Fire Buffs promote the general welfare of the fire and rescue service and protect its heritage and history. Famous Fire Buffs through the years include New York Fire Surgeon Harry Archer, Boston Pops Conductor Arthur Fiedler, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and - legend has it - President George Washington.

Paterson Riverside Station - Photo by Dr. Thomas Dayspring

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Photo: NFPA
Charred cots in dormitory


It was Paterson's deadliest fire of the 20th century.

On Nov. 4, 1917, Box 513 was transmitted at 1:15 a.m. for 42 Mill Street - The Salvation Army Rescue Mission.

The flames spread fast.

Men jumped from windows or died in dormitories.

Bodies were found on charred cots and huddled near stairs.

Nineteen "friendless men who earned their lodgings at the mission by helping in the collection of usable white paper, magazines and kindling wood," a newspaper correspondent wrote.

The toll was higher than the 15 lives lost at the Alexander Hamilton Hotel fire on Oct. 18, 1984 and the 17 lives lost in a tenement explosion at 440 Main St. on June 21, 1901.

The Washington Post reported:

"Nineteen bodies had been taken tonight from the ruins of the Salvation Army rescue mission in this city, which was destroyed by fire early today. Ten men were taken to hospitals with probably mortal injuries, and many others were less seriously hurt in leaping from windows of the burning structure.''

The New York Times:

"Policemen who were the first to reach the fire rescued twenty-five old and feeble men from the dormitories on the third floor. At every window on the fourth floor, where most of the men had been sleeping, the men held to the ledges ... An hour after the fire was discovered all the floors and roof had been burned out, and only the brick walls of the building remained standing.''

The Richmond Times Dispatch:

PATERSON, N.J. November 4 -- Nineteen men lost their lives to-day at a fire which destroyed the Paterson Salvation Army Rescue Mission at 42 Mill Street.

Eighteen of the victims were burned to death before rescuers could reach them.

The other, one of fourteen taken to the hospital, succumbed there to his injuries.

Many others were badly injured, either in the surging mass of humanity which, panic-stricken, stampeded from the building, or by leaping from the windows.

Six of the dead were identified at the morgue, where their charred bodies were taken after the fire had been extinguished.

They were:

Henry Dowling, Michael Grimes, Fred Brennan, John Shell, Frank Costello and William A. McNabe.

Most of, if not all of, the other victims are believed to have been burned beyond recognition.

Some of the bodies may never be recovered.

Over a score sustained injuries of minor character.

These were treated by ambulance surgeons.

Of those who leaped from the windows of the burning building, thirteen were so badly hurt that their removal to the hospital was imperative.

Some of these, it was said, may not recover.

The fire started among a large stock of newspapers and magazines stored in the rear of the building.

It spread rapidly to a large pile of kindling wood in the yard near-by, and licked up the side of the building, which burned like tinder.

There was some confusion in sending in an alarm.

The first alarm was sent by telephone.

That was quickly followed by the pulling of several boxes at different points.

The firemen were delayed several fatal minutes in responding because of the uncertainty as to the exact location of the fire.

When they arrived the building was doomed.

There were eighty-five men sleeping in the building when the fire started.

Some were old and some crippled.

Few were in the full vigor of manhood, as the Rescue Mission was conducted as a haven for unfortunates who possessed no home and but little means 1 of livelihood.

Police squads, under Captain A. J. McBride and Lieutenant Joseph Moseley, reached the scene before the firemen arrived.

Even then the building was a roaring furnace.

But the police, their forces quickly augmented by a number of detectives, addressed themselves selves to the work of rescuing the inmates.

"Lead them to the fire escape quick," yelled Captain McBrlde, but it was discovered the building's one fire escape was at the rear.

Escape by that means wits impossible.

A mad rush for the interior stairway followed.

Choked by smoke, which also so blinded them that they groped  dazedly while surging toward the stairs, the crowd of men readied the only interior means of egress en masse.

It was inevitable that some of the crippled and weaker men should go down in the rush.

At least five probably fell either on the stairway or near its foot.

Their charred bodies were later discovered huddled in the lower hall.

They had apparently first been trampled and later burned to death.

Directly after the firemen arrived a life net was spread to catch the men who were jumping from the third and fourth stories.

Some of the men, crazed by fear, sprang from the windows without waiting for the net.

They were badly injured.

A few others, even after the net had been spread, disregarded it, or failed to see it in their panic, and leaped over it or to one side.

Andrew McDonald, an aged inmate of the building, was trapped on the fourth floor.

Crippled by rheumatism, he managed to make his way to the window but was unable to pull himself over the ledge.

His white face was seen, lighted by the flames, at the window.

Long ladders had been fetched by that time, and one was quickly raised to the window.

Lieutenant Moseley and two of his men scrambled up the ladder at the imminent risk of their own lives, for the flames were even then licking up the side of the building.

Reaching the window, they drew the crippled man through and made as hasty descent as safety permitted.

As they readied the ground the entire side of the building was enveloped by flames.

Paterson's thirteen fire companies, under Chief Thomas Coyle, had much difficulty in preventing the fire's spread.