Gulf Hotel Fire – September 7, 1943

City in Ruins

Fifty-five men, many of them elderly and living off government relief, died in the early morning of September 7, 1943 in the worst hotel fire in Houston, Texas history.

The Coshocton Tribune, 07 Sep 1943, Tue, Page 1

The Coshocton Tribune,  September 7. 1943

The fire started around 12:10 a.m. the front desk clerk was alerted to a problem on the second floor. A lit cigarette inadvertently caused a mattress to begin smoldering. Several guests of the hotel aided the clerk in extinguishing the small fire. The mattress, thought to be completely fine, was moved to a closet in a hallway on the second floor. Minutes later the mattress burst in flames and the fire spread quickly throughout the second floor and moved its way toward the third.

The old hotel only had two emergency exits, both on one side of the building and the flames blocked one of those exits and an interior stairwell became engulfed leaving many of the 133 guests trapped.

The fire department was located near the hotel and received the alarm at 12:50am. By the time they arrived on the scene the building was engulfed in flames. The fire tore through the old building quickly and burned so hot that the fire department could not place ladders against the building to help people escape.

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The aged men struggled to get out of the building. Many we able to slowly escape from the one working escape, but for many the situation became dire. Unable to leave through an exit many resorted to extreme measures. Two men jumped out the window, one man was killed trying to climb down the building by a burning window falling on him and many just stayed in their room and hope the flames would not reach them.

By the time the fire was extinguished, fifty-five men were dead. 38 men were burned to death, 15 died of smoke inhalation and the two men who jumped to their death.

The Gulf Hotel is a common story – an old building, not up to code, holding too many people without proper exits and no sprinkler system. Many of the lessons that could have been learned by the conflagration were ignored or completely forgotten. The Gulf Hotel fire was the biggest fire of 1943 (Cocoanut Grove) or even the biggest story in the newspapers that day. World War II raged on and a train wreck in Pennsylvania killed 79 people and injured 117.

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The St. Louis Star and Times,  07 Sep 1943

 

The Terminal Hotel Fire – Atlanta, Georgia

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WHAT: Hotel fire
WHEN: May 16, 1938 around 3:00am
WHERE: Atlanta, Georgia
FATALITIES: 35 dead, as many as 15 injured

The Evening News – May 16, 1938

On May 16, 1938 the most disastrous fire in Atlanta’s history at time based on the loss of life, broke out in the kitchen of the Terminal Hotel. Located in the Hotel Row District in Atlanta at the corner of Spring and Mitchell Streets, the hotel mainly catered to travelers arriving and departing from the Terminal Station right across the street.

The original Terminal Hotel was built by Samuel Inman in 1906. That hotel burned to the ground in the Terminal District fire that swept through the neighborhood in 1908. A new five story structure  was re-built on that site. The new Terminal Hotel was something of a fire magnet, if such a term exists, as there had been three fires in the hotel in the 30 years it was open. The other fires were fairly minor compared to the destruction and death caused by this one.

At around 3:00 a.m. on May 16th, fire was discovered in the basement of the hotel and the alarm bell was sounded. Longtime bellhop Charlie Labon, was in the doing his early morning/late night duties in the lobby when the blaze started. Labon said he heard a boy in the kitchen scream: “Oh lawdy, fire” and then heard a muffled blast below and saw a puff of flames travel upward very quickly.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – May 16, 1938

Ben Berry, the desk clerk at the Terminal attempted to  warn they guests of the fire, but the blaze had destroyed all connections. It may have been too late already. The venerable old hotel had a wooden interior and the flames tore through the place at a rapid pace blocking off fire escapes and stairs on the upper floor within minutes. Guests, sound a sleep at 3:00 am were awakened by the smoke and flames of the conflagration tearing through the building.

Firemen arrived shortly after the alarm bell sounded and they were met by an inferno. The fire department diverted local traffic due to the fear that the blaze would cause the hotel’s walls to collapse in all directions. The firefighters tried to stop the blaze with all the hoses they could muster, but the blaze was too strong. After a short time the interior and the roof collapsed.

