15 January 2011

1963--Fretz Building 12 ALARMS OF FIRE




The Fretz Building

As the year 2003 and New Year’s day rapidly approach, we mark the 40th anniversary of one of perhaps the three worst fires in Philadelphia’s modern history. On January 1, 1963 the Philadelphia Fire Department faced probably its greatest 20th century challenge until that time, and has only been equaled on two other occasions since. In this “Out of the Past” we will turn the clock back forty years and revisit what was clearly a

major conflagration.

Our story begins by observing that the Philadelphia Fire Department was beginning its 12th year as a modern fire department under the City’s new Home Rule Charter adopted in 1951. Formerly known as the Bureau of Fire contained with the police department in a combined Department of Public Safety, the fire department

in 1963 was an independent city department headed by a fire commissioner and two deputy commissioners, one of whom also

served as Chief of Department. The next highest rank in the department was Assistant Chief of Department. Below this administrative tier, the fire fighting forces were divided into

two operational divisions headed by a deputy fire chief. Each

division, in turn, was subdivided into six battalions each of which were headed by a battalion chief. At the start of 1963 the Philadelphia fire department was comprised of sixty-eight engine

companies, thirty-one ladder companies, two heavy duty rescue

squads, eight “light duty” rescue squads, and three fully manned fire boat companies. In addition the department maintained a fleet of special service apparatus most of which was acquired in the 1950’s. This fleet included three chemical units, a floodlight wagon, a surplus army half-track which had been converted to a grass fire fighting unit, and a giant deluge gun modeled after a device used in mining.

Before 1963 the city was averaging approximately 70 extra alarm fires per year, the majority of which were two- and three-alarm fires with a decreasing number of four-, five, and six- or greater alarm fires. Until 1963 the greatest response in this era was a nine-alarm fire occurring on December 28, 1956 at 9th and Chestnut Streets at the I. Press building. In the preceding

three years the City had experienced an 8-alarm fire at the Gulf Oil Refinery in 1960, a 7-alarm fire in a South Philadelphia rag warehouse in 1961, and an 8-alarm fire in 1962 in a group of commercial buildings at 2nd and Arch streets in Old City.

The year 1963 also had the distinction of having 91 extra alarm fires, surpassing the previous record of 84 in 1956. So, perhaps it’s not surprising the ascent to this record began on the morning of January 1st. Shortly before 9:00 AM one of the members of Engine Company 26, located at 1010-12 Buttonwood street, noticed smoke coming from a building in the rear of the station at 1016-18 Hamilton Street. Upon notifying his company’s lieutenant, Engine 26 and Battalion Chief 4 “hiked out” and informed the fire alarm room of their response. Arriving at the Prokay Baking Supply Company, a 2-story brick building, firefighters found heavy smoke conditions in the structure’s basement. The heavy smoke conditions made getting to the seat of the fire very difficult and necessitated orders for a second alarm as first alarm companies took a beating from the smoke. In addition, the fire department’s air compressor was special called

So that “jack hammers” could be used to break a hole in a concrete floor above the basement. However, after 2 hours, firefighters got the upper hand and were able control and extinguish the fire.

New Year’s Day 1963 was a very cold and windy day with temperatures hovering near thirty degrees. Shortly after 5:00 P.M. as the late afternoon darkness fell upon the city, and the fire department prepared for its change of personnel at 6:00 P.M., the department began receiving reports of fire in the Fretz

Building located on the northwest corner of 10th and Diamond Streets. Among the numerous fire alarm boxes pulled by civilians to report this fire, fire alarm box 95 at 12th Street and Susquehanna was received and struck out at 5:17 P.M. bringing a first alarm response of four engine companies, two ladder companies and two battalion chiefs.

Built in 1903, the Fretz Building was an eight-story, irregularly shaped building which housed numerous manufacturing and commercial concerns as diverse as clothing and food preparation. The structure was bounded by Diamond Street on the south; by the rears of two-story row dwellings on Warnock street on the west; by Susquehanna Avenue on the north; and by the Reading Railroad on the east, which ran overhead diagonally from 10th and Diamond Streets, north westwardly towards Warnock Street and Susquehanna Avenue. The western perimeter of the building was over 500’ in length, from Diamond Street to Susquehanna Avenue.

