New York City, NY Panic in Catholic School, Feb 1883




The Disaster Caused By A Slight Alarm Of Fire In A Large Catholic School -- Frithtened Children, Beyond Control, Crowding Through Narrow Halls -- Sad Scenes Of Terror And Grief.

A panic occurred in a large school building on the East side of the City yesterday afternoon and resulted in the killing of 15 children and the more or less serious injury of at least 8 others. The Roman Catholic School of the Most Holy Redeemer is on the south side of East Fourth-street, between Avenue A and B, and includes Nos. 190, 200, and 202. It is a four-story brick building, with high basement, built of brick, and extending back from the street as far as the rear of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, which is in East Third-street. A high iron fence runs along the front of the building, and the main entrance, which is at the west end, is reached by high stone steps. The school is under the charge of the Sisters of Notre Dame, and its registered attendance at the present time is 900. There are nine large school-rooms -- one on the first floor, two on the second floor, three on the third floor, and three on the fourth floor. All of these rooms were filled with girls ranging in age from 4 to 15 years yesterday afternoon, except one room on the third floor and one room on the fourth floor, each of which was occupied by boys from 5 to 12 or 13 years of age. The entire school is under the direct supervision of Sister Augustine, and each room is in charge of a sister of the Order of Notre Dame. Father HESPELEIN, of the Redemptionists, if the Principal Superior of the school.
A few minutes after 3 o'clock GEORGE H. LAMBERT, an officer of the Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Animals was riding down town on an Avenue A car. WHile passing East Fourth street, he saw smoke pouring from the second-story front windows of the Catholic school building, and, leaving the car, he ran to fire-alarm box No. 273, at East Third street and Avenue A, and sounded an alarm. He then went to the school building and entered by the large main door. He saw no fire, but at the bottom of the narrow stairway leading into the second story he saw a struggling mass of young children, some lying on the floor weighted down by others who were pushed upon them from above. Looking up, he beheld a dense crowd of children at the top of the stairs and heard adult voices endeavoring to calm the children's fears. The alarm meanwhile had reached the house of Engine No. 25, in East Fifth street, and Police Station No. 17, at FIrst avenue and East Fifth-street and only a few moments elapsed before the firemen and the Police arrived at the building. The firemen made their way through the basement door at the east end of the school building, and encountered a thick volume of smoke and much heat. Ascending two flights of stairs they found that a stairway rising from the second to the third floor was on fire, and that the flames were eating their way through the wall into a school room, in which were huddled about 100 young girls and two or three of the Sisters. Smoke as rapidly making its way into this room, as well as into the school rooms up the stairs, through the floors and thin partition walls. A brief investigation showed that the fire originated in a small cupboard under the stairway leading up from the second floor, which was used as sort of "catch all" for waste paper, dirt &c. The flames had made no headway to speak of, and the firemen had no trouble in mastering them at once. Only two engines were used, and the work of putting out the fire occupied only a few minutes and took but little water.
The fact that there was a terrible panic in the building was at once realized by both the firemen and the Police, and while some of the former were putting out the fire others joined the Police in endeavoring to calm the frightened children and in assisting those who were being crushed to death. It seems that as soon as the hundreds of children in the various school-rooms found that there was a fire in the building they made a general rush to get out. Accounts differ on this point, some claiming that the children ran helter skelter from their class-rooms, while others, including two of the teachers, asert that the pupils were all kept under discipline and marched out of the rooms in good order toward the stairway in the western end of the building -- the end furthest from the fire. It is stated that it was the design of the teachers to march them, two by two, out of the building, but that in going down stairs some of the nervous ones in front tripped and fell and those behind, scared by the confusion pushed eagerly forward, packing the narrow stairway so densely that the inclosed railing of thin pine boards gave way, precipating the little creatures headlong into one contracted passage below. This last statement has an appearance of probability from the fact that one of the younger teachers was at the head of the ill-fated column, and was herself pushed to the bottom of the stairs and nearly killed. All accounts, however, agree, that in less than 10 minutes from the first appearance of the smoke in the building, there was a fearful blockade of shrieking and groaning human beingsi in the small passageway leading to the West stair case on the second floor and in the staircase itself. Many of the frightened children left their hats, hoods, bonnets, and cloaks behind them in their eagerness to get out, and those on the upper floors poured down in a dense, rapid stream until the second floor was reached. Some of the teachrs attempted to detain them on the upper floors, and bells were rung to call those back who had left some of the upper school-rooms, but so thoroughly panic-stricken had the majority become that efforts to control them were futile.
