Providence, RI Calendar Building Fire, Nov 1882




PROVIDENCE, Nov. 21.---The most disastrous fire that has happened in this city for 25 years, in point of loss of life and injury to people in the building, occurred at 10"30 o'clock this morning in the rear end of what is known as the Calendar Building, owned by Amos C. Barstow and others. This building is seven stories in height at the front and four stories high at the rear, built of brick and stone and occupies almost an entire block. The front part of the building is used as a flour mill, while the other portion is devoted to general business, such as jewelry manufacture, dyeing, &c. The dye-house was owned by C. W. Melville, and was on the third floor in the middle section of the building. In it he kept a quantity of naphtha in a 10-gallon can. On the same floor with him was the Providence Cigar Company's work-room and the Providence Button Company's shop. On the floor above was William H. Robinson's jewelry manufactory, in which were employed 30 hands, 20 of whom were young girls.

Shortly before 10:30 o'clock the people employed in Robinson's shop were startled by seeing a young lad open the door leading to the entry with great violence. His face was white with fright, and he ex-claimed, "Get out, for God's sake; the building is on fire." As he said this a dense volume of heavy black smoke began to pour into the shop from the entry. Instinctively one of the men closed the door to prevent a draft being made, and the girls were told to get their clothes on. There was a great confusion from the outset, but after a while all of the help got their things together. In the meantime one of the men went out into the next floor to see what was on fire. He found that the fumes of the naphtha in the dye-house had caught fire from a dyeing-press, and that Melville had vainly attempted to smother the flames by throwing an old coat over them. His efforts were utterly fruitless, and in a few seconds the flames had set fire to the wood-work of the partition and the building. The man groped his way back, and soon the men and girls in Robinson's learned that they were imprisoned in a regular fire-trap, every means of escape being shut off.

The only thing left was to sit in the windows and wait for the ladder-men to arrive. In less than five minutes the largest ladder truck in the city was on hand. The driver went by the building once and then turned about and drew up in front of it. In the time between the sounding of the alarm and the arrival of the fire department very few people got to the fire. The first man to arrive says that the windows of the upper floor were filled with shrieking women and girls, and that above the awful roar and cracking of the fire could be heard the wretched creatures shrieking "Murder!" "Mother!" "Help!" The firemen threw off one ladder and placed it against the building, and, finding that it came three feet short of the sills of the windows in which were seated the girls, hastily dumped off all the ladders on the truck, which is of the "Skinner" pattern, operated by cogs and cable wires, so as to shoot up three lengths of ladder, forming a fire-escape. While they were laboring with the cumbersome piece of machinery the ladder standing against the building was not brought into use till a citizen, impatient at the delay of the firemen, left the crowd and ran up the long ladder until it reached the topmost round. Then, leaning against the building, he called to two girls who were in the window to climb down over his body to the ladder. They did so and in a second or two were safely tucked under his arms and brought to the ground. While this brave act was being done the flames had driven the men and girls to the point where they must jump to the ground and run their chances, or else remain and be burned to death. The patent escape was not yet ready for use, and help from that quarter was not to be expected. With shrieks the girls leaped, following each other like sheep. As misfortune would have it, they selected a window directly over a picket fence including a small three-cornered space, in which, standing on edge, were a number of large grindstones.

The first girl to jump was Bessie Cobb, 18 years of age, she struck on the picket fence head first, and bonnded to the ground, and was instantly killed, her head being frightfully crushed. Following came Miss Belle Baker, who fell upon Miss Cobb, and was thus saved from instant death. The other girls fell upon the grindstones and the hard ground. At the same time, Thomas S. Mann, Mr. Robinson's foreman, a heavily built man, jumped from a side window to the ground and lay there helpless and crushed. The people in the story below also cut off from escape by the stairway, opened the windows of their shops and jumped to the flat roof of an adjoining building only 8 feet below them. Of the people who escaped this way only one was hurt, George Grant, whose foot went through the roof twisting it at the ankle and mashing the bone of the leg and foot.

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