New York, NY apartment fire, Mar 1909


Fifth Avenue Apartments Burned Out - Its Tenants Rescued on Fire Ladders.


Said to be an ex-President of Marietta College - Women and Three Firemen Hurt - Plaza Guests Alarmed.

Fire, which started on the third floor of the Fifth Avenue Apartments, a seven-story double apartment house at 22 and 28 West Fifty-ninth Street, close to the Hotel Plaza, at 11:20 o'clock last night, mounted rapidly to the roof, spreading as it went. At 1:30 o'clock this morning the flames were still shooting upward, but soon afterward were under control.

The Rev. Dr. Simpson, said to be a former President of Marietta College, Ohio, who had an apartment on the seventh floor, was missing at 2:30 o'clock this morning. It was feared that he had lost his way in the smoke and had been caught under the falling debris of one of the floors. His wife and daughter were taken down by the firemen.

These seven persons were brought down from the upper floors by the firemen, all more or less burned or bruised:

Mrs. and Miss SIMPSON, from the seventh floor; burned badly about the face and arms; sent to Flower Hospital.
JOHN W. and JOHN ARNOLD McDONALD, from the fourth floor; slightly burned; treated in the Hotel Plaza and remained there.
Mrs. FRANCIS HILLHOUSE and BERTHA HOLZWERTHE, her governess, from the third floor; slightly bruised; remained at the Plaza.
KEN HAYASHI, Japanese cook, escaped from the first floor with cut feet; remained in the Plaza.

Three firemen received serious injuries. Conrad Volinger of Engine Company 23, while carrying a length of hose, tripped over a length lying in the roadway and fell heavily to the ground, breaking his right arm.

The others, Leonard D. Porter of Truck 35, and Capt. Seafort, were cut about the face and head by flying glass. All three were put in a taxicab and rushed to Roosevelt Hospital.

Two alarms were rung almost immediately after the fire started. Police reserves were sent from the East Fifty-first and West Sixty-eighth Street Stations to hold back the huge crowds that gathered about the burning buildings.

The people in the Plaza, which was separated from the burning building by only one house, were thrown into a fever of excitement.

All the guests in the hotel dressed and came down to the lobby, but none of them attempted to move out. The men and also some of the women in the hotel fell to work when the injured were brought into the hotel barroom, doing what they could to help.

Truck 35 arrived at the fire with the first engines. Immediately the extension ladder was sent up to the top floor. Firemen Kiernan, Boylan, and O'Toole rushed up and disappeared in the seventh-story front windows. Presently they appeared, bearing in their arms Mrs. Simpson and Miss Simpson, both in their night dresses.

A crowd had already gathered in front of the burning building, and as the firemen came down the ladder a cheer went up.

The two women, who were by far the most seriously injured of all the seven, were taken into the barroom of the Plaza and attended there. Surgeons had come with three Flower Hospital ambulances and one had come from the Presbyterian Hospital. Several well-known physicians who make the hotel their home helped.

Mrs. and Miss Simpson were badly burned about the face and arms, and were hurried away to the Flower Hospital. They were the only two hurt seriously enough to be removed to any of the hospitals.

All the tenants of the house above the third floor got out either by the rear fire escapes or the firemen's ladder. The elevator never had a chance to run. The flames were rushing up the elevator shaft before the people in the house had a chance to get out of their apartments, and only those living below the fifth floor, where the fire started, could use the stairs.

John W. McDonald and his son, John A. McDonald, lived on the fourth floor. They were awakened by their maid, Sarah Fulford, who had smelled the smoke, and, looking out of the window, had seen the flames above. She began to scream at some people who were passing in Fifty-ninth Street, and made so much noise that Mr. McDonald and his son arose in a hurry. They grabbed the firl to prevent her from jumping out of the window, and held her until the extension ladder was put in place. Then all three were taken down. The two McDonalds were slightly burned. They were taken into the Plaza barroom, and made to lie down until a doctor could look them over. The girl escaped all injury.

Francis Hillhouse, whose family lived on the third floor, was awakened by the commotion in the house. In this apartment were Mrs. Hillhouse, Bertha Holzworth, the governess, and two children - Francis, 7 years old and Mary, 12. Mr. Hillhouse ran to the hallway. The smoke turned him back.

Somehow then the family got separated, Mr. Hillhouse and the two children going to the rear windows and escaping by means of the fire escapes, while Mrs. Hillhouse and the governess went to the front windows and were taken down by the firemen amid the cheers of the crowd below.

Ken Hayashi, a Japanese cook for a family named Lynch on the first floor, awakened his employers. He had come in late and had not gone to bed when the fire started. The others in the apartment got out all right, but Hayashi, who was excited, lost his slippers and cut his feet on broken glass. He, too, was hurried into the Plaza.

The flames spread from the double apartment house at 22 - 24 West Fifty-ninth street to the adjoining house at 26 - 28, on the sixth floor. Living on that floor were Mr. and Mrs. Fred Vermilye, the Baroness van Heften, and Mrs. E. C. Kirke. They ran to the rear escapes and got out that way, being taken into the houses that face on Fifty-eighth Street, as were many of the twenty-four families in the house at No. 22 - 24.

Smoke also soon filled the lower parts of the hotel. The guests had come down to be ready to get out if that were necessary, which was unlikely. Firemen, too, invaded the hotel, and were training their hose out of the windows on the flames across the single lot that separated the hotel from the burning house.

At 1:30 o'clock Chief Croker, who had taken charge of the fire, saw a volume of sparks rising from the windows of the fifth floor. Knowing that this meant danger, he ordered every man out of the building. The exit call was sounded, and immediately the firemen were seen coming out of all the windows, front and rear, like so many flies.

They ran down the five ladders, which by this time had been erected in front of the house, while others ran down the rear fire escapes. Then, with a final flare of sparks, the fifth floor crashed in, soon followed by the roof and several others of the upper floors. But every fireman had escaped.

All the floors above the third were completely burned out, the damage being $75,000. The fire was completely under control at 2 o'clock this morning. No damage was done to any floor of the house at 26 - 28 except the sixth floor.

Dr. Dillon Brown, who for several years was house surgeon at the Savoy, Plaza, and Netherland Hotels and who died on Monday, was buried yesterday from the building destroyed by the flames.

The New York Times, New York, NY 19 Mar 1909