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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Christmas Eve at White House

Christmas Day

Box 157 - Executive Mansion
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
1st Alarm assignment: 1-2-16-23-RS1
2nd Alarm: 6-4-13-9
3rd Alarm: 3-7-12-21
4th Alarm: 5-11-8
5th Alarm: 10-24-28-26

1929 was a lousy year for President Herbert Hoover.

The stock market crashed in October, ushering in the Great Depression - and fire gutted his White House office on Christmas Eve.

Following is an account of that long-forgotten fire.

It was penned by the late Robert Debs Heinl Jr., a Marine Corps colonel and fire buff, who witnessed the blaze as a 13-year-old boy.


Box 157—the White House! ... in all Washington fire stations, polished brass gongs chimed: 1-5-7

On Christmas morning of 1929 Fire Marshal C. G. Achstetter of Washington, D.C., commenced the tedious paperwork that follows a $135,000 fire. Reaching for his office form, “Fire Marshal’s Record of Fire,” he noted that it had been a hard month: 779 fires to date in 1929, and this most recent one was number 162 in December alone.

Address—“1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.,” he recorded. Structure—“detached brick, covered with stucco.” Occupant—“Herbert C. Hoover.” Then, “First alarm Box 157, 8:09 P.M., 24 December; outstroke, 7:27 A.M., 25 December.”

Only a few hours before Achstetter started work on his report, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. —the White House—had been bright with Christmas gaiety.

On their first Christmas Eve in the Executive Mansion, President and Mrs. Hoover were holding a young people’s party. The children of the President’s staff were rollicking through the hallways. Parents—watchful, prideful, a little indulgent but not too much—hovered on the fringes and kept one eye on the kids and one on the President. A few older boys in their first dinner jackets gathered in an aloof knot about young Allen Hoover, down from Harvard, and Walter Newton, just eighteen, resplendent in an Annapolis plebe’s full dress. Even more glorious, a scarlet-coated section of the Marine Band played Christmas songs in the East Room and then in the State Dining Room. In the latter, refreshments were served, games played, and presents distributed.

Outside there was real Christmas weather. Snow was on the ground, and ice frosted the windowpanes. In the West Wing of the White House the Executive Offices were quiet. The simple security force of 1929, a Secret Service man and a policeman, patrolled the offices, and one operator, M. M. Rice, tended the White House switchboard. Rice, the newest and youngest man on the roster, had caught the Christmas Eve shift.

Built in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt at a cost of $65,000, the Executive Offices formed the extreme west portion of the White House. In 1929 this wing housed (as it does today) the President’s office, an oval greenwalled room on the central south face. Elsewhere on the main floor were the offices of Mr. Hoover’s three secretaries, predecessors of today’s multitudinous White House staff; the half-club, half-office press room; and clerical spaces overflowing into the semibasement, where Rice manned the switchboard. Above the high-ceilinged main floor was an attic crammed with dead files and, it seemed, at least one copy of every government pamphlet issued since the days of T. R.

President Hoover

Who first spotted the fire will never be known. Rice, whose post was directly under the office of Hoover’s secretary Walter H. Newton, Midshipman Newton’s father, saw wisps of smoke shortly after 8 P.M. and immediately phoned the Secret Service and White House Police offices. Then he notified the White House major-domo, Chief Usher Irwin “Ike” Hoover, no relation to the President.

While Rice was juggling plugs and cords on the manual switchboard, an office messenger, Charlie Williamson, smelled the smoke fumes on the main floor. Running for help, he encountered Secret Service agent Russell Wood and policeman Richard Trice. Tracing the thickening smoke, Wood and Trice mounted a stairway to the attic. Wood opened the door and was hit by a wall of heat.

“The whole loft is burning up!” Wood shouted. He raced downstairs for a fire extinguisher while Patrolman Trice ran to turn in the alarm. As Trice descended, he pulled the main lighting switch. Nothing happened. Fire was inside the partitions, and the wires were burned away.

