New York, NY Chambers Street Fire, May 1897


One was Killed and Nearly Fifty of His Companions were Overcome by Smoke.


Stubborn Fire in the Cellar of a Chambers Street Building which Was Filled with Twine and Paper - Men Fell Unconscious on Every Side - Cause of the Fire Unknown.

One fireman was suffocated last night and nearly fifty of his comrades were more or less seriously affected by smoke in attempting the effect his rescue from the cellar of a burning building in Chambers Street.

For nearly an hour fireman after fireman volunteered to go down into the poisonous smoke-laden cellar, and almost fought with each other for an opportunity to try and save him.

Even after knowledge of the deadly character of the smoke borne in on them, by the number of men they had seen carried away unconscious from the vicinity of the small entranceway, belching out its deadly fumes, must have convinced them that their companion could not be living, they pressed forward, insisting on their right to do for him what they knew, if living, he would have done for any of them.

When half conscious from their efforts they were pulled by the rope that had lowered them, again to the level of the sidewalk, the cried and cursed and begged for yet another moment's grace.

The dead man was:

JOHN G. REINHARDT, Engine Company No. 7.

Those of the men who tried to rescue him and who were sufficiently affected to necessitate their removal to the hospital were:

WILLIAM McCABE, Engine Co. 27.
JOHN DAVEN, Engine Co. 27.
JOHN HIGGINS, Truck No. 6.
Lieut. SAMUEL BANTA, Engine Co. 27.
THOMAS BRODY, Engine Company 4.
JOHN DOUGHERTY, Engine Company 4.
EDWARD GLLAGHER, Engine Company 4.
CHARLES W. KRUGER, Chief of First Battalion.
GEORGE J. WUNDER, Truck No. 6.
STEVEN SULLIVAN, Engine Company 29.
LOUIS F. BOETNER, Truck No. 7.
JACOB W. ECKER, Engine Company 27.
JAMES FITZPATRICK, Engine Company 29.
EDWARD O'CONNOR, Engine Company 29.
LOUIS HORICK, Engine Company 27.
MARTIN KEELEY, Engine Company 7.
WILLIAM CLARK, Truck No. 10.
CHARLES DEMAREST, Engine Company No. 6.
TIMOTHY DONOVAN, Engine Company No. 6.

Some of the men were sufficiently recovered in a few hours to be removed to their homes. One or two were able to walk from the hospital, but about fifteen were too weak to be moved.

The Superintendent of the Hudson Street Hospital reported at 1 A. M. that all were out of danger of death.

Cold Storage Warehouse

The building was 161 and 163 Chambers Street. It extends through to Reade Street, where it is numbered 142 and 144. It is of stone, five stories and basement. All except the store floor and basement of 163 Chambers Street were occupied by the Merchants' Refrigerating Company, formerly Wills Brothers Cold Storage, and still controlled by William Wills. The store and basement of 163 were occupied by Robert Gair, manufacturer of paper boxes, the store for the display of goods and the basement for the storage of twine, paper, and cardboard.

The fire started somewhere in the basement of Mr. Gair's store, and was probably smoldering a couple of hours before tiny spirals of smoke filtering through the closed deadlights on the sidewalk level betrayed its presence to Policeman Herle at 8:00 o'clock.

Engine Company 29 is stationed almost exactly opposite the building in Chambers Street, and in a few seconds after the alarm was given half a dozen of the crew had crossed the street. Fireman Sullivan burst in the deadlight grating, to be driven back instantly by a suffocating cloud of smoke that rushed through the opening he had made. Battallion Chief Kruger, who arrived with the first alarm, sent in a second and then a third call for help, and soon a dozen engines were pumping water into the basement. Battallion Chief Kenny and Deputy Chief Purroy came on the third call.

Chief Bonner on the Scene

Chief Bonner had taken command at the second alarm. He assigned the men of Engines 4 and 29 to attack the fire from the lean-to roof above the store windows, and the men of Engines 27 and 7 from the cellar, and sent Engine 6 around to the Reade Street front.

The whole interior of the building above the ground floor had been walled in solidly with heavy timbers, that no air could get in to interfere with the storage facilities, and for more than an hour the firemen, with their heavy axes, beat vainly at window openings in the stone front on the second and third floors. When they at last succeeded in breaking down the barriers there was no sign of fire. Nothing but smoke, thick, heavy, suffocating, and blinding. It filled the entire street, knocking over the strong men who inhaled it as if they had been children.

There was a momentary lull in the belching forth of the smoke, and Capt. Kenny of Engine 7, with Firemen Houlihan, Reinhardt, Keely, Horack, and Cunningham took a line of hose into the cellar. The lull lasted only long enough for them to reach the floor, eight feet below the street level, when a wall of smoke struck them and sent all hands staggering back and groping blindly for the opening by which they had entered. Reinhardt fell unconscious. Capt. Kenny and Cunningham lifted him by the arms, while Horak tried to boost him up to the strong arms that reached out to save him.

