Brooklyn, NY Fleet Street Church Collapse, Mar 1905


Old Brooklyn House of Worship Collapses During Funeral Services.


Wild Panic Ensues as Cry of Fire is Raised - Alarms Bring Three Engines and Many Ambulances - Church is the First Street Methodist - Edifice, Over Fifty Years of Age.

New York City. -- Eleven persons, all negroes, were killed, and several times that number were injured when a part of the floor of Brooklyn's old Fleet Street Church, now the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, collapsed under the over heavy burden of a multitude that had gathered to witness the funeral services for SIDNEY L. PAINTER, a popular band leader. Little less than miraculous was the escape of those involved in the disaster from the still greater horror of a fire among the ruins. The panic that ensued was wild. Women and children were trampled under foot and furnished a majority of the victims.
The church is a two story frame structure, gabled, but without steeple or bell tower. It stands at the small triangular area formed by the junction of Fleet street with Hudson avenue, a short block from Myrtle avenue. That is right in the heart of the largest negro district of Brooklyn. Built fifty-six years ago to meet the needs of white worshippers, the famous structure passed into the hands of a negro congregation about twenty years ago. It is one of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood and is flimsy in its construction.

The church has a fifty foot front and is about 100 feet deep. The ground floor forms one large room, used by the Sunday school classes and other organizations within the church. From a small hallway two narrow stairs lead to right and left up to the church proper, the floor of which is about fifteen feet above ground. The stairs have a narrow landing half way up, and then turn on themselves. The space between them forms a kind of alcove, open toward the church, but with separate flooring. This fact saved many lives.

Two aisles ran from the front to the rear of the church, with three columns of benches, twenty-five in each, standing very close together. There must be seating room for something like 500 people in the church - or there was, for there only remained a gaping hole in the floor, some thirty by thirty feet in size. On each of the long walls there are five windows opening upon narrow alleys separating the church from the adjoining buildings. The floor consisted of one-inch planks resting on crossbeams only three inches thick. These again rested on two string beams a foot thick that ran from one end of the building to the other, each one of them having for extra support two iron columns only three inches in diameter. The crash was caused by the snapping of one of the stringers as if it had been glass.

Only last November the church was condemned by the Building Department as utterly unsafe. A plea by the pastor, the Rev. F. M. JACOBS, including the declaration that it would be impossible for the congregation to find a new place of worship on short notice, led to a temporary suspension of the condemnation on the condition that no large gatherings should be permitted.

Seeing that the crush on the floor was growing worse every minute the pastor at last called out to Policeman McCREE at the door to help him clear the aisles. His request was either not heard or disregarded. MR. JACOBS then left the pulpit and made his way through the crowd in the eastern aisle, trying to persuade them to take seats.

Just then Undertaker HARRIS entered the church at the head of a number of assistants, who were carrying wreaths and other floral offerings. Their effort to reach the altar along the western aisle caused an additional crowding on the other side of the church, bringing two thirds of those in the room together on a narrow part of the floor. This was too much for the beams, which were rotten with age.

An ominous cracking was heard, but only a few heeded it. Then small clouds of dust began to rise above the heads of the people. Somebody yelled "Fire!" The panic was started. Before more than half a dozen people were able to get out a loud crash came. The floor occupied by the centre and left columns of benches went down, dragging the people along.

From out of that pile of debris and struggling humanity rose shrieks. Men and women were clinging for life to the benches that leaned, funnel shape, from the edges of those parts of the floor that had not collapsed and crashed down into the room below. Others who had not been dragged down broke the windows and leaped to the ground outside.

The gas went out when the crash came, leaving everything in pitch-black darkness. This averted the danger of fire, but increased the panic.

When the crash was heard, followed by the screaming of those hurt, a general cry of "Fire!" was raised, and nearly everybody turned and ran.

Three engines and two trucks responded to a fire alarm.

Every hospital in Brooklyn sent ambulances. In clearing away the debris it was found that eleven had been killed outright and many more were injured.

The Cranbury Press New Jersey 1905-03-03