In the main wing of the White House, Ike Hoover was overseeing the Christmas party. When Rice’s call came through from the switchboard, the chief usher—casehardened against crisis by thirty-eight years under nine Presidents—tiptoed into the State Dining Room and whispered to Lawrence “Larry” Richey, the President’s personal secretary, and to the President.

“The Executive Offices are on fire,” he told Mr. Hoover. “I want to take the secretaries away from the table.”

“I’ll go, too,” replied the President. In stiff-upper-lip manner, he directed the Marine Band to strike up a lively tune and then made for the West Wing. His aides quickly excused themselves, and, joined by Allen Hoover and Midshipman Newton, they followed the President. “Mrs. Hoover,” reported the Washington Star, “remained behind and directed the fun.”

The first persons into the President’s office were Larry Richey and the Hoover and Newton boys (who, the Star approvingly said, “played a man’s part”). In the already smoke-filled office the three cleared off the desk and began manhandling files out of the room. President Hoover, who had pulled a heavy blue topcoat over his dinner jacket, arrived moments later and took charge. But Secret Service men, tumbling in from all parts of the White House, hustled the President and everybody else out of the office. Mr. Hoover thereupon took post on the roof of the adjacent conservatory, donned a black hat brought by his valet, and lighted a cigar.

Meanwhile, Patrolman Trice had finished his sprint to the White House fire alarm box (Number 157, a typical red Gamewell model of the era). He broke the glass, turned the handle, opened the door, and pulled the hook.

At Fire Alarm Headquarters there came a single tap on the “joker” as the box was pulled. There was a pause, then the box number rang in. After another pause, a second round of bell strokes commenced.

Box 157—the White House !” sang out the telegrapher. The switchboard man swiftly cranked in the uptown home of Chief Engineer George S. Watson. Seconds later, in all Washington fire stations, polished brass gongs chimed: 1-5-7 …1-5-7 …1-5-7. …

The brass gongs chime 1-5-7

As the big new 1927 Seagrave pumper of Engine 1, the first-due engine at the White House, roared through the front gates, Captain Edward O’Connor could already see fire behind the small attic windows of the West Wing. So could Central Battalion Chief C. W. Gill as he sped westward along Pennsylvania Avenue. With Engine i’s line stretched from the pumper to the front door of the Executive Offices, Chief Gill led the hosemen inside the smoke-charged building. Amid the heat and fumes, Gill called for Rescue Squad 1, in those days the only firemen with “smoke helmets” (respirator masks), to lead the way up the attic stairs. As they advanced the hose line into the attic, the atmosphere grew thick and heavy. Suddenly a rush of hot gas, a blast of heat, and a fireball of flame whooshed into the stair well, blowing Chief Gill and most of his crew down to the main floor.

Because of back draft, the fireman’s most dangerous foe, superheated fumes were ignited when fresh air from the stairway reached the fire in the attic. As Gill staggered to his feet amid the injured—four men were down—his first action was to order a second alarm. Then he reorganized his people, called for water, and advanced upward again behind Engine 1’s stream.

While the first-due companies in front of the White House had their hands full with what was evidently a “working fire,” Engines 16 and 23, responding at the rear, had problems of a different kind. Although they could see the fire plainly enough, the massive iron gates on the sides and rear of the White House grounds were locked and barred.

This contingency was one that Chief Engineer Watson had long ago foreseen. As a result of his urgings, master keys to the White House gates had been issued to the captain of each company due on a first alarm from Box 157. What Chief Watson could not have foreseen, however, was what now happened. With Keystone Cop supersecurity the Secret Service had had the locks changed but failed to notify the Fire Department. Thus when Engines 16 and 23 reached the east and west rear gates, they, together with Truck 3, whose 85-foot aerial ladder could reach the burning roof, had to wait in the street until puffing White House policemen could get the keys and run to open them.

When the back draft blew Chief Gill down the attic stairs, the time was approximately 8:15.∗ A minute later Deputy Chief Engineer P. W. Nicholson rolled in at the rear, took one look at Truck 3’s ladder being cranked up and at the fire in the windows, and at 8:17 ordered a third alarm. With Chief Gill’s second alarm at 8:16, this meant that eight additional engine companies, two more truck (that is, hook-and-ladder) companies, and the water tower were converging on the White House from all over central Washington as fast as the snorting new motorized pieces could travel.