Engine 2, Ladder 3, and Battalion Chief 6, Joseph Fortunato, were the first due companies responding from their station at 2031 N. 7th street. Traveling a block and a half north on 7th Street and three blocks west along Susquehanna avenue, the first arriving companies found the entire eighth floor of the building fully involved in fire and beginning to rapidly spread downwards. Without getting out of his car to further “size-up” the situation, Chief Fortunato ordered the second alarm at 5:19 P.M.

Numerous shafts and stairways throughout the building enabled the fire to spread with frightening speed. Within the next four minutes, the upper four floors were completely involved in fire. When Chief Fortunato ordered the third alarm at 5:23 P.M. he understood that the building was beyond saving, and that the major firefighting concern would be to curtail the spread of the fire in a densely populated and densely developed area.

Deputy Fire Chief Howard O’Drain, Deputy Chief 2, responding from his quarters at 6th Street and Lehigh Avenue, took command after the third alarm. Faced with an extraordinary exposure problem, as tongues of flame 500 feet long emanated from the building, he ordered the fourth, fifth, and sixth alarms at 5:29, 5:30 and 5:33 P.M. Boxcars and a railroad tower on the 10th Street side of the building were quickly consumed. A fuel oil depot and feed and grain warehouse, situated between the Reading Railroad and 10th Street, were the next major exposures in the fire’s eastern path. Although the fuel oil depot was destroyed, the feed and grain warehouse was saved by the building’s own automatic sprinkler system and firefighter operated streams.

Deputy Fire Commissioner and Chief of Department George E. Hink responded from his nearby Kensington home upon notification of the third alarm. By the time of his arrival, radiated heat and the fear of falling walls emerged as a major concern. Chief Hink ordered the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth alarms between 5:35 P.M. and 6:29 P.M. Guided by an ever expanding orange and red glow in the sky, companies responding from as far away as the Somerton section of the city and Southwest Philadelphia were assigned to various positions surrounding the building.

The homes on Warnock Street behind the building were in eminent danger from both the heat and possible wall collapse. Firefighters initially working on the rooftops of these dwellings experienced sunburn like discomfort from the fire’s intensifying heat. Despite the commotion within the neighborhood, many of the residents on Warnock Street were unaware of the fire raging behind them as police and firefighters began to evacuate these homes. New Year’s revelers in a bar located on the northeast corner of Warnock and Diamond streets had to be strongly persuaded to move to a safer location. As one might expect, these evacuations were completed none too soon, as the western wall of the Fretz Building collapsed onto Warnock Street demolishing the homes in its path.

It is hard to convey in words the magnitude of this firestorm. As the fire continued, it burned with a white heat driven by a very strong wind blowing from the south. The building had the appearance of an 8-story blow torch. As the wind moved through the burning structure it produced an eerie, banshee-like noise that only magnified the frightening scene.

Despite the loss of the homes on Warnock Street, the beginning of the building’s collapse enabled firefighters to get the upper hand on the fire. As portions of the building began to collapse into the center and the fire consumed this material, the influence of the many master streams surrounding the structure began to take effect, enabling Fire Chief Hink to declare the fire under control at 8:29 P.M. As dawn broke over the area on the morning of Wednesday, January 2nd, the scene of devastation was clearly reminiscent of many European cities at the height of World War II.

Although Philadelphia firefighters were faced with one of their greatest challenges under adverse conditions, still some blessings accrued. First, there were no major injuries to civilians or fire department personnel. In fact the only minor injury befell Chief Hink as he slipped on a patch of ice and sprained his wrist. Second, by virtue of the fire occurring late in the tour of the day shift personnel, personnel from the on-coming night shift were readily available. In fact the entire day shift was held over until after 9:00 P.M., effectively doubling

the available manpower for both front line firefighting at 10th and Diamond Streets, and maintaining adequate fire protection throughout the city. Finally, the fire department operated with approximately twenty-five “high pressure” engine companies. These companies consisted of two pieces of apparatus, typically a hose wagon and a pumper, and carried 3½-inch hoseline. Because the fire occurred in the City’s high pressure fire fighting district, it was not necessary to keep both pieces of apparatus on the fireground. Thus, some pumpers were released to be manned by on-coming “C” platoon personnel, creating “make-up” companies.

