Norfolk, VA Two Blocks Destroyed By Flames, Jan 1918

Ruins of Monticello Hotel Fire Ruins Monticello Hotel Cir. 1907 Blocks Of The Fire Scene







Norfolk, Va., Jan. 1. -- Nearly two blocks in the heart of Norfolk's business district, including the Monticello Hotel, were destroyed today. One man was killed and a score more injured in a series of explosions and fires which both the police and naval authorities believe were incendiary. The fire had been checked tonight, but still was burning fiercely in the ruins. The loss was roughly estimated at more than $2,000.000.
Three distinct explosions here in as many buildings, one after the fire virtually had been got under control, led to the general belief that enemy agents were at work. Mayor MAYO practically placed the city under martial law by turning the situation over to naval officers, and some 2,500 marines and bluejackets from nearby naval stations assisted the police and Home Guards in maintaining order and preventing looting.
Naval patrol rounded up suspected persons throughout the afternoon, and five men were arrested as suspects. Two of these, HUGO SCHMIDT and H. K. LEASING, said to be Germans, were turned over to Department of Justice agents. Tonight there were reports that two Germans had been shot by sailors, but neither the police nor the naval authorities would confirm them.
Fire Hydrants Frozen.
The fire started before dawn in the old Granby Theatre in Granby Street, and gained headway rapidly, as the firemen were handicapped by frozen fire hydrants, low water pressure, and near-zero temperature. It quickly spread to the Monticello Hotel and other buildings in the block. It was got under control late in the day, but started anew early tonight, leaped across Granby Street, and leveled half of the block there before being checked.
Falling floors and walls took toll of firemen and naval guards. One fireman, CHARLES McCOY, was killed and seven others were hurt in the collapse of an upper floor of the Monticello Hotel in the day, and tonight two firemen and several sailors were caught by a falling wall of the Lenox Building. Three were taken out badly hurt, but two others were left in the debris.
Firemen of Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Suffolk, with organized sailor fire brigades, fought heroically amid ice and blinding smoke, and bluejackets led the rescue work when the fighters were trapped. Several of the firemen caught in the hotel were taken out alive through the daring of a score of sailors.
Reports as to the number of explosions varied. It was first said that the fire in the Granby Theatre had followed an explosion, but Fire Chief McLAUGHLIN and naval investigators announced tonight that this was not the case. They said, however, that there had been three separate and distinct explosions. The first was in a cloak and hat shop near the Monticello. The second was on the sixth floor of that hotel after the first fire was practically under control, and the third in the Lenox Building, which later was destroyed.
Guests Flee From Hotel.
Guests from the Monticello, who were forced to flee in the biting cold of the dawn after they had watched the theatre burn, were taken care of in nearby homes and hotels. As building after building went down, including an apartment house, scores were made homeless, and the National Guard Armory in City Hall Avenue was thrown open to them.
There during the late day Red Cross workers and other volunteers looked after the refugees, and also supplied coffee and sandwiches for the naval patrols and firemen who were forced to seek rest from their exhausting work against the flames.
When the firemen responded to the alarm for the theatre fire they found all hydrants in the vicinity frozen. Fires had to be built to that whem out. Meantime the firemen looked on helpless while the big theatre building burned. When water finally ran, the pressure was so low that streams would not reach to the upper stories of the burning building, and the fire soon was beyond control.
Portsmouth, across the Elizabeth River, was called for aid, and the fire was checked until falling sparks fired the Monticello, where many of the guests had gone back to bed in the belief that the fire was controlled. They were soon forced to turn out again.
The combined departments apparently were making good headway against the flames when the explosion occurred in the cloak shop and another blaze started. Suffolk then was asked for aid and rushed apparatus to the city by train. Meantime the naval authorities at the Navy Yard and naval base offered aid and fire brigades were soon on the scene.
When the second explosion occurred, this time in the Monticello, Mayor MAYO put the naval authorities in charge. They placed patrols throughout the business district, threw a cordon of marines and bluejackets around the fire district and began picking up persons unable to account for themselves.
Suspected Persons Rounded Up.
Department of Justice agents joined with the city detective force in seeking to solve the mystery of the explosion. Three of the men arrested were put in the city jail, and Federal agents took charge of the two others, SCHMIDT and LESSING. LESSING, officers said, first represented himself as a Department of Justice official.
Fire tugs from the navy yard early in the day took up positions on the water from three blocks away, and assisted the fire engines, and pumped tons of water into the burning building, but the block in Granby Street from City Hall Avenue to Tazewell Street virtually was destroyed, only two buildings, the Dixon and the commercial structures, both new, escaping destruction. They were badly damaged.
Just at dusk the fire in the Monticello started afresh, and despite the heroic work of the firemen and sailors the Lenox, Carpenter, and Tazewell buildings, six-story structures across the street, were wrecked. For a time the Naval Y.M.C.A. was threatened, but the wide lane separating it from the burning buildings enabled the firemen to save it and other large buildings near by.
Although the fire still was burning in the ruins late tonight, the Fire Chief announced that the danger was over if the naval patrols could "check the work of incendiaries."
The fire-swept district is but three blocks from the Elizabeth River water front on the north and five on the west. It is more than a mile from the Norfolk Navy Yard, which is siutated up the Elizabeth River in the western part of Portsmouth. The nearby water front is used by bay and river steamers and trucking vessels.

The New York Times New York 1918-01-02