∗This was six minutes after the time recorded for the first alarm! The records are perhaps not entirely precise.—Ed.

Like Sheridan at Cedar Creek, Chief Watson was also approaching the scene at high speed, but in his red Cadillac touring car, not on horseback. “I was notified by Fire Alarm Headquarters,” he reported, “that the White House box was being received and immediately left my home and proceeded to the White House as rapidly as traffic congestion would permit.” This is something of an understatement. With isinglass side curtains whistling, Watson’s rig covered the thirty-five-block stretch from his house to the President’s through downtown evening traffic in eight minutes flat.

Reaching the site of the fire at 8:18, Chief Watson gave orders for deployment of the incoming second- and third-alarm companies; then, seeing flames already breaking through the roof and skylights, he ordered a fourth alarm. This would bring four more engine companies, call in off-shift men to activate reserve pieces, and fully mobilize Washington’s then and to this day highly efficient Fire Department. With the fifth and final alarm, sounded at the fire’s height at 9:24 P.M., roughly two thirds of the department was concentrated in the Lafayette Square area, some pumpers taking water from hydrants from as far as five blocks away.

What faced Chief Watson was a government office fire of a stubborn type only too familiar to D.C. firemen: a cramped space overflowing with paper, with virtually no accesses or vents, heavily charged with fire and heat. It has happened many times before and since 1929 in offices of the Commerce, Agriculture, and Treasury departments, as well as in that great pyramid of paperwork, the Pentagon. It was also the sixth fire in the history of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The first, in 1814 (arson committed by British soldiers), was followed in 1866 by a serious fire in the conservatory (President Hoover’s vantage point in 1929), then by two small blazes in Woodrow Wilson’s time, and by one kitchen fire during the days of Calvin Coolidge.

The firemen’s first tactics were to get onto the roof of the West Wing and play streams of water into the White House skylights. They soon discovered, however, that most of the skylights gave onto partitioned air shafts going directly down to the main floor. Not much water could reach the seat of the fire this way, but it did get elsewhere. White House reporters, braving the smoke to salvage files in the press room (not to mention the new Webster’s dictionary and stand they had recently chipped in for), enountered water over their high-topped shoes throughout the main floor. In the basement, working by kerosene lantern, Rice stayed by his switchboard until, with icy water knee deep, his boss ordered him to shut down. Six men from Engine 16 and Truck 3, working to save the President’s office proper, were flattened when the ceiling, weakened by water and fire, crashed down. Miraculously, four were unhurt, but the crystal chandelier took its toll on two. Outside, the streets and walls and firemen were sheeted with ice.

“Great calcium lights set up in Executive Avenue,” reported the Chicago Tribune, “added their glare to the blazing structure to make the White House grounds as light as day.”

The scene revealed by the great calcium lights was, by 9 P.M., one of considerable interest and variety. Word that the White House was afire had drawn a widely mixed audience.

From his perch on the conservatory roof, Mr. Hoover continued to watch the fire, “puffing nervously,” as the Star noted, “on a cigar.” On his own initiative, Secretary of War Pat Hurley had ordered out 150 soldiers from Washington Barracks (now Fort McNair), who, in one newspaper-account, “formed a human wall” to hold back the crowds. Across the Potomac at Fort Myer a troop of the 3rd Cavalry were standing to horse in case their services might be needed. (Until the 1930’s both the Treasury Building and the adjacent White House had a direct bell system for calling Fort Myer’s cavalry to the rescue in times of emergency.)

Secretary of War Pat Hurley

One hundred men of the Metropolitan Police supplemented the Army’s “human wall.” Screeching to the scene in their open-topped, brass-railed special paddy wagons, the police reserves had mainly come in on the second and third alarms, but the five-man crew from No. 3—known on the force as “the White House precinct”—responded on the first alarm and did yeoman’s service in salvage. Even with all reserves deployed and the presence of the soldiers, a swarm of Secret Service men, and White House police, the Metropolitan Police’s Major and Superintendent Henry G. Pratt reported that “men who attempted to masquerade as high government officials in order to get a closer view of the fire were quite troublesome.”

