The S.S. Morro Castle disaster is one of the strangest and most fascinating disasters in American history. On September 5, the Morro Castle departed Havana, Cuba, headed for New York. For two days there were no problems, but on the third day tragedy of multiple kinds befell the four-year-old luxury liner. The ship was met with high winds and stormy conditions in the Atlantic, making the sailing choppy. Later that night Captain Robert Wilmott had dinner delivered to his room. After the meal he complained of stomach trouble and was found dead shortly thereafter due to “acute indigestion” according to the ship’s doctor.
The new captain was Chief Officer William Warms. Around 2:50 a.m. a fire was discovered in a sealed cabinet on the B Deck. The fire was too large to be put out by a fire extinguisher and the hose system had been disabled by Captain Wilmott a month earlier. The fire spread quickly, aided by the ship’s high rate of speed and the high winds at sea. The ship and its contents were highly flammable. Ornate wooden furniture, cleaning fluid and lacquered wooden walls fueled the blaze. The badly under trained crew tried to put out the fire, but it was too large. Fireproof doors on board could have snuffed out the blaze, but no one ever closed them. Captain Warms finally gave the order to send an SOS signal some 39 minutes after the blaze was discovered. The SOS was received by a station in Tuckerton, New Jersey who then alerted the Coast Guard in New York and any ship nearby. Why Warms waited so long remains a mystery.
Both crew and officers began to panic. The ship contained more than enough lifeboats for everyone on board. The problem was that many boats were inaccessible due to the fire. The six lifeboats that did make it out were not filled. Only 85 people were aboard the boats that could hold over 400. Many of the 85 were crewmen, leaving many passengers to fend for themselves. No order was ever given to stop the Morro Castle. The flaming ship floated out of control up the New Jersey coast. Passengers began to jump in the Atlantic Ocean, taking their chances of surviving in the water instead of burning to death.
The fire destroyed communication to the radio room. Soon after, the ship’s engine died. The blazing ship was unable to be controlled and was being moved around by the wind. The anchor was dropped and more passengers and crew evacuated the flaming wreckage. Rescue ships had a difficult time coming to the ship’s aid. The stormy seas made sailing difficult.
People along the coastline began calling local police and fire departments reporting of a flaming ship just off the coastline. Local ships from nearby Asbury Park began to arrive on the scene only to discover the horror. Bodies, some drown, some mangled by the ship’s propeller, others with their necks broken from jumping floated in the water. Anyone who was still alive was rescued and brought back to shore.
By mid-afternoon the Morro Castle had been abandoned, left to burn. The anchor was cut and a coast guard cutter named the Tampa, attempted to tow the ship to New York, but the towline snapped. The winds pushed the husk of a ship to the shoreline at Asbury Park, New Jersey near the convention hall. The burned-out husk of the ship would remained grounded there, attracting tourists by thousands, for six months before it was moved for good. A total of 137 people died in the disaster and questions lingered as to what truly happened on the Morro Castle that September night/morning.
Investigations began right away. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover appointed Special Agent Francis X. Fay to lead the FBI’s inquiry. Congress, the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York, Asbury Park Police and the Commerce department conducted simultaneous investigations. They all determined that there was lots of blame to go around from the poorly trained staff to the ship’s flammable contents. Captain Warms, the ship’s chief engineer and the ship company’s vice-president were all indicted and convicted of negligence. The convictions were later overturned.
Investigators also found that crew members were miserable. Captain Willmott had become increasingly paranoid of saboteurs conspiring to start a mutiny. Poor working conditions on board lead to further dissatisfaction but that was not cause of the fire. In fact, none of inquiries ever answered the question of how the fire started and who or what caused the sealed closet to erupt in flames.
George Alagna, the Assistant Radio Operator, was the prime suspect. Chief Radio Engineer George W. Rogers testified that he found suspicious chemicals in his assistant’s locker. Rogers further testified that Captain Wilmott had become afraid of Alagna organizing a mutiny. Alagna was arrested, but was ultimately cleared due to lack of evidence.
Long after the disaster, conspiracy theories began to surface regarding Rogers. Some believe he poisoned Captain Wilmott and started the fire. None of that could ever be proven. What is known is after the fire Rogers was hailed as a hero. He told anyone who listened that he stayed aboard the ship, aiding passengers to safety. Rogers’ heroics were even brought to Broadway where sold-out crowds went to the Rialto Theatre to hear the tales of his bravery. It was soon discovered that the man, called strange and unsettling by crew members, had a shady past. At 15 years old he raped a younger boy at his school. He poisoned his wife’s dog when she attended a funeral against Rogers’ wishes. Before joining the Morro Castle, he had been fired from a job at a New York electric company for theft of equipment and was also under suspicion for starting a fire at his workplace. Soon after his star dimmed, Rogers owned and operated a struggling radio shop in Bayonne, New Jersey that burned down mysteriously.
