January 9th, 1912 ~ Firemen Seneca Larke & the Equitable Fire
EDITORS NOTE: Read the NY Times article on the awards ceremony in 1913.
by Paul Hashagen – A composite structure, the Equitable Building actually consisted of five buildings erected at different times, the tallest being ten-stories high. It occupied the entire square block bordered by Broadway, Nassau, Cedar and Pine Streets. The buildings had undergone many alterations, including openings on most floors between various structures, allowing uninhibited travel from one area to another.
On January 9, 1912 at 5:18 A.M., a building employee discovered a wastepaper basket, chair and a desk in the watchman’s office were burning briskly; the employee went to summon help.
The fire traveled from the tiny office down a hallway to a large shaft containing two elevators and eleven dumbwaiters that served the exclusive Lawyer’s Club and the Cafe Savarin from the eighth floor kitchen. There were direct openings on each floor, from the cellar to the roof, with the exception of the fourth floor.
Employees attempted to place a standpipe hose into operation, but stretched short. Finally, an excited employee told a policeman of the fire, and sixteen minutes after the fire was discovered, Box 24 was transmitted. It sent four engines, two ladders, two battalion chiefs and the deputy chief of the First Division.
Engine 6, first in, stretched into the cellar and began operating. The companies were making good progress in the cellar, unaware of the fire extension on the floors above.
At 5:55 A.M., the acting deputy chief received reports about the fire extension on the floors above and transmitted a second alarm.
Because of the early hour, the only people in the building were cleaners, restaurant employees, watchmen, heating engineers and several bank employees. As conditions worsened, three waiters from the Cafe Savarin took the elevator to the top floor, but flames drove them to the roof of the ten-story building.
Eight companies had entered and had operated on the second, third, fourth, and fifth floors for nearly half an hour. Sixty-five M.P.H. winds were whipping the fire out of control. The structural iron and steel supports were exposed to fierce heat and were ready to buckle. At 6:35 A.M. after calling a third, fourth and fifth alarm, Chief John Kenlon ordered everyone out of the building.
Now there were twenty-two engines, two water towers, and ten hook and ladder trucks working. When Chief Kenlon called for Brooklyn fire companies, the fire became the first Borough Call in FDNY history.
Seeing the workers trapped on the roof, firemen sprang into action. Using scaling ladders, (a slender central beam with small wooden steps spaced on each side and a metal serrated goose-neck hook at the top end) three firemen began working their way from the end of an aerial ladder to the men trapped on the Mansard roof. Two of the firemen had just reached the roof level when suddenly the middle of the building started to collapse. Flames forced the victims to jump to their deaths from the Cedar Street side of the roof before they could be reached.
Battalion Chief Walsh, who was just leaving the fourth floor after insuring all members were out, was caught by the collapse. His lifeless body would remain buried in the rubble for four days. Also caught by the collapse was Captain Charles Bass. He was trapped on the third floor, his skull fractured.
When the building trembled one of the firemen climbing up the outside was able to straddle the aerial and slid down to the street. Miraculously, the two climbing firemen’s position held fast, and they were able to make their way down to the street and then to the collapse area. A number of firemen worked their way through the crumbled corridors to rescue Captain Bass.
At the time of the fire, William Giblin, president of the Merchantile Savings Deposit Company, had gone to his office in the cellar to safeguard securities entrusted to his firm. The office windows, looking out on the Broadway sidewalk, were protected with a screen of bowed-out steel bars, two-inches in diameter. Giblin, three clerks and a watchman, were busy in the office when the flames began eating into the inner walls.
When the building caved-in, two of the clerks managed to flee through a door to Cedar Street. But then the door slammed shut, and the warped frame locked itself fast. The burning debris from above was piled about the vault like coals in a furnace. The fire commissioner and department chaplain, were nearby and heard Giblin’s cry for help.
Giblin and a watchman were pressed close to the bars, forced to crouch by the fallen ceiling. Two firemen began sawing the bars, but after thirty minutes, they had made little progress.
Seneca Larke Jr., with the rank of engineer of steamer (operators of steam pumping engines) had been running the searchlight, a rig invented by the chief of department ten years earlier. It was a theatrical spotlight used to aid firefighters during night operations.
With daylight breaking, Larke left his searchlight and volunteered his services to Chief Kenlon. He explained as a former ironworker, he knew the techniques that would enable him to do the job. Although reluctant to put the thirty-seven-year-old father of six into such a hazardous position, Chief Kenlon agreed.
With as new hacksaw frame and a number of blades. Larke laid on his stomach by the barred window and began cutting. At this fire where ten million gallons of water were used, water was pouring down on Larke by the barrel-full, freezing as it fell. Broken stones, glass, flaming embers, and debris fell on Larke and the chaplain who had taken a position next to Larke to give the Last Rights to the imprisoned if the rescue failed.
Firefighters directed hose streams into the cellar from time to time to control fire near the trapped men. Larke talked to Giblin, giving him encouragement as he worked to get through the bars. Giblin was a sickly shade of white and was clinging to the bars; next to him in even worse shape was the clerk named Campion.
After nearly an hour, one bar was cut free, but the opening wasn’t large enough. Larke continued cutting, stopping only to change worn or broken saw blades, an interruption that was necessary fifteen times.
A large stone fell on Larke’s back and paralyzed him for a moment, but despite orders from both the chief and the commissioner to withdraw, Larke refused to stop cutting. A fireman had stayed nearby with a crow bar to help bend the bars back and to chip the ice off Larke so his arms could move freely.
The rescue operation was almost an hour and a half old when Campion’s head slowly dropped down. Larke yelled to the man, Giblin moved in close to him to check him. Looking almost near collapse himself, Giblin told Larke that Campion was dead. The chaplain began his prayers and Larke sawed with renewed vigor.
After nearly an hour more, the second bar gave way and was pulled clear. Larke called for help. Giblin and the watchman were pulled to safety and then hurried to a nearby hospital. Larke was also hospitalized.
New York has witnessed many fires and many great rescues, but it is doubtful that any surpassed the acts of heroism performed at the Equitable Building. Five firemen were awarded medals of valor by the FDNY for their actions at this fire including Seneca Larke, Jr., who was presented the James Gordon Bennett Medal, the department’s highest award.
Larke was promoted to Lieutenant in 1915, retired in 1926 and died in 1931 after a long illness.
The department and the city were changing rapidly. The challenge of difficult fires and rescues were generally within the capabilities of the department. But the time and effort needed to gain entry past the steel bars started Chief Kenlon thinking about creating a special unit to handle such work. In 1915, Rescue 1 was placed in service with specialized training and equipment, among the new tools was a cutting torch.