Directly interested in a closer view of the fire (since he was ultimately in charge of the White House and its premises) was the grandson of a former occupant, Lieutenant Colonel U. S. Grant III, of the Army Engineers. As officer in charge of B.C. public buildings and public works, Grant left his Christmas Eve table and spent most of the night at the fire, mainly making arrangements to find President Hoover a new office. Finally, by dislodging such high-ranking tenants as the Army’s Judge Advocate General, Inspector General, and Chief of Chaplains, Grant got the Presidential staff into the venerable State, War, and Navy Building across West Executive Avenue from the burning wing. Hoover himself took over the office of the former Chief of Staff, General of the Armies John J. Pershing.

Not an immediate problem for Colonel Grant, but of interest to taxpayers, was the fact that, like all federal buildings, the White House was (and is) uninsured because the total annual premiums would cost too much. Fortunately, irreplaceable mementos and the President’s personal flag had been saved. The rescue of the flag was effected by Honorary Deputy Chief Henry C. Stein, one of Washington’s leading fire buffs. Fully suited for the occasion in boots, waterproof coat, and white helmet, Stein plunged into the President’s office and emerged with the flag while the crowd cheered. An official of the American Legion, Elmer John Giggin, who witnessed the deed, wrote, “I have seen service, but never saw a finer lesson than was taught me Christmas Eve night.”

Meanwhile the Christmas party ran its full course. (“PARTYCONTINUES DESPITE FLAMES,” headlined the Star.) Many guests, in fact, did not learn until afterward what had happened. Mrs. Hoover finally got the President to bed about midnight.

At 7:27 A.M., Christmas morning, the White House fire was officially declared out, although Engine 1, first in, stayed all day to prevent rekindles. The cause of the fire was found to be an overheated flue in the open fireplace that had glowed cheerily in Secretary Newton’s office in the northwest corner of the wing. Fifteen firemen had been injured, but the White House was saved.

Oval Office after fire
Once installed in his new offices, the President immediately sent what for him was a warm letter:

My dear Chief Watson :

I want you to know of my appreciation of the excellent service rendered by you and the men of your Department during and following the fire in the Executive Office on Christmas Eve. It was a fine piece of work and I thank you sincerely for all your efforts.

Yours faithfully,
Herbert Hoover

The fire had one other sequel. The Secret Service promptly gave Chief Watson a set of White House keys that worked.

President Hoover in refurbished Oval Office, 1930

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority
Oshkosh Striker 3000

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Firefighters at Pentagon in September 2001 
“As painful as this day is and always will be, it leaves us with a lesson that no single event can ever destroy who we are, no act of terrorism can ever change what we stand for” - President Obama on 11th anniversary of Sept. 11 attacks

CLICK HERE for Arlington Fire Journal Account of 9/11/01

Photo: Stars and Stripes

Monday, September 10, 2012


Photo: ACFD Virtual Museum
It's September 1958. President Eisenhower is in the White House and this 1955 Ward LaFrance is ready to roll at Fire Station No. 5, Jefferson District.

Friday, August 10, 2012


Wagon 3 "at the plug" in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Photo from the collection of the late Frank Higgins, Arlington County Fire Department. Frank was a gifted fire photographer.  

Sunday, August 05, 2012


Scene from August 1979 - Crews open up roof in this photo of a house fire from the files of the Falls Church Volunteer Fire Department. Arlington County Firefighter Mike Kilby is on the ladder according to a note accompanying the photo.

Friday, February 10, 2012


Paramedic Joshua Weissman, 33, of the Alexandria Fire Department, died Feb. 9, 2012, from injuries sustained in the line of duty. Crews from the City of Alexandria and Arlington County responded to a car fire on I-395 near Glebe Road on Feb. 8. Weissman fell from the highway into Four Mile Creek and sustained a severe head injury. He was taken to the Washington Hospital Center trauma unit.