He then joined the Bayonne Police Department as a radio assistant. Rogers’ boorish behavior and insistence on wearing the same pants every day made him rather unlikable. He did find a friend in his commanding officer Lt. Vincent Doyle. The two had similar interests. Both considered themselves inventors who enjoyed tinkering with equipment of all kinds. Other officers would often bring faulty equipment to them to see if they could fix it. In March 1938, Doyle was working on a faulty fish tank that exploded when he plugged it in. Rogers had been in the room but stepped out mere minutes before the explosion. Doyle was badly hurt, his left hand mangled so horribly that he was only left with two fingers. An investigation and subsequent trial brought to life that Rogers’ had told Doyle of what “might have” caused the fire aboard the Morro Castle. He is said to have told Doyle that maybe “someone had inserted a fountain pen into the breast pocket of a waiter’s uniform in the writing room closet. This particular fountain pen had two compartments inside separated by a thin copper divider. One side had been filled with a specific acid, the other with a chemical powder that would burn violently if it were to come into direct contact with the acid. Once the acid was added it would gradually eat through the copper separator, acting as a crude sort of delay timer.”
Rogers also is said to have bragged to people that he was going to lieutenant soon. Rogers was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to 12-20 years. He would only serve three years as he was released from prison to fight in WWII. The problem is that the armed services did not want the overweight felon. In 1954, Rogers was convicted of murdering his neighbor and neighbor’s daughter with a sledge hammer. Rogers died in prison on January 10, 1958.It is impossible to know if George Rogers was responsible for starting the Morro Castle fire or for the death of Captain Willmott. Rogers definitely had the opportunity and a murderous inclination, but a motive remains unclear. The actual cause of the blaze has been lost to time.
Middletown, N.Y, Aug, 5 – Fire this morning practically destroyed the residence of Lehman Stern, on Highland Avenue, the wealthiest section of the city. Adjoining were the houses of Edson G. Lavidge and Mrs. James Morton, formerly of New York. Each of these residences is valued at over $100,000, and they were only saved from destruction by the fact that there was practically no wind blowing. The Stern residence was in course of construction and was valued at $50,000. The house would have been ready for occupancy in three weeks time. There is only $20,000 insurance. Mr. Stern says that he will sue the city for damages resulting from lack of fire protection.
WHAT: City/Building Fire
WHEN: March 26, 1912
WHERE: Bellows Falls, Vermont
FATALITIES: Zero dead – three building and numerous businesses were destroyed
What proved to be the most disastrous fire as far as loss of property was concerned, that ever visited Bellows Falls, broke out Tuesday morning at 2 o’clock, and before It was extinguished, a loss of probably $150,000 to $200,000 was caused in three of the best business buildings in the village.
Report From the Vermont Phoenix, 29 Mar 1912:
The fire started in Union hall. This building and the other two which were burned are located on the east side of the square. The fire department were on hand early, but the thermometer being about 10 degrees below zero, they met with several hindrances in getting water. The fire started in the large hall and the entire Interior was a seething mass of flames before the water reached it. From this point It spread both, ways, passing over the top of the firewalls both north and south, On the north was the “Arms block” erected by the late Otis Arms about 1886, a three story, brick building. On the south was the valuable four story Hotel Windham building. Union building, in which the fire started, was practically destroyed, although If rebuilt In the same Shape as before, some portion of the north part might be utilized. The upper stories of both the Arms building and Hotel Windham were destroyed, and many thousand tons of water was poured down through both buildings.