The facilities for exit from the building were deficient to an extraordinary degree. The halls through which the stairs in the westtern end descend are 6 feet 6 inches in width, those on the two upper floors being possibly not so wide. The staircases, which are built one above the other, are 3 feet wide, and the one in which the fatal jam occurred was steep and contained 20 steps. The children in descenting from the upper floors yesterday were obliged to turn abruptly at the foot of each staircase in a space not more than 3 feet square then, following a short passage a trifle more than 3 feet wide, they had to turn, at the head of each staircase, in a space about 3 feet square. The main hall leading into the street extends along the entire west wall of the building, but in the rear end of it there is a jog in the outer wall which leaves a pasageway from the foot of the stairway to the main hall only 6 feet 6 inches wide. The passage which runs along ty the side of the stairway on the first floor is also about 6 feet 6 inches wide. It was into this contracted outlet that the frightened children were hurled in yesterday's panic. The guard-railing on each staircase consisted of a thin board partition about three feet high, surmounted by a molded hand-rail. This railing is fastened to the stairs by nails, and is without any heavy braces. On the staircase leading from the second to the first floor nearly the whole of the railing gave way to the pressure of the densely packed and struggling mass of humanity, and scores of the little ones were hurled head foremost down into the side passageway. Officer HENRY SCHWENK, of the Seventeenth Precinct, whose daily detail requires him to be present at the time of dismissal ofthe pupils of this school, at 3:30 P. M., was in a large cloak room on the second floor when he heard the engines come clanging up to the building 8 or 10 minutes after 3 o'clock. He heard cries of fire and witnessed the rush of the children to the head of the stairway in the west end of the building. Taking his stand on one of the top steps of that stairway, he tried to keep back the pushing, screaming throng, and called to the children to keep quiet and move slowly. His physical exertions and his admonitious were of little avail. Some of the scholars in front heeded him and tried to push back, but the terrible fright that had seized upon those behind rendered the latter uncontrollable, and they pushed forward with a force that could not be staid. The officer was wedged tightly against the upper part of the stair-railing, and the next instant he heard a crash, followed by the sickening thud of falling bodies. With the exception of a few who stood on the two or three top steps, all of the occupants of the staircase fell with the broken railing. A score or more of others who were pushed forward with terrific velocity fell directly forward down the ungarded staircase. The scene was a frightful one. Children, large and small, tumbled one by one headlong into the struggling, shrieking mass. The floor at the bottom of the stairs was piled three and four deep with human bodies, and the most agonizing cries assailed the ear. Officer SCHWENK and MR. LAMBERT, who, apparently, were the two first men to view the scene, say that it was frightful beyond description. The groans of the injured ones were heartrending and in some instances the men could hear them grow fainter and fainter, until they ceased altogether. The children at the top of the stairway made the air ring with whtie pitiful cries for help. "Oh, Mister! Oh, Mister!" "Save me!" "Please save me!" were the appeals that came from a hundred throats.
The Pile Of Struggling Children.
After the crash and the momentary downfall of human beings that followed, the work of rescue began with as much vigor and effectiveness as was possible under the circumstances. The fact that there wre children in the building had become known to the large crowd of people attracted to the spot by the arrival of the fire engines, and, with the idea of rendering assistance uppermost in their minds, a number of zealous persons burst open the double doors of the main entrance and ran into the hall. In a few seconds this hallway was completely filled with excited men and boys, and when the Police arrived they were obliged to fight this crowd back in order to make way for the exit of the children. The entire reserve force of the Seventeenth Precinct had been detailed by Capt. McCULLOGH to the school building, and it took the combined force of Police and firemen several minutes to clear the main hall sufficiently toenable the uninjured children to get into the street. It is proper to state here that the occupants of the schoolroom on the first floor made their way out of the building before the panic. On the second floor are two classrooms and a large cloakroom, the latter about 20 feet square. The passage leading from this large room to the head of the fatal staircase is only 2 feet 9 inches wide. East of the cloak-room is the classroom used by the fifth class of girls. This class room was in charge of Sister Bonavetura yesterday, and it was in the hall adjoining this apartment that the fire broke out. When the firemen entered the building they found a large number of children in the calss-room and many others in the cloak-room and the passageways leading toward the staircase in the west end of the building. The little folk, who were mostly girls, were very much frightened and were seemingly anxious to get away from the burning staircase, which, being clouded in smoke, had to them the appearance of being all on fire. Some of the firemen assured the children that they might safely descent the stairs and get into the street through the basement door in the east end of the building. A few of the scholars were prevailed upon to try this means of exit, and as they passed safely out they were followed by many others, and it is estimated that about 200 reached the street in this way.
