New York, NY Fire Drill Causes Panic, Sept 1882




The horrors of 1851, when a number of children were killed and injured in a school in Greenwich-avenue during a panic caused by a fire-alarm being given by mistake, came near being re-enacted yesterday afternoon at Grammar School No. 41, at Nos. 36 to 40 Greenwich-avenue, which is built on the site of the building where the fatal panic of 1851 occurred. In the present instance a panic was created by children not trained to the "fire drill." When it was rung they became alarmed, "Fire!" was cried, and selfish consideration prevailed, but after a quarter of an hour of intense excitement, the teachers, janitor, firemen, and Police had behaved with such rare intelligence and energy that the panic was stayed and nearly all the children reached the avenue unharmed. Grammar School No. 41 is attended only by girls. At the time of the panic yesterday 610 were in the 11 class-rooms of the primary school on the first floor, under Miss Susanna Whitney, and 669 were in the 19 classrooms of the grammar school on the second and third floors, under Miss Lizzie Cavannah. There was a female teacher in each of the class-rooms. When the school reopened on the 4th inst., an order was received from City Superintendent John Jasper to perfect the scholars in the fire drill. Each scholar has a numbered peg on which to hang her clothes, and the fire drill consisted in sounding an alarm, when the scholars are required to get their clothes and collect their books and return to their seats. Meanwhile preparations were made for the teachers to be on the landings of the seven staircases, four of which are fire-proof, which lead to the four exits on Greenwich-avenue. At a signal the children were to rise and go out calmly. Going down the stairs one only was permitted to be on each side of the staircase, where there is a handrail, and the exit to the avenue was required to be in an orderly manner. Formerly the fire drill alarm was sounded on the tinkling class bells from bellhandles in the assembly room of the primary and grammar departments. This necessitated the pulling of as many handles as there were classrooms. In order to secure an almost simultaneous alarm three large fire-gongs were, during the recent recess, placed on the first, second, and third floors, so that the whole school could be notified by pulling at three handles. It does not appear that the scholars knew of the new arrangement yesterday. Some of them had heard of the gongs, but they had not heard them strike, and they did not receive instructions about them that common prudence might have dictated. It was agreed between Miss Whitney and Miss Cavannah that a fire drill should be had yesterday afternoon. They believed that the 140 new and untrained scholars in the primary school and 90 new girls in the grammar school would follow the example of the trained scholars.

At 2:40 o'clock Miss Cavannah had the alarm struck on the second and third floors. Six strokes were sounded on each gong. The deep, loud noise, resembling the clang of a fire engine gong, startled even the trained scholars, and as they whispered to each other "fire drill" in going for their clothes the untrained scholars misunderstood them, and believed that the school was on fire, and that the noise of the gongs was the bells of the engines summoned to the school. There was a panic immediately, and 50 affrighted girls ran screaming and bareheaded from the grammar school to the street before the teachers could spring to the door-ways, bar exit, and command order. The screaming and confusion overheard alarmed the scholars and teachers in the primary school, but the doors were guarded before more than 25 or 30 children escaped. For several minutes the teachers had hard work to keep back the imprisoned children. The trained scholars were as alarmed as the new ones, and some of them wept and implored as piteously as they, despite the assurances of their teachers, who all behaved bravely except for one instance, that of a new instructress, who for a time did not understand the situation.

When the children who were uncontrollable, and who escaped, reached the street terror-stricken Officer John Watson, of the Ninth Precinct, and William H. Pudney, the janitor of the school, did precisely what they should have done. Watson sent a messenger to the Charles-street stationhouse for the reserves, and 11 patrolmen ran to the school. Pudney dispatched a messenger to the head-quarters of the Fifth Battalion of the Fire Department to give an alarm. Acting Chief John Castles had Engine No. 18 hitched up, but he ordered it to be held in quarters, while he and Private Farley rushed to the school. Assistant Foreman Edward Tully, of Hook and Ladder Company No. 5, did the same as Chief Castles in his quarters in Charles-street, and went with Capt. Hedden's reserves. The Police and firemen found new cause for a panic. The children who had reached the street had, in many instances, run home and alarmed neighbors whose children were at the school, and those who remained on the avenue told passersby that the school was on fire and that children were burning up. The consequence was that frantic women and excited men stormed the doors of the class-rooms, and would have overpowered the teachers had not the Police come promptly. All intruders were ejected, and when the Police and firemen entered the class-rooms, the scholars were sitting in their places, obedient to discipline, but a little scared at the tumult in the avenue and in the halls and stairways of the school. The wished-for signal to dismiss was given, and the children filed out into the avenue in the presence of an immense crowd.

The New York Times, New York, NY 21 Sept 1882