Albany Democrat Herald – May 27, 1938

Some people smelled smoke and were able to escape quickly. Others were not so lucky. Several people were killed attempting to escape the flames by jumping out of their windows on to the street below. An entire family of four, including 2 young children were found in their room having succumbed to smoke inhalation. One victim was found dead on a second floor ledge of the hotel court, where he had attempted to jump to safety.

 

The rescue of Mrs. Guy Coleman – AP Photo

 

Many of the victims were burned to death and others suffocated. Many of the bodies were horribly mangled in the collapse of floors and steel work. Amazingly, after the fire had burned itself out Mrs. Guy Coleman, was found alive in a semi-conscious state in her second-story room. She was found under her bed in the only portion of the room left after the collapse.

Hotel manager G.P. Jones and his wife survived the flames by breaking a window. The firemen saw the window break and rushed to his room and rescued the both of them.

It was initially reported that 25 people died as a result of the disaster, but that number would rise. Over the next few days ten more bodies were discovered underneath the rubble of the collapsed sections.

The hotel had only between 60 and 75 guests staying there that night otherwise the loss of life would have been much worse. The hotel 65 rooms and many were unoccupied. Many of the guests that night were railroad workers in town for only a short while.

Atlanta Mayor Will B. Hartsfield stated that the hotel was constructed in a manor no longer permitted under the building codes of the day. However, the hotel was allowed to operate due to being grandfathered in.

The cause of the fire was never officially determined but it believed to caused by a electrical spark from a ventilating fan in a grease vent in the basement kitchen. The wooden interior mixed with warm, high winds cause the rapidity of the flames.

The fire was the first major hotel fire disaster since the December 11, 1934 fire at the Kerns Hotel in Lansing, Michigan that killed 32 but it would not be the last. In fact, eight years later Atlanta would be the site of the biggest loss of life hotel fire in history when a disaster at the Winecoff Hotel would kill 119 people.

The hotel was rebuilt later that year. It was torn down quite a while ago with no evidence of the horrors that took place on the May morning in 1938.

The Burning of the Iroquois Hotel – Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan

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CITY IN RUINS

WHAT: Hotel Fire
WHEN: March 12, 1907
WHERE: Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
CASUALTIES: Zero. The hotel was totally destroyed

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While not a fire that resulted in any loss of life, the Iroquois Hotel fire of 1907 is fascinating to me. The postcard above was mailed the very same day that the hotel burned to the ground.

This 1905 Detroit Publishing Company postcard was one of the catalysts for starting the City in Ruins project. The message is simple but gives the date and mentions the fact that the hotel burned that morning.

The postcard was mailed from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan  to Miss Nina Jenks, Chicago, Illinois on March 12, 1907:

Dear Nina,
This hotel burnt to the ground this morning.
Corrine Armstrong

As mentioned in the article posted, this was the second fire at that exact site. Nine years earlier a hotel at that site was destroyed and G.D. Welton, the manager, narrowly escaped with his life.

The new hotel, dubbed the Iroquois was erected at a cost of $60,000 with $40,000 in furnishings.

The fire in the Iroquois started in a sample room; caused by a coal explosion in a fireplace. The flames burned for five hours and destroyed a residence next door.

All twenty-five guests escaped the building quickly, leaving all their possessions behind. Luckily, it was the off-season and the hotel was not full or the damage and danger would have increased exponentially.

The firemen putting out the blaze were unable to fight the flames as both the water main and the hydrants were frozen solid. They had to basically wait for the fire to die down in its own and spray it with what little water they had available.

There were no injuries or casualties but the loss was total. I don’t believe another hotel was built on that site.

 

 

 

 

I was able to find a 1907 insurance claim after the conflagration. These were the final results.

 

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IT DID HAPPEN HERE – The Los Angeles Snow & Hail Storm of 1944

City in Ruins

CITY IN RUINS FACTS

WHAT: Storm (Hail and snow)
WHEN: February 20, 1944 around 4:30pm
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
FATALITIES: None reported (2 minor injuries)

While not exactly a weather disaster, the snow & hail storm that struck Los Angeles 73 years ago today was so uncommon that the city was caught completely off-guard.

