Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fire never takes a Holiday Off

Silent Night
Shattered Night
Memories of a Tragic Christmas Time Fire

Based on a true story from Western Pa.
All Names and places have been changed out of courtesy to the victims families and privacy of the firefighters involved that day.

By Nick Markowitz Jr.

It was late Friday afternoon in December Christmas weekend of 1990 I was walking to the local hardware to get some fittings for the boxes I am using for one of the buildings I am installing a fire system In .When I spotted an old friend thru the window of the local Tavern Big Jim Kelly He was a retired City Fire Captain from Station 22# as big as a bear who stood 6’5 and 375 pounds. He was already on his way to feeling no pain as I walked in to say hello as I had not seen him since moving from the old neighborhood 12 years ago. I ordered a coke since I do not drink and sat down next to him and he gives me a big hug and handshake and tells me how big I have gotten since he saw me last. So what we drinking to today Jim I ask. Almost as stupidly remembering the date December 22nd. A date Big Jim would have haunt him and everyone at Fire station 22# that terrible day in 1974. Oop’s I forgot Jim
The bartender a young man in his early 20’s takes note with curiosity what all the fuss is about. It was a bad day for this and every fireman in the next City Ward over 10 people 6 of them young children became trapped and died that day just before Christmas.
Sorry the young man says You hear story’s like that in the news but never realize they happened in your own back yard. So Jim I say how many of the old crew are still around from those days. Billy had a heart Attack on the job and took disability, Pete and bobby have retired to Florida Lucky dogs and the 2 young rookies are now Fire Inspectors in the Fire Prevention Bureau I think it hit them the hardest that’s why they are inspectors trying to prevent what happened to that poor family. You know what I am saying were you not effected yourself when your good friend Johnny his brother and dad died in a fire when you were in 2nd Grade didn’t you have nightmares every night praying to god he would spare your family.
Yea I guess your right Jim it is always in the back of your mind .That’s Why I install fire systems and work Part time as a fire Investigator. I here the mother who survived and was pregnant at the time When Johnny’s dad pushed her out a second floor window remarried and moved out of town with the child who was born after the fire no ones heard from her since.
I bet the people who live in the house were my friend died have no idea it is built on top of a tragedy.
They ever re- build where the 10 died over in 23 ward # no Jimmy said it’s still a vacant lot. Some one occasionally leaves a bouquet of flowers there on the anniversary.
Ok Jimmy good seeing you again I got to get back to work takes care of your self and make sure you get home safe. The bartender would make sure that some of the guys up the street at the local Fire Station would make sure Jimmy got home safe.
Later the next day I am driving thru the area where the fire took place all those years ago
On my way to another customer about 3 blocks form the old fire scene when I decide to stop and look it is noon time and there on the wall along the sidewalk of 1780 Tracy St. is a small teddy bear and flowers. I could only imagine what had happened that night the story Jim tells everyone.
The home was in a row of homes along a narrow steep street it was wooden clap board with Insulbrik (asphalt) shingles 2 stories in front 4 story’s in back it was built into a hill side and accessible from only the front this would be what was critical that night in why no one survived. The young couple there 4 children and visiting aunt and uncle with there 3 children all under 10 had sat that evening enjoying a night of television maybe even watching” it’s a wonderful life” . The children went to bed around 9:00Pm more than likely and the adults sat and drank coffee or tea sharing each others company in the living room with its big live Christmas tree with old fashioned big bulb type lights that were old and they also had the same lights strung around the front window.
The 2 couples turned into bed on the second or what was really the 4th floor with the children.
It was approximately 3:45am when neighbors would be shaken out of there beds with the sounds of breaking glass and then an explosion. Clad in there night clothes they ran out into the street to find there neighbors home ablaze. It had snowed the night before and the narrow street was full of cars. One of the neighbors pulled the Red Call box on the close by Telephone pole as other neighbors tried to enter the home as they heard screams from above. One went for a ladder another a garden hose which was of no use it was frozen.
All were rebuffed by the smoke and heat as the children and adults were screaming for there lives. They could not get out the back windows 4 stories too high they could not get out the front the porch roof had partially collapsed from the explosion and was ablaze. Mean while Big Jim and the guys of hook and ladder and Engine 22# had enjoyed an evening’s meal and had turned in for the evening. After playing cards all night and drinking fire house coffee and munching on Christmas Cookies a local neighbor lady dropped off earlier that day. At 3:48 AM the fire house bells go off Box 2243 was reporting in dispatchers could be heard on the radio down stairs. Police report seeing large plume of smoke from the area Jim and the guys pull on there boots and coats and slide down the pole With the snow they knew this was not going to be good scene they were going to be going