New York, NY Factory Fire In Fourth Floor, Mar 1958



New York (AP) -- The city begins a probe today of the loft building fire on lower Broadway which took a toll of 24 lives -- 18 women and six men. Two state agencies also will enter the investigation.
The flash blaze, touched off by an explosion in a third floor textile plant yesterday, shot smoke and flame into a fourth floor underwear factory, causing panic among 36 workers.
Many were burned beyond recognition, but a medical examiner said most of the victims were asphyxiated before they were englufed by flames.
Fifteen persons were injured. Three of them were treated and sent home last night. The remaining 12 -- including a truck driver who aided the firefighters -- were hospitalized and two of them were described as in critical condition.
Although saying there was no evidence of fire law violations on the premises, Fire Commissioner EDWARD F. CAVANAGH, JR., ordered an investigation for today. In Albany last night, Gov. AVERELL HARRIMAN ordered the State Department of Labor and Division of Safety to investigate the fire in cooperation with city officials.
Panic Played Role.
At the scene of the blaze, where six women leaped from windows to the street CAVANAGH commented:
"It would seem that panic played a most important role in this blaze. Some bodies were piled one on top of the other -- evidence of mass hysteria. At least three jumped from windows where there was no evidence of smoke or flame."
MRS. EDNA MURRAY, 33, employed in the workrooms of the Monarch Underwear Corp., on Broadway, who was led to safety by firemen, said: "There was heavy smoke. It was hard to see. People were bumping into each other. It looked like a panic."
The blaze broke out when an oven exploded shortly before 4 p.m. on the third floor textile factory in the five-story structure. A bolt of fabric was being treated in the the oven when the blast came. The three employes on the third floor escaped unharmed, as did persons on all other floors but the fourth.
Five alarms brought 200 firemen and dozens of pieces of equipment to the scene. But it was almost 5 p.m. -- two hours -- before the firefighters, repeatedly balked by intense heat and smoke were able to enter the fourth floor by aerial ladder.
Bodies Piled Up.
They saw bodies piled atop one another. Some were heaped near the doorways, others lay under work tables and benches, and some were huddled near windows.
It was the worst fire in the city since Dec. 3, 1956 when 9 persons perished and 247 were injured in an explosion and fire on a Brooklyn pier.
The scene of the fire is just three blocks away from the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire on March 23, 1911, that killed 145 persons.
A loft fire last month in the downtown Manhattan area cost the lives of six firefighters.
The area of yesterday's blaze at Houston street is occupied by ancient loft buildings housing textile plants making such products as hats, shirts and underwear. There are hundreds of loft buildings in Manhattan, with many businesses taking up an entire floor -- often without partitions.
Among the injured was EDWARD WINE, 36, of Manhattan, a truck driver who volunteered to help hold one of the fire nets. A woman leaping from the building missed the net and laded on WINE, father of five children.
Taken To Hospital.
The woman and WINE were taken to a hospital.
Survivors were high in their praise of ABRAHAM J. BECKER, 37, of suburban Hicksville, N. Y., a Monarch Co. foreman, who not only tried to restore order but went back into the flaming fourth floor time and time again to lead others to safety.
But the World War II veteran, married and the father of two children, did not survive his last rescue attempt. He was overcome by smoke and died.
It was not until 8:30 p.m. -- 4 1/2 hours after the fire broke out -- that Fire Commissioner EDWARD J. CAVANAGH was able to say with reasonable certainty that the last victim had been removed from the smoking wreckage at 623 Broadway.
At the height of the 1 1/2 hour blaze, dozens of women textile workers perched like frightened wrens on window sills three, or four stories above the street, awaiting their turns to leap into fire nets.
Six of the women missed the nets and struck the pavement with a sickening impact. One of them landed on a man who was giving firemen a hand with the nets, painfully injuring him as well as herself.
Saw Women Jump.
"I saw women jump out of the window and hit the sidewalk," said a woman onlooker from another building.
Firemen on the nets set up a grim production line mechanism. As fast as one woman hit the nets, she was boosted off to make way for the next. Other women were taken to safety down aerial ladders.
With the blaze finally under control, grime-besmeared firemen risked possible collapse of the wreckage and blackened building in search for victims entombed in the wreckage.
To their surprise, the rescuers found a man and woman bearely alive -- but alive -- in the debris. The woman had taken refuge from the flames in a metal storage box. Tons of water poured in by firemen apparently had kept the box cool enough to allow her to live through the holocaust. The man apparently shielded himself from the flames in some manner while hugging the floor.
Ancient Loft Area.
The area is one of ancient textile lofts, where women work machines for assembling various textile products, such as hats, shirts and underwear. The top three floors of the building were occupied by such firms.
The fire started in the third floor quarters of the S.T.S. Textile Co. The only three persons at work there escaped.
The victims were among 50 women employes of the Monarch Underwear Co. on the building's fourth floor. The rapidly mushrooming flames trapped them before they could reach exit stairs or windows.
A number of the dead and injured were Negroes.
The fire broke out about 4 p.m. said LOUISE BAXTER, 35, a machine operator on the fourth floor.
"The first thing I knew, the whole floor shook. Someone screamed, 'There's a fire.' I just ran out the back door to the stairs. I couldn't see anything until I was in the street."
Traffic was snarled and thousands of workers, as they poured into the street at the beginning of the evening rush hour, looked on in silent awe as the drama of the rescue effort built up.
Smoke Dense.
Dense smoke poured out of the burning building, hanging low in the gray late-winter sky and drifting into nearby buildings and even down beneath the earth into subway passages.
Big fire trucks poked their aerial ladders into position against the building. Firemen mounted them with hoses to get at the heart of the blaze.
Other firefighters dragged hoses to uper stories of adjacent buildings to try for a horizontal shot at the flames.
From time to time, as it appeared the walls of the burning building might collapse, the firemen were called back to a safer distance.
But as each crisis passed they surged back to the task of combatting the flames.
Commissioner CAVANAGH hurried to the scene of the fire. As it grew more ominous Mayor ROBERT F. WAGNER left City Hall to join him outside the blazing building.

Panic Blamed For Many Fire Deaths.
New York (AP) -- Panic -- that dread word when calamity strikes a crowd of people.
Everything was serene in the fourth floor loft before yesterday's explosion and fire. In a few minutes the huge room was filled with choking black smoke.
The workers, most all of them women, began screaming and milling around. There was a concentrated push toward the back door exit. There was a pileup of humanity, suffocating to death. Then came the flames burning the massed bodies.
Said one woman survivor:
"We all started to scream and yell. We ran toward the back in panic. The smoke started to pour up and in ... There was this pushing and screaming everybody was pushing and everybody was coughing. Some of the girls fell down."
Had there been no panic, said Fire Commissioner EDWARD F. CAVANAGH, JR., the death toll of 24 would not have been nearly so high.

The Times Record Troy New York 1958-03-20