The hail/snow storm of February 20, 1944 started at about 4:30pm and lasted only 10 minutes. It was the heaviest storm in 13 years. The Los Angeles Times reported the storm as front page news.

The front page of The Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1944

Trees were felled due to stiff winds and two people were injured in freak storm. According to the article:

Struck by lightning via telephone was Jack F. Carlin, 42 of 6331 Third Ave., a supervisor for the Los Angeles Railway Co. Carlin was using a a company telephone on a pole at Fifth and Flower Sts., when lightning came through the instrument. He managed to reach his car near by and then collapsed. Apparently uninjured otherwise. he was taken to Georgia Street Receiving Hospital, where he was treated for shock.

Miss Marjorie Swanson, 24, of 701 1/2 W. 35th Place was severely shaken up when flood waters washed the crutches from under her in the 800 block of W. Jefferson St. She was rescued from the swirling water by bystanders and taken to Georgia Street Receiving

More about the 1944 storm

More about the storm that hit Southern California (along with WWII news and other tidbits) from the February 21, 1944 issue of The Los Angeles Times.

The storm was brief, the damage minimal. Highways were blocked and power lines toppled but the snow melted quickly and the clean-up was hasty.

This type of storm is incredibly common in most Northern cities but for Los Angeles it was a reminder than it CAN and DID HAPPEN HERE.

Barton Hotel Fire, Chicago, Illinois – February 12, 1955

City in Ruins

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WHAT: Hotel fire
WHEN: February 12, 1955
WHERE: Chicago, Illinois
FATALITIES: 29

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The Decatur Daily Review, February 12, 1955

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.

The Newhall House Fire – Milwaukee, Wisconsin

City in Ruins, Uncategorized

WHAT: Hotel fire
WHEN: January 10, 1883
WHERE: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
FATALITIES: At least 74, maybe as many as 90

Chicago Daily Tribune – January 11, 1883

The Newhall House was built by a group led buy Daniel Newhall. It was opened to the public on August 26th, 1857. The building was made of Milwaukee Brick and occupied the corner Broadway and Michigan Streets in downtown Milwaukee.

The largest and finest hotel in the West had already narrowly escaped disaster. On February 14, 1863, a blaze broke out in a room occupied by a newly-married couple, and before it was extinguished nine apartments were lost.

Newhall House

The Newhall House as it looked in the late 1860s. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

On the morning of January 10, 1883 disaster struck. At around 4am fire was discovered and in less than 30 minutes the entire building was destroyed by fire. The fire started in the elevator shaft and spread very quickly through the wooden and brick building.

The Newhall House had long been considered a hazard by the Milwaukee Fire Department due to its poor management, construction, ventilation and lack of exits.

Unfortunately for those that perished, the were no laws/ordinances to force the Newhall to make the changes that may have spared lives.

Further Particulars of the Terrible Calamity

The scene on the morning of January 10th was pure chaos and pandemonium.

The Reno Evening Gazette from later that day describes the scene with colorful details common to newspapers at the time.

The burning of the Newhall House at Milwaukee this morning…is another terrible illustration of not providing efficient means of exit to public building. Over 60 human being were roasted alive in that death box, and many of the victims, too, in full view of the vast multitude standing in the street below, unable to succor the perishing mortals. The thought is too horrifying to realize. The reports received refer to the the building as a “death trap,” and it seems public attention had been called to the unsafe conditioning of the building in case hast exit should ever become necessary, still nothing was done to remedy the fault. Cannot some law be passed compelling the owners of public buildings to properly protect those who must visit them?

Note – The call for more exits and safety will become a common theme for fires/disasters featured on City in Ruins.

The fire spread with such fearful rapidity that it was not in the power of man to save the building, and it is a marvel that the skill and bravery of the firemen were able to confine that sea of flame within the blackened walls of the hotel.