The cause of this fire was determined over the course of the next few days. Because of the long New Year’s weekend, the heat in the building had been shut off. However, the absence of heat increased the risk of frozen water pipes in the building, and in fact, the building’s sprinkler system had been turned off as well. However, to prevent frozen pipes, and electric space heater had by rigged-up on the building’s eighth floor adjacent to an elevator penthouse. The space heater set fire to the flooring beneath it, which was considerably splintered. The splintered condition of the floor created a dry, tinder-like condition which accelerated the rapid spread of fire across the

eighth floor.

Tuesday, January 1, 1963 No.2

5:17 P.M. - Box 95, 12th Street and Susquehanna Avenue

Eng. 2, 50, 25, 27 Lad. 3, 12, B.C.6,3

5:19 P.M. - 2nd Alarm, b/o B.C.6 - Eng. 13, 30, 26, 6, Lad. 14, B.C.8, D.C.2, Rescue 1, Car 505(Light Wagon)

5:23 P.M. - 3rd Alarm, b/o B.C.6 - Eng. 34, 20, 59, 8, Lad. 1, B.C.4, Car 4(Chief McCarey),500(Mobile Communications)

5:29 P.M. - 4th Alarm, b/o D.C.2 - Eng. 4, 28, 43, 32, Lad. 22

5:30 P.M. - 5th Alarm, b/o D.C.2 - Eng. 11, 1, 55, 21

5:33 P.M. - 6th Alarm, b/o D.C.2 - Eng. 35, 7, 51, 44

5:33 P.M. - Special Call - SS-99 (Giant Deluge Gun)

5:35 P.M. - 7th Alarm, b/o Car 2 - Eng. 47, 10, 15, 57

5:37 P.M. - 8th Alarm, b/o Car 2 - Eng. 41, 9, 14, 61

5:50 P.M. - Special Call - Eng.17

5:59 P.M. - 9th Alarm, b/o Car 2 - Eng. 53, 38, 66, 36

6:03 P.M. - 10th Alarm, b/o Car 2 - Eng. 56, 58, 40, 16

6:21 P.M. - 11th Alarm, b/o Car 2 - Eng. 33, 54, 73, 64

6:28 P.M. - 12th Alarm, b/o Car 2 - Eng. 39, 12, 19, 49

6:39 P.M. - Special Call - Eng.29

7:15 P.M. – Special Call, b/o Car 2 – Eng.81 (Phila. Reserve Fire Force)

8:29 P.M. - Fire Under Control, b/o Car 2


6:16 P.M. - Eng.5 to Eng.20

6:17 P.M. - Eng.71 to Eng.30

7:35 P.M. - Eng.60(W) to Eng.35

Eng.39("B" Platoon) with Fire School pumper as Eng.39

Lad.9("B" Platoon) to Spare Ladder at Lad.12

Lad.7("B" Platoon) to Spare Pumper at Eng.21

8:34 P.M. - Eng.56 to Eng.15

Apparatus Relocated with "B" Platoon members:

8:30 P.M. - Eng.50

8:36 P.M. - Eng.64

8:46 P.M. - Eng.14 (Eng.36 from firegrounds as Eng.14)

9:14 P.M. - Eng. 4, 27, 58, Eng.36("C" Platoon) to Spare at Eng.36,

Eng.36("B" Platoon) to fire

11:06 P.M. - Eng.12 to Eng.34

12:30 A.M. - Eng.68 to Eng.21, Lad.5 to Lad.12

B.C.6: Joseph Fortunato

D.C.2: Howard O'Drain

Car 2: George E. Hink

Car 4: James J. McCarey

Occupants of the Fretz Building:

I.J. Knight Realty Co.