While this was going on, the western staircase and the approaches, thereto were fearfully clogged by the stream of cheildren from the upper rooms. Firemen and policemen, approaching the almost unmovable mass of humanity from the cloak-rooom, partially succeeded in removing the crush by passing the ch8ildren one by one back through the building and down the east stairway. Those of the rescuing party who were at work on the broken staircase and in the hall below were obliged to exercise the greatest caution to keep from treading upon the helpless children who were piled upon the floor. The faint moans, of those underneath told of fast departing life, and efforts weremade to pull such unfortunates out from their fearful positions. All such efforts, however, proved fruitless, and it was found necessary to take those who could be most easily reached and pass them out as qyuickly as possible. The children clustered at the head of the stairs waited with outstretched hands and agonizing cries , their turn to be lifted down. Besides Officer SCHWENK and MR. LAMBERT, this work was participated in by Sergt. WELSING, Officers REID, THOMAS RAYWOOD, JAMES NELTS, KELLY, FISHER, and others. Eye witnesses give the Police and firemen credit for exercising judgement, zeal, and great energy in their work. Every one that could render assistance worked with a will to remove the prostrate children from the lower hallway. Most of those who had fallen on top were found to be uninjured, and as soon as they were passed into the street they ran home without delay. When about 30 had been picked up those at the very bottom were found to be unconscious, and most of them when taken up were dead. With only two or three exceptions, none of those who lost their lives were bruised or maimed. Nearly all of the met their deaths by suffocation. MINNIE USTER was the first unconscious child taken up, and she died almost in the arms, of the officer who found her. One child had her breast-bone fractured and another was cut in the face. Four of the dead children were carried through the school building into the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer and others were taken to drug stores in the vicinity, but subsequently either removed to the church or to the Seventeenth Precinct Station house. Sister NAHR, one of the teachers who was caught in the jam on the stairs and who is supposed to have fainted, was picked up in an unconscious condition and taken into the church, where she soon revived. She went to the Convent of the Notre Dame, but soon afterward accompanied some friends to the Police station, where, with painful emotion, she identified her own little sister, who had been killed.
Before the firemen and Police arrived, some excellent work was done by volunteers. A man ran along Avenue A downward from Fourth street shortly after the fire broke out, and as he ran, he gave out an alarm with him brought into the street AUGUST HENLEM, whose son FRANK was on of the pupils in the school. HENLEM is the owner of a beer saloon at Third-street and Avenue A. He is about 40 years old, heavily built, and quite athletic. With him rushed out his barkeeper, WILHELM FRITZ, who is a pleasant faced energetic young German. They ran together around the corner to save the boy FRANK. The father pushed his way through the open door of the school building and his assistant was close at his heels. FRITZ planted himself with one arm grasping the window frame. HENLEM soon found his son and passed him out into the street where he was clasped warmly in the arms of this mother, whose fears had impelled her to the place and who stood in the group of excited women and men that had been drawn hither. After rescuing his son, HENLEM, with the aid of a man who was a stranger to him went on with the work of pulling out the bodies, living and dead, of those who lay piled up in a heap on the floor where they had fallen. They passed the little forms out to FRITZ, who held his post valiantly, and worked while the perspiration ran down in streams from his person. Some children were brought forward to the rescuers by the sisters. As the little ones were lifted out into the street willing hands took up the burdens and conveyed themout of the crowd. One of the Sisters was thus taken out. The mass of bodies as they lay piled up was but imperfectly distinguishable to the srecuers, owing to the defective lighting of the place. It seemed to them that the prostrate forms made a barricade full four or five feet high, and twice as long, and extending across the hall. Two of the Sisters lay under the children. One Sister had her head, arms, and the upper part of her body free. She was pinned down, however, by the weight of the many children who ohad fallen over her and lay stretched across the other portions of her body. HENLEM grasped her by the shoulders and tried to help her rise, but was unable to do so until after the little ones had all been taken off. The other Sister lay prostrate on the wooden floor completely covered by the writhing, struggling children. When she was extricated it seemed to those who pulled her out that she was dead, she was so limp and apparently lifeless. The three men worked with a will amid untoward circumstances. They groped for an arm or a leg and pulled out one after another of the children, who cried and grasped convulsively out to catch the arms of their rescuers. In their struggles they scratched each other's faces