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March Madness

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April 01, 2016 | NEW YORK Larry Woodcock, Correspondent

March is always known for the madness of the NCAA College Basketball Tournament appropriately named March Madness. When referring to the FDNY, it is anything but that. It is a month remembered for incredible tragedies that are never far from the minds of the people involved, who were there, or remember.

Starting back in 1899 during the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, a fire broke out at the Windsor Hotel on Fifth Avenue and 47th Street. The hotel was full of patrons and many more had gathered at the windows to see the parade proceed by. A discarded match started a fire that quickly spread through the seven-story hotel. Firefighters were hampered getting around the large crowds that were trying to help rescue people.

Victims were at windows as the building filled with heavy smoke. Firefighters, using scaling ladders, performed many daring and spectacular rescues. Lines were advanced and aerials raised to save people from the upper floors. Despite this, nine people jumped to their deaths. A total of forty-five people were killed and the front wall of the building collapsed into the street.

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire in the ten-story Asch building on Washington Place and Greene Street in Manhattan was largest loss of life due to fire in the city’s history. This was infamously known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

The fire started in a bin on the eighth floor. The bin contained rags and rapidly spread to garments hanging above workers’ tables. Most of the employees were young Italian immigrant women between the ages of 16 and 23. A large majority of the girls on the eighth floor were able to escape via the stairs and the freight elevator, which happened to be on their floor.

Employees on the tenth floor managed to break open a skylight and escaped to the roof. They then climbed onto an overloaded fire escape. But, those on the ninth floor were trapped due to locked doors, which were meant to prevent theft, and an unusable overloaded fire escape.

Many waited as long as they could before jumping to their death, some in groups. As firefighters arrived, apparatus positioning was difficult due to bodies in the street. Despite this, lines were stretched, ladders raised, and many dramatic rescues made.

The fire was extinguished within an hour, but the damage was done. 146 people died. This fire was so bad that legendary chief of the department at the time. Edward Croker, resigned.

He tried for years to convince the city and it’s leaders that high rise buildings needed strict fire code enforcement and something like this was going to happen. He went on to start his own fire prevention company. After such a horrible loss of life, laws were passed nationwide to make buildings safer and implement adequate fire protection.

A memorial plaque sits on the front of the building as a reminder of that day.

Ironically on the same day March 25, 1990, a man trying to exact revenge on his former girlfriend started a fire that claimed the lives of 87 people in an illegal social club, known as the Happy Land Social Club. It was located on Southern Boulevard off Tremont Avenue.

After being thrown out of the club, he vowed he would return. The man bought a container of gas and hid in a phone booth outside the front door. When clear, he entered the front entranceway, poured the gas, and lit the fire. His former girlfriend, who worked as the coat check girl, was nearby and able to escape quickly. But the fire raced up the interior stairs and trapped most of the occupants.

The fire department response was quick and the fire extinguished rapidly, but those above had no chance. As firefighters performed searches, some were shocked and paralyzed by bodies lying on top of each other and others in each other’s arms. For lack of a better term, they looked like they were sleeping.

The dead were mostly immigrants from Honduras, who had flocked to the Bronx in search of a better life. A side bar to this incident that many do not know is that the victims died of smoke inhalation, no burns. They had soot on their faces. The firefighters, with dignity for the victims, used towels to clean them and fixed their clothes before taking pictures for identification purposes for the next of kin.

After the incident, several firefighters commented that they were in disbelief. One even thought that upon seeing the bodies, they were mannequins being stored there. Many others; who were experienced firefighters, had worked through the war years of the department and saw many things; have always been plagued by this fire.

As one commented, “as the time goes on, the scars never heal.” A monument was erected and stands on Southern Boulevard just south of the fire building.

Less then two years prior, a fire in another illegal after hours club on Jerome Avenue took the lives of six and hospitalized forty. In that case, the extraordinary actions of firefighters saved the lives of two people. Luck prevented a larger loss of life as the club was packed with over 100 patrons.

On March 7, 2007 a fire erupted on the first floor of a four-story brownstone on Woodycrest Avenue in the High Bridge neighborhood of the Bronx. The occupants were awakened by the fire, which started in a first floor bedroom at 11:00 p.m. by an overloaded power strip. An adult female tried to put the fire out with a pot of water to no avail.

She left the apartment with her two children to go upstairs to warn the other tenants, but left the door open. Along with an open door in the front and the rear, this allowed the fire to take off and race up the stairs, trapping an additional fifteen people.

First arriving companies were confronted with fire blowing out windows on the second floor and jumpers. Even with aggressive hose line advancement and searches, ten people died in this fire, nine were children. No working smoke detectors were found in the building.

On March 12, 2014 a gas explosion and subsequent fire destroyed two buildings and damaged several others on Park Avenue and 114th Street in East Harlem. The explosion, which occurred at 9:30 in the morning, killed eight people. Residents had smelled the odor of gas for days.

One year later on March 26, 2015, another natural gas explosion destroyed three buildings and damaged three others on 2nd Avenue and 7th Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Two people were killed and two dozen more injured when an illegal gas hookup ignited in the basement of one of the buildings. A spectacular fire that made national headlines followed. Several firefighters escaped death when the interior of the main fire building collapsed while they were conducting searches.

These are only a few of the devastating events that took in the month of March. Calamities happened during every month and will continue to happen in the future. Hopefully, lessons were learned and will continue to be learned, so these victims did not die in vain, but will always be remembered.

These are only a few of the many buildings throughout the city with plaques and memorials to commemorate and remind us of what took place. An amazing amount of history is on every street. We should all take some comfort in knowing that the FDNY will always be ready to respond, no matter what and where it should happen.

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Larry WoodcockCorrespondent

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