Monday, February 06, 2012


President Obama meets firefighters following his remarks on the Veterans Job Corps at Fire Station No. 5 in Arlington County, Virginia, on Feb. 3, 2012.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Photos: National Park Service, U.S. Transportation Dept.
Jan. 13, 2012 marked the 30th anniversary of the 1982 Air Florida disaster. Arlington County firefighters were among the first to reach the 14th Street Bridge, scene of the deadly crash.

On Jan. 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90, carrying 83 passengers and crew, departed to the north on National Airport’s main runway at 1600 hours.

Seven inches of snow had fallen in the nation’s capital that day. The ground temperature was 24 degrees. Visibility was limited. Ice had built up on the wings of the jetliner as it waited its turn to takeoff, preventing Flight 90 from gaining altitude. The aircraft shuddered.

Below, traffic on the 14th Street Bridge was heavy as the storm led to the early dismissal of federal workers. ``With an awful metallic crack, a blue-and-white jet swept out of the swirling snow … smacked against one of the bridge’s spans, sheared through five cars like a machete, ripped through 50 feet of guard rail and plunged nose first into the frozen Potomac River,’’ The Washington Post said.

At 1605 hours, the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center received a telephone call from CB radio operator Evie White -- a member of REACT -- advising of trouble at the 14th Street Bridge, possibly an aircraft down. ``One phone call,’’ said Craig Allen, the ECC system manager. ``That’s what we had to go with.’’ Cellular phones were for the future.

At 1606, ECC transmitted Box 7503, a full first alarm assignment consisting of Engines 75, 74, and 70; Trucks 74 and 79; Medics 75 and 76; and Chief 77.

``We didn't know what we had,'' said retired Capt. Howard Piansky, who was a private assigned to Engine 75 in January 1982. ``We thought it was a small plane.''

It was much worse.

Of the 83 people on the aircraft, only a few had survived the crash into the Potomac. They were struggling in the freezing river amid ice chunks, debris, luggage, seat cushions and jet fuel. On the bridge, four people were dead or dying. Others were injured.

The District of Columbia Fire Department alarm office received word of the crash at 1607, and struck Box 417 for the 14th St Bridge. That brought Engines 13, 7, 16 and 2; Trucks 10 and 3; Rescue Squads 1, 2 and 3; Ambulances 6, 7 and 5; Medics 9 and 11; Battalion 6 and the citywide tour commander and a variety of special units.

Responding to a call on the ``crash phone’’ from the airport tower, the National Airport Fire Department sent two rigs – Red 373 and Red 397 - to the end of the Runway 18. Two other rigs – Red 376 and Red 396 – headed north on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which runs parallel to the river, toward the bridge.

Treacherous highways

Getting to the scene was treacherous because of the snow and ice and the volume of commuter traffic on both sides of the river. Engine 75 stalled en route, and Piansky and the rest of the crew headed for the river on foot – arriving in time to help survivors brought ashore. Other fire companies were delayed in traffic on both sides of the river.

Subsequent alarms and special calls brought more help, including Medic 71, Medic 74, Chief 71 and Chief 73 from Arlington, Medic 62 from the airport, Medic 56 from Alexandria, a foam truck from Fort Myer, and the fireboat John Glenn from the district. Additionally, Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Montgomery County sent mutual aid. Dulles airport dispatched two crash rigs, Red 360 and Red 361.

Police played a crucial role.

The U.S. Park Police helicopter Eagle 1 arrived over the river at 1620 to assist in the rescue effort, having lifted it off from its base five minutes earlier. Hovering over the river surface, the chopper plucked four survivors from the ice and carried them to the Virginia shoreline. On land, firefighters and paramedics wrapped the survivors in blankets and escorted them to ambulances.

Lenny Skutnik and others

There were other heroics. A passerby, Lenny Skutnik, 28, who worked at the Congressional Budget Office, dove into the river and rescued a woman who was too weak to hang onto a rescue line. ``She was screaming `Would somebody please help me!’’ Skutnik told The Post.