The valuable buildings and the wealth of merchandise now in the block of that ill-fated house are indebted for their preservation to the well-directed and fearless work of the Fire Department. The Police were equally prompt in responding to the first call, and they braved every danger in the discharge of their duty.

The fire killed at least 74 and as many as 90. 48 victims remained unidentified.Several hundred people were hurt. The registry for the hotel was destroyed in the fire so the number varies on how many guests were in the hotel that night. Estimates put it at around 800.

The dead were memorialized with a monument in Forest Home Cemetery.

Some Guests Saved

General Tom Thumb, of P.T. Barnum circus fame, and his wife were guests of the Newhall House that fateful night. They were ultimately rescued from the sixth floor by a firefighter named O’Brien. O’Brien managed to get a fire ladder up to their floor and held the tiny couple under one arm while holding his swaying ladder with the other. Tom Thumb would pass away 6 months later. His death was not related to the fire. Approximately 12 to 15 other people were saved.

Reno Evening Gazette – January 10, 1883

Only a few walls remain of the Newhall House. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beutner.


Ruins of the Newhall House a few hours later – January 10, 1883. Note the telegraph poles.  Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

The Inquest

On January 23rd. an inquest of the dead began in the Municipal Court of Milwaukee City Hall. Details were discussed in length and interviews were conducted with witnesses. Thirteen days after the trial began, the jury, consisting of: a builder, 2 contractors, a clergyman, a railroad employee, and a merchant came back with these findings:

  • The Newhall was set on fire by a person or persons unknown
  • There was only one night watchman at the time and he was unable to attend to his proper duties, as there should have been at least 2 or 3 watchmen
  • The watchman and the night clerk, obeying previous instructions by the proprietors, lost valuable time trying to put out the fire and neglects to wake up the patrons of the hotel
  • When they finally did try to awaken people the halls were filled with so much smoke that they decided to save themselves
  • The Newhall was devoid of proper exits. There were escape ladders on the northeast and southeast corners, and a bridge near the southwest corner leading across the alley, an inside servants’ stairway from the fifth story to the basement, and two large open stairways in the front corridors leading from the office floor to the sixth floor, with an open ladder to the roof. That was not nearly enough for a hotel that size.
  • The owners were incredibly negligent – knowing that fires had taken place in the hotel – by not having more exits.
  • The Fire Department did their duty as well as could be expected, but could have done much more had the ladder trucks been fully manned and equipped with the best extension ladders and the men well drilled to handle them.
  • Telegraph poles and wires caused serious obstruction to the Fire Department by preventing them from using their ladders in a speedy and efficient manner.

Special thanks to archive.org for digitizing “Burning of the Newhall house,” which provided those great details.

The Trial

A man named George Scheller was charged with setting the fire. The trial was held in April of 1883 and Schiller was acquitted on all charges. An editorial in Green Bay Weekly Gazette blamed Schiller’s charge on living “fast.”

Green Bay Weekly Gazette, April 21, 1883

No one was ever convicted of starting the Newhall House fire.

Detroit Free-Press, December 31, 1994

The Newhall fire started getting cities to realize that having low hanging telegraph wires was a danger and putting them underground may spare precious minutes in an incident such as this. It also would to help ease the blight of burgeoning downtowns.

The Detroit Free-Press ran a brief editorial on December 31, 1884 that called for their removal in the upcoming year.

Milwaukee and other major cities would removed those poles over the next few years.

Marlborough Hotel Fire – January 3, 1940

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On the incredibly cold morning of January 3, 1940, just before dawn, a fire caused by a lit cigarette thrown down a garbage chute ravaged the Marlborough Apartment Hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The cigarette has probably been smoldering for hours before finally catching fire and eventually blew out of the garbage chute, causing a heat explosion to tear through the building. The fire would be the deadliest in the city’s history with nineteen people and one puppy having lost their life on that cold January morning.

The Marlborough hotel was located on the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis at the corner of Third Avenue South and Fifteenth Street. The fairly small three-story building had opened in 1895 and had never had many problems. The hotel had been inspected many times had no violations on record.