They got a rope around him, but it slipped and before they could do more for him he had fallen to the floor. The others were pulled out, unable to speak or breathe, and were carried across the street to be attended by the doctors. The report of Reinhardt's peril brought every fireman within reach around the cellar opening clamoring for a chance to save him. One after another, the men were lowered into the cellar by ropes looped around their waists, and one by one they were drawn out unconscious.

Fought to go Back.

The smoke had a curious affect on them. Unconscious of their surroundings, the gallant fellows cursed and swore and kicked and struggled until in many cases it took six policemen to carry one of them to the waiting ambulances. A list of those who volunteered for and of those who made the attempt, would include the names of every fireman at the fire. Daniel O'Connor of Hook and Ladder No. 1, and John F. Higgins of Hook and Ladder No. 6, reached the prostrate form and got a rope around him, but just as the head was lifted above the sidewalk level the hitch slipped, and the cheer that had started was cut short by a general groan.

At last John Murphy of Hook and Ladder No. 1 succeeded in making a line fast and Reinhardt was drawn to the surface. There was no cheering. He had been more than half an hour without air, and no one hoped that more than his dead body had been saved.

He was carried to the middle of the street. A space was speedily cleared, and in the light of the engine's fire four doctors examined him. One fancied he saw signs of life, and an ambulance rushed the helpless form to the Hudson Street Hospital, where more than a score of those who attempted his rescue had preceded him. There the doctors worked over him for an hour before they gave up hope and pronounced him dead.

Reinhardt was thirty years old. He was married on last Easter Sunday to a Brooklyn girl. He lived at 435 East Sixth Street.

More Ambulances Called.

By the time Reinhardt's body had been taken form the cellar more than two hours had elapsed since the first alarm was given, and no flame had been seen. Only the smoke. The single ambulance from Hudson Street Hospital was early found inadequate, and Capt. Cross, who was on hand with the reserves from the Leonard, Church, and Elizabeth Police Stations, sent on a hurry call for ambulances.

Superintendent Murphy arrived with three ambulances and six doctors from Bellevue, and two ambulances came from the New York and St. Vincent's Hospitals. All the doctors were kept busy for some time. Nearly every fireman who inhaled the deadly smoke was for a greater or less time under their care during the five hours' fight with the fire.

The older firemen declared ammonia or some other chemical was burning but Mr. Gair said there was nothing but paper and twine in the cellar. Mr. Wills's ice-making machinery is situated in the building, 143 Reade Street, and is connected only with the storage warehouses by the pipes which convey the cold brine to the storage chambers.

Whatever caused the smoke it was deadly, and the fire was the most obstinate, police and firemen declared, they had ever handled.

Fire Makes Its Appearance.

It was past 11 o'clock before a ruddy glare seen through the hewn-out walling of the third story window showed that the smoldering paper had burst into flame and that the fire had subtly crept up the interior wood lining of the store to the storage rooms above. Almost simultaneously a sheet of flame illuminating the sky told that the roof was afire. Haalf [sic] a dozen hose pipes were soon beating on the flames from the adjoining roofs. The heavy fire walls dividing 161 from 163 helped the firemen confine the fire to the building in which it started. At 12:00 o'clock one of the big storage tanks exploded with a roar, sending a shower of sparks aloft and driving the firemen on the roof to shelter. No one was hurt.

All through the fight with the smoke and flames the firemen had been hindered by the difficulty of obtaining entrance to the burning building. The smoke in the front was for a time an insurmountable obstacle, and the Reade Street entrance to the cellar was blocked by two heavy disabled engines that formerly worked the freezing pumps for Wills Brothers. The walled-up windows defied their axes, and water seemed to have little or no effect on the flames.

Within twenty minutes from the time the first alarm was given every engine west of Park Row and the Bowery and south of Spring Street was pumping water into the threatened building. There were Engines Nos. 29, 27, 7, 12, 4, 6, 31, 13, 20, 35, 30, 9, and 32, with the crews of the fireboats New Yorker and Zophar Mills, and Hook and Ladder Companies Nos. 1, 10, 8, and 6.

Fire Commissioner Sturgis was present, too, gazing with admiration at the firemen working at the first really big fire they have had to contend with since he was appointed to the department.

The police had hard work restraining the volunteers who crowded about offering assistance as soon as the news had spread of the sufferings of the firemen. Proprietor Wildey of the Cosmopolitan Hotel offered the ambulance corps the free use of his house, and told his bartenders that everything was free to the uniformed firemen, police, and surgeons.

It was 1:30 o'clock this morning when Chief Bonner declared the fire under control, and sent some of the engines and men back to their quarters.

The police estimate that the loss will exceed $350,000. The merchandise in storage in the care of the Merchants' Refrigerating Company is insured for $300,000, and Mr. Wills said it will be a total loss.

The stock of Mr. Gair is estimated at $25,000, and that, too, is lost. The buildings which are owned by Mr. Gair will suffer at least to the extent of $50,000.

No estimate can be made of the damage to the storage companies' fixtures. Those in the building 163 Chambers Street will probably be totally destroyed. All the losses are covered by insurance.

The New York Times, New York, NY 7 May 1897