1955 blaze claimed lives of 6 firefighters

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

Taking Note of History

February 12, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The beginning of one of the city's worst fires came on a mild February evening and when it was over, six firefighters had lost their lives.

The first of nine alarms was sounded at 9:02 p.m. on Feb. 16, 1955, from Box 12 at East Baltimore and Frederick streets, in the heart of The Block. A second alarm was sounded at 9:06 p.m., quickly followed by a third at 9:13 p.m. Firefighters arriving at the Tru-Fit Clothing Co. building at 507-509 E. Baltimore St. were greeted with billowing clouds of smoke that arose from the building's cellar.

As the stubborn fire resisted efforts to extinguish it, additional alarms were sounded that brought hundreds of extra firefighters to the scene.

By 10:45 p.m., the fire was declared under control and firefighters entered the three-story structure. Five minutes later, the rear roof of the building and its walls collapsed with a roar, trapping firefighters under tons of rubble.

Those who were able to get out frantically ran from the building shouting for ropes and ladders to use in extricating their fellow firefighters.

"It was the only occasion in more than half-a-century of observing the Baltimore City Fire Department that I ever saw any evidence of their even momentarily having lost their composure. It was little more than a fleeting instant," wrote V.B. Morris, in a first-person account published in The Visiting Fireman in 1989.

Several priests from nearby churches arrived to give spiritual comfort and the last rites to the trapped firefighters.

Michael H. Lotz, the Fire Department's chief engineer, and Fifth Battalion Chief George H. Redmon were on the roof when it suddenly gave way, plunging them into the interior of the building.

Lotz was tightly held by a heavy iron fire shutter as water from a dropped hose spattered on his face.

"I could have drowned if I had been unconscious, but at that point I didn't care. That wall looked as rigid as could be and we never heard a sound, just zoom!" he told reporters.

Rescuers heard the cries of Leonard N. Wiles coming from the debris and, after continued digging, freed him at 3:30 a.m.

"You aren't really scared," Wiles told The Evening Sun from his bed in Mercy Hospital. "You just wait - and think. You don't really worry. You just think about your wife and baby."

"We heard him holler and when we found him, he was standing up. When the debris came down it pushed his helmet way down, which created an air pocket. And we had one heck of a time getting his helmet off," retired Capt. John T. Harvey said yesterday.

He recalled carrying out the body of Battalion Chief Francis O'Brien, who had been found dead in the wreckage.

"I think a beam hit him and broke his neck," Harvey recalled.

In addition to O'Brien, the dead were Joseph C. Hanley, Rudolph A. Machovec, Richard E. Melzer, William W. Barnes and Anthony Reinsfelder.

While not officially ruled an arson, Tru-Fit's owner was not able to collect insurance for the loss of the building and inventory.

"The Tru-Fit fire is still an active investigation. The file is still open," city Fire Department Division Chief Donald W. Heinbuch said yesterday.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, on the 50th anniversary of the fire, a commemorative candlelight ceremony and plaque unveiling will be held at the site. Also, Fire Department flags will be flown at half-staff next week in honor of the fallen firefighters.

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