At around 5:45 am, the hotel’s janitor, Otto Knaack was in the basement and heard an explosion. Knaack would tell local reporters of the events:

“When I opened the door, something tossed me back into the areaway in the basement. All the windows in the boiler room were blown out. I got up and went to get my wife and my baby out of our apartment. Then, I went up to the first floor to get my daughter and her roommate out of their rooms. By the time I roused them, the first floor was burning so fiercely we couldn’t get out. We had to jump to the ground 6 feet below. The whole place seemed to go up in flames suddenly.”

More than two-thirds of the city’s fire department arrived at the fire, but not as quickly as they would have liked. Hampered by temperatures near zero degree along with snow and ice, when the fire department arrived on the scene the hotel was already engulfed in flames.

The Monroe News-Star – January 4, 1940

As flames scorched the hotel, the guests numbering at least 115 began to panic. Some on the lower floors were able to escape through their windows, other managed to make it to a stairwell and make it to the frozen street below. However, 19 souls were not so lucky.

Witnesses would later say that heard screams emanating from the trapped people inside the hotel. They would also report that as they could see people on the second and third floors smashes windows with shoes, chairs, even their bare hands in a frantic effort to flee the flames. One man on the third floor was seen pushing his wife out of the window, right before he jumped to the pavement below. She died, he survived.

A local cab driver named Henry Kadlac happened to be passing by the Marlborough when the conflagration erupted. Instead of watching, mouth agape like many other, Kadlac sprung in to action. Kadlac stood outside windows and caught children that were thrown out of the upper floor windows by their parents. He would be hailed a hero.

Firemen struggled with the fire, the elements and with the terrified victims of the fire.The cold weather had cause many of the hoses to freeze, slowing the effort. The ladders for the upper floors quickly became iced over with the cold water being sprayed on the flames, making them dangerous. One fireman and a hysterical guest were seriously injured when the guest panicked and struggled to get free causing them both to slip and fall two floors from the frozen ladder.

Minneapolis Firefighters trying to move a Hennepin County Morgue truck after bei

Minneapolis Firefighters trying to move an iced-in County Morgue truck during the fire at the Marlborough Hotel. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society/Star Tribune

By the time the fire was officially put out, 19 people had died and over 50 had been injured. The guests that escaped without injury had to endure the weather with little to no preparation. Firemen would provide blankets to those lucky enough to almost freeze to death.

The hotel was completely destroyed and would never be rebuilt. The wooden interior along with highly flammable curtains caused the old hotel to ignite quickly and destroy everything in its path. Had the temperature outside been warmer the disaster inside could have been much worse.

Kerns Hotel Fire – December 11, 1934

City in Ruins
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Lansing State Journal – December 12, 1934

 

Around 5:30 a.m. on the morning of December 11, 1934 a fire broke out at the Kerns Hotel in Lansing, Michigan. The hotel, built in 1909, was four stories tall and originally contained 162 rooms at a cost of over $50,000. The hotel was a very popular place in Lansing. Communities members and state politicians enjoyed staying or meeting at the hotel. The location on the corner of SE Grand and Ottawa was right in the heart of downtown and allowed for easy and quick access to most everything in Lansing. The restaurant and bar in the Kerns were constantly packed during the non-prohibition years.

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Detroit Free Press – December 12, 1934

The fire was discovered by the nightwatchman and had apparently been burning for nearly 30 minutes. The alarm bell was sounded almost immediately after discovery but it was already too late. The interior of the building was made entirely of wood and the flames spread fast. Being so early in the morning, many of the hotel’s 215 guests were still asleep when the alarm rang.

The fire department showed up almost immediately and many of the guests on the lower two floors were able to escape quickly. The guests on the third and fourth floor were unable to get down the stairs and were basically trapped. A steel at one end prevented

Flames swept through the hallways and doors leaving many on the upper floors to cry for help and seek a dramatic escape. The fire department had ladders and were able to get some out but not everyone could get to the ladders. Some victims attempted to gain safety by jumping onto the kitchen roof below but ultimately perished when the roof collapsed. Some guests jumped out of the windows and attempted to jump into safety nets placed on the street below.. Several people died when they jumped to the ground below missing the firemen’s net.