The progress of the fire had been stopped about 5 o’clock, and danger of its further spread was delayed, but the department continued to play five or six streams upon the ruins until late In the afternoon. The firms burned out, beginning at the north end are as follows: Webster & Co. photographic gallery In the third story of the Arms building lost everything. In the second story, the occupants, C. L. Fletcher, tailors; H. C. Elliott, Insurance; and Dr. J. S. Hill, were badly damaged by water, as were the mercantile firms of Mason Brothers, pianos; J. B, Bronson, sewing machines; M. L. Holmes & Co.. ladles’ furnishings, and In the basement the Truax Printing company and the B & P express office. In Union building, Bodine & Co., plumbing; and Fuller’s drug store were not reached by the fire, but the stocks were seriously damaged, while the dry goods stores of D. F. Pollard and J. C. Day & Co.. and the boot and shoe store of Hatch & Bellows were entirely destroyed, and the debris lies In the basement. every floor of that section of the building having gone down, in me second story, besides Union hall, which was used as a public hall and as a drill hall for Company E, were the dental offices of Dr. O. M. George and the law office of A, I. Bolles. and a number of rooms in the rear which were occupied for storage. The third story of Union building, aside from the part In which union nan ex tended, was used for armory purposes by Company E. V. N. G. From the second and third stories of this building, nothing was removed. The floor of the third story Ml to the second, but not below. The fire communicated over the wall to the roof of Hotel Windham, which was one-story higher than Union building and extended the whole length of Hotel Windham and destroyed the roof and fourth floor. The furnishings of the fourth story were entirely destroyed while the stories below were damaged by a deluge of water poured over them. The hotel was full of guests, practically every room being occupied, but all escaped. The north store In this building was that of Hodgdon & Shaw, and the fire reached down Into that, and with the fire and smoke entirely destroyed the stork. The next store south, Richardson Brothers, was entirely flooded with water, but no effort was made to remove the stock. In the next store, the Jewelry store of Collins & Floyd, the entire stock was removed to the store of J. J. Fenton &Co., with a very slight loss, which was renumerated for liberally, because of the excellent care given, when the adjusters arrived yesterday. Next south was the dining room of Hotel Windham, and then the office and reading room on the corner, none of which were reached by the fire, but damage is principally by water. The property was as a whole well covered by Insurance, and the adjusters are making good head way In settling with the claimants. Only the best and most hopeful feeling exists, there being many features in connection with It that will tend to the probable improvement of Bellows Falls In the end, although at the present It seems very disastrous. The origin is very mysterious. The fire evidently started under the stage in Union Hall. Company E had occupied the hall the evening before until a late hour in drilling, some members staying until nearly midnight. It is possible it originated from a cigar stub or lighted match left to smoulder, but the actual fact will never be known. The same ground covered by the buildings involved In this fire was burned over March 14, 1860, and a second time July 28, 1868. The buildings at both times were small wooden buildings and the loss was not serious, although large for those years. If we remember rightly., the white man’s burden wasn’t a load of money. In the early morning on a freezing cold Tuesday morning, a fire of mysterious origin erupted underneath the stage in the large hall area of Union Hall and spread rapidly throughout the building. Within minutes flames jumped to adjacent buildings. The fire department arrived within minutes, but struggled to fight the flames in the 10 degree below zero weather. The flames tore through several businesses before arriving at the Hotel Windham, where it destroyed the upper floors of the opulent hotel. There were no casualties but three buildings, numerous businesses and the hotel were damaged or totaled.
The Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, 21 Mar 1910,
WHAT: Train wreck
WHEN: March 21, 1910 – 8:17 a.m.
WHERE: Between Green Mountain and Gladbrook, Iowa
FATALITIES: 52 dead, 39 injured
From the front page of the La Crosse Tribune, Monday, March 21, 1910:
The worst wreck in the history of Iowa railroading occurred at 8:17 a. m. today four miles north of Green Mountain on the Chicago Great Western tracks when a Rock island double, header passenger train of twelve coaches went off the track killing forty people and injuring an equal number; some of whom will die.
DES MOINES, Iowa, March 21. A double header Rock Island passenger went into the ditch early this i morning at Green Mountain, Marshall county, and many were killed. The number of dead being estimated from 30 to 42.
Numbers 19 and 20, passenger, trains on the Rock Island for St. Paul due to leave Cedar Rapids at 12:30 and 1 o’clock this morning were held up because of a wreck on the line. These two trains were consolidated and made into a double header which r left over the Northwestern tracks to Marshalltown and thence started for Waterloo over the Chicago Great Western train. The train while running at a high rate of speed left the track eight miles from Marshalltown. Among the dead are Jacob Neuholz and Harry Mott, Cedar Rapids.
Wreck Is Burning
Latest reports, from the scene of the wreck say that 42 are dead and nearly twice as many injured. Wrecking trains from Waterloo and , Marshalltown are on the scene and scores of doctors from the country nearby have rushed to the scene In automobiles. Both engines were wrecked and three coaches filled with people were piled upon them and the entire mass caught fire and is burning. The relief trains have been’ loaded with the dead and injured, and will be taken to Marshalltown, where they will be cared for.
