Monday, February 24, 2020

The Haber Corporation Fire in Chicago. (1953)

On April 17, 1953, the day after the fire, exhausted Chicago firefighters were still digging through the smoldering remains of the Haber Corporation factory at 908 W. North Avenue. They were looking for victims of the worst fire in the city since a streetcar and gasoline tanker met at 62nd and State Streets between a streetcar and gasoline tanker in 1950 which killed 32 people.
The Haber Corporation Fire killed 35 people and injured 32. North Avenue, looking east.
Sixty-two employees punched the time clock that morning, but construction was taking place inside the building and estimates put at least 100 people inside the structure when the explosion and subsequent fire began. After that initial explosion on the first floor of the three-story factory, the fire spread so quickly that witnesses said the whole building was in flames within five minutes.
The first alarm was turned in April 16, 1953, at 8:47 AM. The firemen of the 3rd Battalion arrived in less than three minutes. 

The battalion chief, Frank Thielman, described what he saw upon arrival, “A sheet of flame was shooting out each of the 14 second-floor windows. The sight was awful. It was fury. We couldn’t get in to fight the fire. People were running wildly out of the building, saying more were inside. Others were jumping down from the third-floor windows onto the roof of the one-story building adjoining on the east.”

By 9:00 AM, a 5-11 alarm was sounded, bringing 59 pieces of fire equipment to the scene. Ambulances, police squadrons, even police cars, were pressed into service to carry victims to five different hospitals. Electricity was turned off in a 20-square block area surrounding the scene. Ventilating fans were placed on their highest setting in the subway because of the smoke.

A mechanic, Ted Mechnek, had just left his parked car on the way to work at a local business when the initial explosion occurred. “Glass flew all over the street,” he said. In just a second it seemed fire burst out all of the second-floor windows. In another second a woman jumped from a third-floor window to the roof of the one and a half story receiving department. Then a man jumped and turned to catch others as they jumped. Ten or 15 must have jumped that way, but the smoke was so dense it was hard to tell the exact number. A man appeared at a third-story window, his clothing either burned or blown off.”

An inspector on the third-floor assembly line, Florence Haislip, said from her hospital bed at Augustana Hospital, “We heard a tremendous explosion which shook the whole building. I ran with about 60 other women for the fire escape. Some of the women were screaming in panic. I saw I wasn’t going to be able to reach the fire escape, so I climbed thru a window, hung by my hands and dropped.”

Even as the recovery effort was continuing, Coroner Walter E. McCarron appointed a jury of a dozen men that held its first meeting on April 17th. Within a week it became apparent that the loss of 35 lives might have been prevented if regulations had been properly followed and appropriate precautions were taken.

A building of this size, the Assistant City Fire Commissioner, Anthony J. Mullaney, testified, should have had three means of egress. There were only two – an inner stairway that was unusable after the explosion and a fire escape. City Building Commissioner Roy T. Christiansen testified that the Haber company had failed to obtain building permits for part of its remodeling work (some of which required the boarding up of an additional stairway), and that a company executive had admitted that company officials “winked at” employees who smoked illegally in Haber plants.

By April 29th the hearings began to move toward a conclusion. Arvid M. Tienson, the chief supervising engineer of the Illinois Department of Labor’s factory inspection division told the jury that he and an assistant found two pieces of a duct from the building’s ventilation system that had been blown away by the initial explosion. There was no evidence of fire in the two pieces but each had “aluminum dust fine enough to explode.” 

Mr. Tienson said, “There had to be a power failure or blocking of the duct, and something to trigger the explosion.”  Witnesses had testified earlier that a flash fire at one of the first floor buffing machines had occurred.

In the end, the coroner’s jury declared the horrific event that killed 35 people and sent 32 others to the hospital an accident. The Tribune reported, “The jurors reported unanimous agreement that there was negligence on the part of owners of the property, the Hager corporation, and two companies – Ragnar Benson, Inc. and Wipf Welding company – which were engaged in extensive remodeling of the building at the time of the fire. But the jury was unable to agree as to the degree of negligence in each case.” 

The owners of the building, former 43rd Alderman Titus Haffa and members of his family, were not mentioned in the jury’s findings although Coroner Walter E. McCarron said, “If I were a member of the jury I personally would have held the owners of the property and the companies to the grand jury for criminal negligence. However, this is your verdict and I accept it.”
The Haber Corporation's location today. North Avenue, looking east.
Separately, in testimony before a committee set up by Alderman Cullerton of the 38th ward to investigate the tragedy, Assistant Fire Commissioner Anthony J. Mullaney said, “If existing ordinances had been followed, no one would have died in the fire. The ordinances are adequate to have covered the situation. If they had followed the code in obtaining necessary permits for remodeling, this wouldn’t have happened. There were no direct means out of the building from the upper floors.”

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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