and tore their clothing. At times they would seek to climb up the shoulders of the men who were at work helping them, and they uttered the most piteous cries. One by one they were passed outward, and before the engines and the firemen came about 25 or 30 had thus been taken out. All were haggard, frightened, pallid, save those whose struggles had ceased in death and one whose features were so covered with blood as to be almost indistinguishable. Many had fainted. There was one little fellow who lay buried beneath a half dozen of his play fellows. Only his little arms and hands stuck out of the heap, and these he waved appealingly as in childish tones he besought the men to help him out. FRITZ caught the lad under the arms and tried to pull him out, but failed. While the men were at work they were joined from the outside by a butcher named ISIDOR KRIEGER, who worked even after he had dislocated one of his thumbs in the good work. The women, too, lent a helping hand and showed wonderful energy, but most of them had a mother's interest and sohcitude to spur them on. When the firemen came the volunteers retired fot the most part.
In response to calls sent out by the Police ambulances from Bellevue and the New York Hospital soon arrived upon the scene. DR. H. PURDY, from Bellevue, came with the first ambulance and proceeded immediately to the church, where he found the inanimate bodies of six children. He tried to resucitate them by means of artificial respiration, but found that life was wholly extinct. Death in each case, he said, had been cause by suffocation. He then had them removed to the station-house.
Parents In Great Grief.
The scene at the Seventeenth Precinct Police Station, at First avenue and FIfth street, whither the bodies of 11 of the little victims of the catastrophe were carried for identification, beggars description. The bodies of the children were carried into the back room of the station house and were laid in a row on the floor. Each body was marked with a number so as to facilitate the subsequent identification. As soon as the news of the disaster was circulated throughout the neighborhood the station house was besieged by a dense mass of people, mostly women, the mothers of children who attended the school. Three ambulances in charge of Commissioner BRENNAN, of the Department of Charities, had been summoned from Bellevue Hospital, and they were utilized for conveying the bodies of the unfortunate children from their place of death to the station house. As the ambulances drove up to the building the crowd pressed eagerly forward to gaze upon the corpses of the poor little girls as they were lifted out on stretchers and carried into the station house. The first one brought in was little MAMIE URTER. This child was one of the first dragged out of the pile of dead and dying children in the corridor of the school house. When rescued by Patrolman KELLY, of the Seventeenth Precinct, she was still alive and breathing faintly, but all efforts to resuscitate her failed. The child had been suffering from asthma and but for this it is believed that her life might have been saved. Next came the bodies of MARY HOBERNICHT, MARRIANNE HAPPE, LIZZIE SKABETZKIE, MINNIE TRUBE, MARY BRECHT, JOSEPHINE NANR, ELIZA BRANDENBURG, BARBARA PREGENZER, LENA BENDUNGEL and BARBARA BECHEL.
When the bodies had been arranged in order on the floor of the back room and thir little limbs straightened, the crowd was admitted to look upon the bodies for the purpose of identifying them. Then the saddest scenes of all occurred. Many women were among the crowd, and as they entered the room their eyes gazed with an anxiety painful to witness along the line of the dead in search of their little ones. One German woman looked searchingly into the features of the dead children until her eyes rested on the upturned face of little MINNIE USTER. An agonized scream burst from her lips and she fell upon her knees beside the prostrate from of her little daughter. "Ach! mein lieber tochter," she cried, and taking the little form in her arms she kissed the cold lips, rocking herself to and fro, and wept as though heartbroken. Her friends gathered around her, and after a great deal of persuasion she was induced to leave the scene and return to her home, whither the body of her child was subsequently removed. LIZZIE SKABETZKIE was aslo identified by her mother. MINNIE TRUBE was alive when removed from the school but died when taken into the church. Her breast bone was crushed in by being trampled upon. The body of MARIANNE HAPPE was identified by her father, GEORGE H. HAPPE. There are six other children in this family, two of whom were also pupils at the school, but they escaped uninjured. MARY HABERNICHT had fallen headlong from the stairs. She was recognized by her mother, who had gone to the station house in search of her. MAGGIE BRECHT was also identified by her mother. JOSEPHINE NAHR was a beautiful child with blonde hair. Her sister is a novice in the order of the Sisters of Notre Dame, and taught a closs in the school. She identified the body of her little sister while the child was lying on the floor of the church, whither it had been carried after the catastrophe. She dragged herself on her knees to the corpse and covered its face with kisses. The father of the dead child is MICHAEL NAHR, a plasterer, and when he came to the station house to claim the body of his dead child his grief was heartrending.