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Detroit Free Press – December 13, 1934

The death toll was difficult to determine due to the fact that many victims were unable to be found. Some victims were charred beyond recognition and others were feared lost in the freezing Grand River. The river was located directly behind the hotel and guests, trapped by the blaze, may have leaped from their windows directly into the ice-covered river.The fire caused several  of the brick exterior walls to collapse, killing several.

After the river was dragged and the ruins combed it was determined that 32 persons died and 44 were injured, including 14 firemen. Among the dead were seven Michigan state legislators in town for a special session of the state legislature

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  • JOHN W. GOODWINE, representative from Marlette. He was completing his fourth term in the Legislature. He operated a stock farm in Elmer Township; directed the farm bureau. He was 56 years old.
  • VERN VOORHEES, representative from Albion. A farmer, her moved to Calhoun County from Mendon in 1907. Served as school director, highway commissioner and supervisor. At 56, he was serving his first term.
  • CHARLES D. PARKER, representative from Genesee County. A Democrat, Mr. Parker was serving his first term. A hardware merchant, born in South Mountain, Ontario 57 years ago. He left a widow and two sons.
  • T. HENRY HOWLETT, representative from Gregory. He was finishing his first term. A merchant, he served Livingstone County as supervisor and treasurer for many years. He was 70 years old.
  • JOHN LEIDLEIN, State senator from Saginaw. He was serving his fourth term. He was 70 years old.
  • DONALD E. SIAS, representative from Midland. He was completing his second term. Born in Midland he was serving as an aviator in World War I. Before going into dairy, he taught school at Ypsilanti.
  • WILLIAM HANNA, representative from Caro died several days after the fire of injuries sustained while jumping out his third floor window and missing the safety net.

Several other state legislators were injured, but survived. The deaths of the politicians caused anguish and strife. Special elections had to be held in four different legislative districts to elect new members to replace the fallen.

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Lansing State Journal – December 11, 1934

The deaths actually caused the balance of power in the Michigan House of Representatives to shift from the G.O.P. to the Democarts when M.L. Tomlin won the final seat.

The widow of Vern Voorhees was awarded $750 in May of 1935 for funeral costs and hospital. Other settlements were awarded but the amounts were not disclosed.

There were four victims of the fire that were never identified. A funeral was held for them on December 29th at the Prudden Auditorium in Lansing.

It was determined that the fire was caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette in the room of David Monroe, hotel manager, who died in the conflagration. No charges were brought against anyone from the hotel. It was determined that a reasonable effort was made to arouse and awaken the 200+ sleeping guests.

On June 1, 1935 the Hotel Safety Act of Michigan went into effect. The act was drafted to prevent any possibility of a recurrence of the events at the Kerns Hotel. The Act stated that any building in the state that had 10 or more persons sleeping above the first be registered with the state fire marshal and that the safety of the hotel was to be approved upon inspection.

Unfortunately this would not be the last hotel fire in Michigan with at least 10 lives lost. Almost exactly 43 years later on December 10, 1977, the Wenonah Park Hotel fire in Bay City resulted in ten deaths.

Stouffer’s Inn Fire – December 4, 1980

City in Ruins, Uncategorized

CITY IN RUINS

WHAT: Hotel Fire
WHEN: December 4, 1980 about 10:20am
WHERE: Purchase, New York
Casualties: 26 dead, 24 injured

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Stouffer’s Inn photo courtesy of the National Fire Protection Association

Intro from an AP article that ran the day after the fire:

Business executives gathered for meeting at a hotel “didn’t have a chance” when an electrical fire raced through conference rooms with heat so intense that it melted walls, fire officials said.

The Stouffer’s Inn was located 20 miles north of Mid-Manhattan along a hillside strip called the “Platinum Mile” because of its concentration of corporate headquarters.