Many homes have been thrown’ open to receive the injured.
A passenger telephoned here that 37 dead had been laid out along the tracks. None of the dead have been positively identified.
Cause Not Known
One sleeper, one chair car and on baggage coach were destroyed. Few of the details have reached; here but it is said that most of the persons killed were riding in the chair car when the wreck occurred. The cause of the derailment is not known. .
Gen. Manager Tinsan said this afternoon: “We have already begun a thorough investigation. So far we know nothing except the wreck occurred and that a number of persons were killed. We are hoping that the death list will not be as great as at first reported.”
A Double Header
According to Rock Island officials here the wreck occurred between 8 and 9 a. m. today, 15 miles from Marshalltown, Iowa, and four miles from Gladbrook, Iowa. The train was a consolidation of two Minneapolis-St. Paul trains which left Chicago and St. Louis last night.
It was a double header and was running over the tracks of the Great Western on account of a wreck on the Rock Island.
The front engine was derailed, the officials declare, and the second engine and three cars toppled over. All three cars, one a sleeper, and one a passenger coach, were destroyed.
All in all, a total of 52 people would perish and 35 more were injured. The accident remains the deadliest wreck in the history of Iowa. No official cause was ever listed, although it was probably going too fast with too much weight.
Train wrecks were a popular subject in early postcards. The wreckage had a tendency to look splintered and spectacularly awesome. The on-lookers and covered bodies added to the scene of chaos.
Looking at the damage to the railroad tracks after over 50 people died in this horrific train wreck near Green Mountain and Gladbrook, Iowa on March 21,1910. 1910 postmark .Courtesy Grinnell College
Children looking over the demolished coal car and engine after over 50 people died in this horrific train wreck near Green Mountain and Gladbrook, Iowa on March 21,1910. Courtesy Grinnell College
The names of the dead are listed below. Interesting to note that even in death race had to be identfied.
LOREN ALLSCHLAGER, Ogden, Ia.
A.P. ADAMS, Wilmar, Minn., identification incomplete
J. BAMBRIDGE, Toronto, Ont.
LOUIE BIEBUCK, Muscatine, Ia.
THOMAS G. BETTS, traveling man, Cedar Rapids, Ia.
GEORGE P. BUNT, Waterloo, Ia.
ALFRED X. BROWN, Waterloo, Ia.
MRS. ALFRED X. BROWN, Waterloo, Ia.
FRED COLTON, Washington, Ia.
R. E. CHARTER, Cedar Rapids, Ia.
MRS. WALTER DAVIS, Waterloo, Ia.
C. G. EVES, West Branch, Ia.
W. W. EGGERS, Waterloo, Ia.
F.F. FISHER, West Branch, Ia.
WILLIAM FLECK, Vinton, Ia.
DAVID FAUST, Dalhart, Tex, partial identification
J. S. GOODNOUGH, Cedar Rapids, Ia.
MAY HOFFMAN, Waterloo, Ia.
N. C. HEACOCK, West Liberty, Ia.
FRANK HEINZ or HURTZ, Muscatine, Ia.
CAESAR C. HOFF, Burlington, Ia.
DR. LEWIS, woman physician, Haley Junction, Ia.
F. D. LYMAN, Waterloo, Ia.
MRS. B. G. LYMAN, Cedar Rapids, Ia.
EARL T. MAINE, Williamsfield, Ia.
J. NAUHOLZ, Cedar Rapids, Ia.
MRS. PEATS, Gladbrook, Ia.
BESSIE PURVIS, Washington, Ia.
ARCHIE PRICE, colored, Cedar Rapids, Ia.
MILTON PARRISH, Cedarville, Mo.
ANTHONY PHILLIPS, Waterloo, Ia.
H. L. PENNINGTON, Galesburg, Ia.
L. W. PARRISH, Cedar Falls, Ia.
R. B. ROBINSON, Cedar Rapids, Ia.
GEORGE ROSS, Cedar Rapids, Ia.
ROBERT L. TANGEN, Northwood, Ia.
E. M. WORTHINGTON, address unknown.
WILLIAM WARD, West Branch, Ia.
ANDREW J. WHITE, colored St. Paul, Minn.
MISS JENNIE YOUNG, Vinton, Ia.
A. X. BROWN, wife and two daughters, of Waterloo, Ia.
BESSIE SERVICE of Washington, Ia.
M. B. KENNEDY, of Burlington, Ia.
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, 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.
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.
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.
WHAT: Hotel fire
WHEN: February 12, 1955
WHERE: Chicago, Illinois
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.