The bodies of ELIZA BRANDENBURG and BARBARA BECHEL were identified by their mothers. BARBARA, who was a bright intelligent child, was alive when found. A man named DEMLEY tried to dray her out from under the children who were lying on her and crushing the life out of her, but was unable to do so. She was able to speak, and thrusting out her little closed fist, said to DEMLEY, "Give this to my mother; don't forget." She opened her little hand and disclosed a five cent piece, which she handed to DEMLEY, repeating the injunction to give the coin to her mother. She was dead before she could be taken out. One of the most heartrending sights was the identification of LENA BENDNAGEL by her father. He is a tall German, whose appearance would indicate that he was not easily affected. When he saw the body of his little girl lying on the floor he gave way to the most intense grief. Falling on his knees he picked up the child in his arms and pressing the corpse to his bosom he kissed the cold features and burst out into uncontrolable grief. He begged piteously to be permitted to carry the child home and would not surrender the body to the Police, who desired to send it to his home in an ambulance. The room was filled with strong men -- policemen and other officers familiar with scenes of suffering and woe -- but all wept at the sight of this father's grief.
Fifteen children were killed by the accident, and all died of suffocation, according to Deputy Coroner DENLIN, who was at the school soon after the fire broke out, and who carefully examined each body. It is estemated that at least a dozen children were injured, some, whose names were not obtained, were hurried home by friends. Eight are known to have received injuries more or less serious.
The Dead:
BRECHT, MARGARET, aged 8 years. She was in the fourth class, on the second floor and was taken out from the lower hall dead. She was carried to the station, and there identified by her parents. There were no marks upon the body, and it was supposed she was killed by the shock or suffocated. Her sister LIZZIE, aged six years, was taken from a window unhurt.
BRANDENBURG, ELIZA, aged 10 years. The child was taken out dead. She was not bruised in any way, and her life like appearance as she lay in her father's parlor last evening was remarkable.
BECHEL, BARBARA, aged 10 years.
BENDUNGEL, LENA, aged 11 years.
BECKER, LENA, aged 9 years.
FISHER, ________ , aged 15 years.
HAPPE, MARIANNE, aged 8 years.
HABERNICHT, MARY, aged 7 years. As she was being taken out of a window by a man she begged him to be careful not to hurt her. She was taken into the church where she died before her mother reacherd her. She is also supposed to have died from the shock and the pressure of the children above her. The family have one other child, a boy.
KOETZNER, TERESA, aged 11 years. The girl only lived a few minutes. As there were no marks of violence upon her it is supposed she died from the shock.
NUTTERMUTH, FRANCIS, aged 12 years.
NAHR, JOSEPHINE, aged 7 years.
PREGENZER, BARBARA, aged 9 years.
SKABETZKY, LIZZIE, aged 6 1/2 years.
TRUBE, MINNIE, aged 10 years. She was taken out alive but only lived a few minutes.
USTER, MAMIE, aged 7 years.
The Injured:
BECKER, ANDREW, aged 9 years, both arms broken.
EID, MAGGIE, aged 10 years, right side injured.
ENGEL, JOHN, aged 8 years, leg broken.
FLORFIN, LOUISA, aged 10 years, she had not recovered consciousness and was still in a very precarious condition. There is a possibility of her recovery, however.
GUNDEACH, FREDERICK, aged 9 years, internal injuries.
MUNDAL, RUDOLPH, aged 8 years. concussion of brain.
SCHMIDT, EMMA, 11 years old, suffering from severe nervous shock,but her condition is not serious.
ZEUFT, ANNIE, aged 5 years, internal injuries.

The New York Times New York 1883-02-21