WHAT: Hotel fire
WHEN: February 12, 1955
WHERE: Chicago, Illinois
HUMAN TORCH BLAMED FOR START OF FIRE
At approximately 2 a.m. on the morning on February 12, 1955, C.W. Harvey, night manager of a West Madison Street (Skid Row) flophouse called the Barton Hotel heard a commotion coming from the second floor of the 49 year-old hotel so run down that it had chicken wire instead of actual ceilings. What Harvey found in the hallway both singed and confused him, There, standing before him, was a ball of screaming and flames that was 70 year-old Joe Armatzo.
Armatzo was a regular at the Barton Hotel and was known to use and excessive amount of baby oil on his body. According to eyewitness accounts, it appeared that Armatzo actually dropped a lit cigarette which ignited a small pool of baby oil on fire in 4 x 6 x 7″ room. He attempted to put out the flames, but was so covered in baby oil that the flames spread to his body turning Armatzo into a human torch. With his room and body on fire Armatzo rushed outside for help but actually caused the fire to spread rather quickly.
C.W. Harvey, seeing this grotesque sight, did not immediately ring the fire alarm to alert the fire department, instead he and others attempted to put out the fire temselves causing the fire spread faster. After 30 minutes the fire department alarm rand and then Harvey ran through the hotel banging on the doors in attempt to wake the sleeping patrons.
Most of the 245 men staying in the 65 to 75 cent a night Barton Hotel heard the commotion, alarm and knocks and quickly hurried without shoes or socks in the frozen streets. Not everyone made it out.
Some of the men slept through the noise and burned or died from smoke inhalation. Some, either unable to move due to malady or injury were unable to escape and died in the rooms. Some attempted to escape by breaking the window panes and jumping out.
Firefighters, arrived and knew this was going to be a battle. The hotel’s conditioning were appalling and caused the building to ignite in flames very quickly. To add to that, a 20 mile an hour wind spread the flames and lead to even colder temperatures in the already below freezing February morning. After more three and half hours, the firefighters finally snuffed on the blaze.
When daylight broke that morning, firefighters were shocked and horrified at the aftermath of the conflagration. Searching through the rubble they encountered the badly charred remains of one person after another. After nearly a week of sifting through the debris twenty-nine bodies were found.
Coroner Walter McCaron would later state he was appalled that than many people were staying in such a small place. He called for an immediate investigation in Chicago’s flophouses. A few days later a crackdown began and many of the Skid Row “hotels” were closed.
Two weeks after the fire a coroner’s jury said the owner, two operators, Anthony Dykes, night watchman of the hotel and Harvey were negligent by not reporting the fire immediately. Ben Glassman, one of the operators would fined $200 for a building code violation for not having sprinklers.None of the five charges would ever be indicted. The 29 bodies were buried in cemeteries around Chicago by the end of February.