New York, NY Hotel Commodore Fire, Jun 1920


Guests Dash Downstairs from 28-Story Building Carrying Baggage with Them.


Firemen Narrowly Escape as Sections of Heavy Ceiling Fall.


Flames Started from Electric Current---Manager at Phone Switchboard Reassures Guests.

With every elevator in the bi hotel our of service, for some unknown reason, fire, the second blaze in the day, swept through the reception room of the west ballroom of the Hotel Commodore, Lexington Avenue and Forty-second Street, last night. In thirty minutes firemen, working at top speed, stopped the fire within the original area, but not before some of the guests, frightened by smoke and the failure of the elevators had begun a hasty descent of the stairs, carrying with them personal belongings hastily caught up.

The fire near the ballroom on the second floor of the hotel was discovered shortly after 10 o'clock by a bellboy carrying baggage to a suite. The boy was passing down the main hallway leading from east to west, when, just as he was opposite the large glass doors of the room, he saw a wisp of smoke between the partially opened doors.

The lad dropped the baggage and investigated. He saw a streak of flame running across the ceiling of the room and over in one corner parches of fire seemingly breaking out from the wall. He rushed to one of the telephones in a vacant room and got the office on the wire.

Hotel Fire Alarm Sounded.

As soon as word came into the manager's office, the hotel's fire alarm system was put to use, and the city fire headquarters was notified. In the meantime an employee ran to the fire alarm box at Park Avenue and Thirty-seventh Street and turned in an alarm from there.

A battalion chief later declared that his apparatus had responded to an alarm from that point, instead of going directly to the hotel. The fire fighters directly to the hotel. The fire fighters' central, however, had put through the fire call to hook and ladder companies and engine companies' covering the hotel district, while the hotel's hose was run out.

It was speedily found that the Commodore's lines allotted to the vicinity of the fire were too short. The canvas-covered hose, it was said, reached only part of the way to the blaze.

Just as employes[sic] were getting ready to tackle the rapidly-spreading flames with firebuckets, Deputy Chief "Smoky Joe" Martin and a big force of fire-fighting apparatus arrived. The Deputy Chief at once rushed hose right through the carpeted lobby, ladders up from the street to the second floor windows, and firemen up through the hotel's many floors. The latter were to reassure the guests, for the Chief declared within a minute after looking the fire over, that he was confident the flames would be held within their original area.

Firemen Rip Down Ceiling.

It was necessary for the firemen to rip down about seventy-five square feet of ceiling in the west ballroom and in the foyer leading into it. The ceiling had been cracked and loosened by the intense heat so that large sections fell to the floor.

Several firemen from Truck Co. No. 2 and Engine Co. No. 8 narrowly escaped injury when the pieces of ceiling crashed to the floor. Deputy Chief Martin estimated that a conservatible figure for the damage would be about $35,000, adding that he believed the loss would exceed that figure because of the expensive tapestries and draperies which were destroyed.

In the meanwhile the reserves from the East Fifty-first Street Station under Captain William Davis had been hurried down to the hotel. A big crowd of the curious attracted by the clanging of the fire apparatus and their stop in front of the big gray hotel were thronging the streets and making the work of the firemen difficult.

While the policemen were hurrying into the hotel and endeavoring to persuade the few guests who had made their way to the lobby that the building was not in danger the alarm of fire had been carried to the upper stories. Despite the earliness of the hour many of the rooms were tenanted, and the word "Fire" speedily sent the men and women guests out into the corridors.

Although there was no mistaking the smoke that now and then carried to a floor immediately above the west ballroom floor, the guests, for the most part, failed to display alarm until after their attempt to get to the elevators had proved that the cars were not running. Guest after guest, many of them carrying bags and clothing, rushed down the corridors to the cars, only to find that their ringing failed to produce an elevator.

Then, balked in this and knowing that somewhere in the building a fire was in progress, some of the guests high up in the Commodore's twenty-eight stories began to get nervous. Most of them, however, returned to their rooms and put the telephone into service in an effort to find out what the danger was.

As a result of the sudden rush of calls the hotel's telephone board was swamped. Edward F. Sweeney, manager of the hotel, himself jumped to the board and worked strenuously, telling the guests that the Commodore's fireproof construction rendered it practically immune from the danger that some of the guests apparently feared.

This method of fighting any danger of panic proved effective, and even while the firemen were still battling away at the stubborn blaze on the second floor, calm gradually penetrated through the 2,000 rooms of the hotel. The telephone calls dropped almost to normal while Deputy Chief "Smoky Joe" Martin was still ordering more hose run into the hotel.

The deluge of water concentrated on the gilded ceilings and walls of the ballroom checked the blaze and the firemen were able to dash in with hooks and rip down the ceilings and the walls and get at the source of the flames. It was quickly found to be sparks from electric wires that were feeding the fire, and the current was ordered off. It could not be ascertained last night whether the stoppage of the lighting power had anything to do with the failure of the elevators to function.

Almost half an hour after the arrival of Martin and his men the fire was under control and within an hour all sparks had been put out. The ballroom, however, and a big section of the corridor leading to it were practically ruined by the combination of flame, water and smoke.

The earlier fire in the hotel was trivial. A pedestrian passing the Forty-second Street side of the hotel saw an awning smoldering over a window on the eleventh floor, and he turned in an alarm. Before the firemen arrived, however, the hotel's force had succeeded in putting out the fire with fire extinguishers. The police declared that the awning had been ignited by the dropping of a cigarette. A similar fire, also caused by a smoker's carelessness, occurred at the hotel several weeks ago.

The New York Times, New York, NY 14 Jun 1920