Firefighter John Leck, of D.C. Truck 3, also went into the water. ``Without hesitation and regard for his own safety, he secured a lifeline around his waist and entered the freezing water which was contaminated with jet fuel,’’ according his superior, Lt. Daniel O’Donnell. ``He swam to the injured woman and kept her head above water until the members on the river bank pulled them to safety by means of the lifeline.’’ O’Donnell’s report was published in the newsletter of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

The last survivor of the crash – a balding, middle aged man - vanished in the river after passing the helicopter lifeline to the others, the greatest act of heroism that day. As the Post reported: ``To the copter’s two-man Park Police crew, he seemed the most alert. Life vests were dropped, then a flotation ball. The man passed them on to the others. On two occasions, the crew recalled … he handed away a lifeline from the hovering machine that could have dragged him to safety.’’

That man was later identified as Arland Williams -- and one of the bridge’s spans was named in his honor. An autopsy showed Williams was the only victim to drown. The others suffered traumatic injuries.

On the 14th Bridge itself, the members of Engine 74, Medic 75 and Medic 71 marked on the scene at 1615 and began treating casualties and working to free motorists from the wreckage of their vehicles. Medic 75 called for 10 additional medic units.

'Like a battle zone'

Flight 90’s landing gear crushed several cars and tipped a large truck. ``It was like a battle zone,’’ said retired Firefighter Chuck Satterfield, who was driving Engine 74’s wagon. ``They kept saying it was a small plane – a private plane.’’

Engine 74, under the command of Capt. Mike Dove, had just cleared a call for alarm bells in Rosslyn. Wanting to avoid heavy traffic on Wilson Boulevard, Satterfield and Dove decided to use a roundabout route to get back to their station in Clarendon. That decision helped put them on an almost clear course for the bridge when alarm was sounded.

Once on the bridge, Engine 74’s crew tended to an Air Force captain pinned in a car. ``He was alive but died later,’’ Satterfield said.

Some of the other victims were obviously dead. Their bodies were covered with tarps and removed later. The expression of death on the face of one victim suggested he saw the plane descending toward the bridge.

Even though Arlington County firefighters were among the first on the bridge, a D.C. fire chief who arrived at 1630 requested that they leave because the river was within his jurisdiction, according to a task force report on the disaster.

Arlington Fire Chief Thomas Hawkins ``directed that a staging area be set up on the GW Parkway,’’ the task force report said.

At about the same time, police and firefighters started recovering the dead from the river. Within the first hour, two dozen bodies had been brought ashore. ``It was an absolutely ghastly sight,’’ said John Gamble, a volunteer firefighter quoted by the Post.

Recalling that surreal scene almost two decades later, Piansky said there was little left to do after the survivors had been pulled from the river and sent to hospitals.

Most of the passengers and crew died on impact, some still strapped to their seats in the submerged fuselage. ``It was a helpless feeling,’’ Piansky said.

In the hour or so after the airplane crashed, Arlington 911 received only one other fire or EMS call, Allen said. It was ``an OB’’ – a woman had gone into labor in the far northeastern part of the county, he said. A new life was about to begin.

Metrorail accident downtown

Meantime, another deadly drama was unfolding in downtown Washington. At 1640, the D.C. fire alarm office transmitted Box 484 for a derailment in a subway tunnel between Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations. That alarm brought out Engines 23, 3, 1 and 18; Trucks 1 and 2; Rescue Squad 4; Battalions 2 and 7; and the Salvage and Air Unit.

Metrorail personnel were attempting to reverse an eastbound train that had crossed over to the westbound track, when the lead car smashed into a concrete bulkhead – splitting the train open. Emergency lighting failed and plunged the train into darkness.

Transit police officer Terry Rylick, who was riding in the subway car that derailed, radioed the initial call for assistance.

As the magnitude of the accident became apparent, Engines 8 and 9, Truck 4, several medic units and ambulances, were sent to Box 484. In some cases, fire and EMS units were diverted from the 14th Street Bridge.

Responding to a call for mutual aid, Prince George’s County sent Rescue Squad 22, several ambulances and a medic unit.

The Metrorail accident claimed several lives and injured about two dozen people. In all 1,200 commuters were evacuated from the tunnel.