The hotel was built in 1977 at a cost of $20 million.  It had 366 guest rooms and, due to its proximity to all of the corporate headquarters, was a popular spot for business meetings and contained a two-level conference center adjacent to the tower that contained the hotel rooms.

Pepsico, General Foods, IBM, Nestle and Arrow Electronics were all holding business meetings at the Inn on December 4, 1980.

At around 10:20 a.m. a fire broke out just outside of one of the conference rooms on the second-floor and spread incredibly quickly due to a lack of sprinklers and the Inn’s usage of highly flammable wall coverings and carpet.

A total of 26 people attending breakfast meetings died in the smoke and flames, including 13 top executives of Arrow Electronics and 11 employees of Nestle. Ironically, Nestle was the parent company of Stouffer’s at that time.

AP Photo – December 5, 1980

The victims all died within two or three minutes of the start of the fire and were killed by smoke inhalation with carbon monoxide in the smoke. Seven bodies were later found in a closet of the conference room that was Arrow Electronics’ budget meeting. The victims apparently mistook the closet door for an exit.

Many of the injuries occurred when several General Foods executives smashed a window in their second-floor conference room adjacent to where the fire started and jumped 35 feet to a rocky slope below.

Initially, investigators thought the fire was caused by an electrical shortage but the speed and of the blaze strongly suggested an arsonist using an accelerant.

In 2014, the National Fireproof Protection Association wrote about the actual causes of the fire:

The fire originated in an exit access corridor outside the meeting rooms in the three-story, fire resistive, nonsprinklered building that was classified as a place of assembly.  In the early stages of the fire, meeting-room occupants were faced with rapidly deteriorating, untenable conditions that impeded their escape to safety.  This fire emphasizes the importance of maintaining the integrity of exit access areas and the extreme hazard to life safety when fire originates in such areas.

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National Fire Protection Association

The significant factors contributing to the loss of life in this fire were:

1. the critical location of the fire in the intersection of the exit access corridors.
2. the rapid development of the fire through the combination of its origin and the available fuel load provided by contents and furnishings in the exit access.
3. the lack of a remote second means of egress from some occupied meeting rooms;
4. the lack of a fixed fire protection system to detect and extinguish the fire in its incipient stage.

This was the second hotel fire with a death toll in two weeks, just 13 days earlier a fire in the MGM Grand Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada killed 85 and more than 700 people were injured. Howard Levin, an employee of Arrow electronics narrowly escaped both the MGM and Stouffer’s fires. When asked if he considered himself lucky or unlucky, he said “I consider it the former.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – December 9, 1980

There was understandable outrage. Officials made promises to make the proper changes to ensure this would not happen again.People wondered how these tragic events kept happening.

Fire safety and code changes were called for in every newspaper across the country.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about the situation five days after the fire:

“As long as the ashes are still hot, officials always vow that there’ll never be a next time. But in the end nothing much happens.”

I will be writing about a lot of these earlier hotel fires and you will see the same quotes from officials, the same call for changes and the same outrage.You’ll see lack of code enforcement, lack of exits and lack of sprinklers.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

The hotel reopened on April 4, 1981. It is still standing to this day.

The Stouffer’s Fire was front page news for less than one week. On December 9, 1980, John Lennon was assassinated in front of his apartment in New York. The public and press moved on to that tragedy and disappeared from public consciousness. However, fire investigators and victims’ families did not move on.

Less than a year after the fire, a Stouffer’s Inn busboy would be charged with starting the fire. The Virginia Law Archives have a courtroom sketch from the archives of artist Ida Libby Dengrove and a succinct write-up of the trial

Ida Libby Dengrove courtroom sketch

Guatemalan busboy Luis Marin told conflicting stories about his actions during the fire. Marin was a coffee waiter who worked with Sterno, a jellylike fuel placed under coffee urns. As Marin neared trial, his defense attorney told the press Marin had indeed spilled Sterno earlier that morning but that he’d made sure to stamp the small flames out. When the inn suddenly became an inferno, he’d thought himself responsible and lied to his questioners.