Ace Woodworking Corp.

Cherry and Co., Children’s Jackets and Snowsuits

Children Wear Limited, Inc.

Eastern Lithographing Corp.

Fashion Maid Knitting Mills, Inc.

Golden Brand Food Products, Inc.

Penn Quilting Products (Coat Linings)

Lamaze Food Sauce Co., Inc.

H.M. Levin Food Products (Mayonnaise)

Philadelphia Shoe and Leather Co.

See-Mar-Jac Industries Inc. (Vinyl suede women’s coats and jackets)

B.W. Woodbury Shoes

J. Greenstein Quilting

N.C. Hoffman

B. Micklin, Suits

Vogeler Co., Fashionrire Knitting Co.

Trim Salad Whip

J. Seidler Trimming Co.

B. and. G. Industries (Bank Furniture)

Extensions of Fire:

2103 to 2139 N. Warnock Street, (20) 2-story/brick dwellings, demolished

2100 to 2144 N. Warnock Street, (23) 2-story/brick dwellings, damaged

2101 N. Warnock Street, Lou’s Crystal Bar (and apartments), 3-story/brick, demolished

2146 to 2162 N. Warnock street, (9) 2-story/brick dwellings, demolished

2164 N. Warnock Street, 3-story/brick dwelling, partially demolished

SWC 10th & Diamond Streets, J.B. Hertzfeld Feed Warehouse, 5-story/brick, damaged

2042 N. 10th Street, Victorian Candy Co., 4-story/brick

1018-20 W. Diamond Street, Security Storage Co.

1000-16 W. Diamond Street, Glantz Luggage Co., 3-story/brick

SEC 11th and Diamond Streets, Norris Appartments

930 to 942 W. Susquehanna Avenue, (7) 3-story/brick dwellings

2137 to 2141 N. 10th Street (3) 2-story/brick dwellings

2119 to 2123 N. 10th Street,(3) 2-story/brick dwellings

2134-38 N. 10th Street, United Fuel Co.

2115-17 N. 10th Street, Plastering Contractor, 1- and 2-story/brick and 2 trucks

931 to 939 W. Edgeley Street, (5) 2-story/brick dwellings

930 to 938 W. Edgeley Street, (5) 2-story/brick dwellings

930 to 938 W. French Street, (5) 2-story/brick dwellings

SWC 9th and Diamond Streets, Philadelphia Gas Works, Welding Shop

919 W. Diamond Street, Master Fuel Oil Co.

NWC 9th and Norris Streets, Adams Coal Yard, 1-story/brick

1838 N. Darien Street

1832 Germantown Avenue

SWC 6th and Berks Streets, Bill Auto Rental

10th Street N.of Diamond Street, Reading Railroad Switching Tower, destroyed

8 Boxcars adjacent to building on Reading Railroad, destroyed.

12 Telegraph Poles

50 Automobiles


Allison said...

I know a lot about this fire. My grandpop would always tell stories about this because he was one of the firefighters who fought this fire.

El Diablo's Picture Blog said...

Allison, please share some of that information with us and correct me if I have part of it wrong.

jimboylan2 said...

The adjacent Reading Railroad was almost fully insured for loss, but there was 1 unfortunate exception. The copper in the overhead wires that supplied electricity to move the local passenger trains wasn't insured, with the thought that if any wires were damaged, the scrap value would almost pay for new wire. But, in this hot fire, the wires were melted, and not much scrap couldn be recovered from the debris!

Gelijojapa said...

My family lived in Bala Cynwyd then. (Near Belmont Hills) I remember seeing orange glow in the night sky, from my bedroom window.

Anonymous said...

I covered the fire for The Philadelphia Bulletin. With my colleague, Lawrence M. O'Rourke, we walked around the perimeter of the fire scene and interviewed neighbors. My story began: "A reporter walked through disaster last night." The heat had reddened my face like sunburn. The embers fell onto my jacket. A night to remember now 48 years later.
--michael b. sisak 3rd