemetery Memorial to those who lost their lives in the Cold Storage Fire.|
By Ray Johnson
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Ray Johnson is a former criminal investigator in Du Page County, Illinois. He was born in Chicago and has spent his entire life in the Chicagoland area. He is a graduate of The University of Illinois at Chicago and has taught College Classes in Criminal Justice at the College of Du Page in Glen Ellyn as well as lecturing on Chicago folklore and history and teaching adult education classes on historical research techniques.