On February 5, 1982, Judge Lawrence N. Martin Jr. denied a defense motion to dismiss Marin’s indictment, though he admitted the prosecution’s case was weak. The trial went forward with a procession of tenuous circumstantial evidence. Nonetheless, the jury found Marin guilty on April 11. Four days later, Judge Martin set aside the verdict. The New York State Supreme Court upheld the reversal on May 29, 1984. Marin went free, and the families of the dead executives won $48.5 million from Stouffer’s and other corporations in a civil suit.

In June 1984, it came to light that a housekeeping crew had spilled a highly volatile stainless steel cleaner in the area where the fire started. Hotel management allegedly withheld the information to avoid culpability.

The Stouffer’s hotel brand would survive the lawsuit and thrive throughout the 1980s, In 1993, Nestle sold the chain to Renaissance Hotels. The Stouffer’s name would be phased out a short time later. The Stouffer’s food brand can still be food in the freezer section of your local supermarket.

The Stouffer’s Inn fire did actually  lead to sweeping  fire code changes throughout New York and the hotel industry. While a few more hotel fires occurred in the 1980s, the frequency of these horrible hotel fires was reduced.

Golden Age Nursing Home Fire – November 23, 1963

City in Ruins, Uncategorized
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The Akron Beacon-Journal – November 23, 1963

CITY IN RUINS

WHAT: Nursing home fire
WHEN: November 23, 1963 approx. 4:50am
WHERE: Norwalk, Ohio
CASUALTIES: 63 dead, over 25 injured

Largely forgotten due to the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy the previous day, The Golden Age Nursing Home fire is considered the second worse nursing home fire ( in the history of the country with 63 dead and over 25 injured.

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The Daily Times – November 23, 1963

The fire was caused by an electrical short in the upper attic around 5:00 a.m. and spread incredibly quickly. The nursing home, which had previously been home to a toy factory, went up in flames very rapidly. The telephone system failed when the fire broke out and the building did not have an alarm. A young man happened to notice the fire as he was passing by, and called the fire department.

Within minutes nearly all of the fire departments in the Norwalk area arrived shortly after 5:15am and by then it was too late. The flame, fueled by fierce winds, had already caused the tar-covered roof to boil and fall in to the building, preventing firefighters from getting to the unknown number of people still inside.

Breakfast was starting to be served when a man came to the front door to tell everyone that the nursing home was on fire. There was still time to get people out but some of the elderly denizens seemed to get confused by the news and didn’t move. According to news report at the time “many of the patients were real bad mental cases and could not comprehend their own danger.” By the time the fire was over 63 people would be pronounced dead.

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The Akron Beacon-Journal – November 24, 1963

However, it wasn’t just confusion that lead to the high death count. Glass blocks made a window escape impossible.Several of the seniors perished because they were restrained to their beds and no one had a chance to release them before the fire swept through the building.

24 seniors and 3 staff members were able to escape the rapidly moving flames. But when the fire was finally extinguished, firefighters were horrified at the sight. Twisted metal bed frames containing charred remains seem to be everywhere.

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The Akron Beacon-Journal – November 24, 1963

 

 

After a few days, more than 20 bodies remained unclaimed. Some had no family and some families never came to claim their parent or loved one. Rather than bury them all straight in to the ground, caskets were ordered, temporarily delaying the funerals for everyone due to a casket shortage.

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The Akron Beacon-Journal – November 30, 1963

On November 29th, 21 unclaimed people were buried in a mass, 60-foot grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in Norwalk. A 22nd body, of John Rook, a veteran of World War I was buried in a separate grave on the same day.

An event such as this usually dominates the headlines across the nation. The Golden Age Nursing Home fire was the deadliest fire in the United States in 5 years and would have horrified the country, but it was never the biggest story at the time and seemed to be an afterthought to the Kennedy assassination and the rush to charge Lee Harvey Oswald with the murder.

The fire did lead to sweeping changes in nursing home fire safety and treatment of seniors in these facilities.