to Big Jim gets in the front of the 1962 open cab Seagrave engine and fires up the engine with in seconds both engine and truck and there crews are carefully racing to box 2243 still not sure what there facing .The chains on the truck tires clanging against the truck body as they go. As they make there way thru several blocks of stores and homes the dispatcher comes over the radio confirmed structure fire with entrapment young children involved. Jim guns the truck all the faster he can without crashing it they turn on to Tracy St. and can see the home ablaze a crowd has gathered. Jim can not get the truck all the way down to the house the parked cars are in the way. Luckily the noise has startled a neighbor who has come out to start the car but he is sliding in the snow the crews get off the truck and quickly move the car out of the way they get the engine truck down below the house and have connected to a hydrant as they make there way down the street. The ladder truck is not so lucky they can not turn the bend they will have to approach from another direction as other engines and police approach.
Big Jim and the guys pull up but it is already too late the first floor has partially collapsed and stairs have burned out there’s only chance is the front window but the ladder truck is still not there they try to set up the ladder they have on there truck but can not get close enough that stupid wall stops them from extending it up far enough .There is nothing Jim and his crew can do but fight the fire and try to get to the trapped occupants on the top floor .The ladder truck finally gets up to the house and extends its ladder they find a woman passed out in side the window they bring her down and try to resuscitate her. There is no such thing as a Paramedic and CPR in these days. She is loaded into a city paddy wagon which was able to get in close and taken to the hospital where she will not survive her lungs internally burned .They go back up to get more of the occupants but it is too late. The smoke and flames drive them back one fireman one of the rookies is knocked of the ladder from the blast of heat and breaks his leg. The house is now totally consumed with flames Firefighters do all they can to flood the house with water and put out the flames but they can not get to the back of it because of the close by homes and steep hill.
They will be there till morning light when they finally get the flames out and the horror of what has happened is revealed. The Coroner has arrived along with News Media and Arson Investigators this cold frozen morning there is nothing but silence as firefighters begin the task of removing the bodies down the ladder trucks rungs .After everything has been photographed and documented. The News Media and crowd is held back by the Police it has already become a spectacle as others in the neighborhood wake up and realize what has happened as it comes over their radios and TV’s . Big Jim and the guys are devastated
Big Jim of all he has found 2 of the children still a sleep in there bed the smoke so toxic it took the young ones while they slept. You could see the desperate struggles of the parents as they tried to save themselves and there children trapped by the smoke and flames and collapsed stairway as they shielded there children’s faces huddled in the corner in a group.
For Big Jim and the guys this will be a night they never will forget and it will haunt them forever. With nightmares of the screams for help that night some of the guys will drink it away and end up retiring early from the dept there nerves shattered.
In the investigators final report it will be concluded that the fire most likely started in the window area where the tree was located as they found traces of the wiring still plugged into the outlet. Apparently the adults went to bed with the Christmas lights still plugged in and due to there age they had deteriorated and shorted out catching the tree on fire which raced fast and furious to the open stairway. No smoke detectors where found in the home, escape ladders or extinguishers. Smoke detectors where just starting to come onto the market at that time.
The Investigators feel had there been working detectors the homes occupants may have been able to escape out the front porch roof even better the homes on that street needed fire escapes installed in the rear to allow another way out. The open staircase and poor condition of the homes wiring also were seen as contributing to the fire.
The homes on either side of the destroyed house had heavy smoke and water damage and were rebuilt to more modern codes and better fireproofing this time and were among the first in the city to have Smoke detectors installed in a effort get public support to purchase and use them. Jim would pass away a few years after I last saw him and he was given a Formal Fireman’s Funeral. Although he was unable to save the people in the fire that day he went on to become a Fire Captain and managed several commendations for saving lives. His stories and the stories of the many firefighters who protected us all in the early years are still passed down from generation to generation of firefighters as a reminder just how dangerous there occupation is and the terrible human tragedy it has taken a toll of.

Please remember this and every holiday season and every day of the year to please be careful with electrical items, and candles and cooking appliances. Because the above story has been played out in many big city’s for as long as we have been a nation.
Have in place an escape plan and practice it with your children have in place working fire extinguishers , smoke detectors and escape ladders if needed . Your family is counting on it.

No comments:

Post a Comment