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.

Friday, February 11, 2005


Runaway train at Union Station - 1953

DC Riots - 1968

Historic mutual aid runs to Washington, DC:

Fisher's Night - 1928

Fire companies from Northern Virginia raced into the nation's capital on what Deputy Chief Philip Nicholson of the District of Columbia Fire Department called ``the wildest night'' of his career. An arsonist set a series of greater alarm fires across Washington, D.C. on the night of Jan. 16-Jan. 17, 1928, requiring the response of the entire city fire department as well as mutual aid from as far away as Baltimore.

A man named John J. Fisher confessed to setting some of the fires, hence the name ``Fisher's Night.'' He claimed an ``irresistible impulse'' led him to start the fires, according to press reports. Fisher was committed to St. Elizabeth's Hospital.

Bells and sirens pierced the night. ``Twenty-four fire alarms worked Washington up to fever heat between midnight and noon and scurried the entire city's fire fighting forces and those of other cities to a dozen blazes in different sections of the capital,'' according to an Associated Press dispatch published in The New York Times. ``Taking stock of the unprecedented situation, officials found that more than thirty firemen had been slightly injured and property damaged to the extent of several hundred thousand dollars.''

Baltimore, 40 miles to the north, sent reinforcements. ``Its fire forces helped fight two of the big blazes, manned fire houses for protective purposes, and, incidentally paid a twenty-four-year-old debt to the capital which helped Baltimore combat its big fire of 1904,'' the AP dispatch said. ``Ten companies, an ambulance and several deputies made the long run from Baltimore and furnished an unusual spectacle of blazing engines and screeching sirens.''

Major alarms

Among the major alarms that night:

· Box 191 was struck at 10:41 p.m. on Jan. 16, 1928, for a basement fire at the Woolworth's 5 and 10 Cent Store at 923-925 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. The fire went to five alarms, and a number of firefighters were injured when a gas main ruptured.

· Box 152 was struck at 12:32 a.m. on Jan. 17 for the Commission Houses at 204-206 and 208 10th Street, Northwest. The fire went to two alarms.

· Box 647 was struck at 1:54 a.m. for the Pillsbury Feed Warehouse, 54-58 North Street, Northeast. The fire went to four alarms.

· Box 664 was struck at 3:37 a.m. for the vacant McDowell Feed Warehouse at 1530 Eckington Place, Northeast. The fire went to three alarms.

· Box 89 was struck at 5:11 a.m. for a mill at the rear of 1319 W Street, Northwest. The fire went to four alarms.

Police arrested Fisher after he threatened a man who attempted to pull Box 89.

Eyewitness account

Writing in his 1936 history of the D.C. Fire Department, a book on which much of this article is based, Chief Nicholson shared his recollections of Fisher's Night:

``There were five additional alarm fires, all practically burning at the same time, in other words before any of the reserve companies were sent home from the first fire, another alarm would be sounded which necessitated the sounding of additional alarms, until five additional alarms were in progress at the same time.

`` As fast as companies could be spared, they were dispatched from one fire to the other. In this case there was not a company left in any engine house, for the protection of the city.

``At this point, aid was requested from Baltimore, and ten companies, in command of Deputy Chief Reinhardt, responded and they with the volunteer companies from nearby Maryland and Virginia, responded and were assigned to different houses, responding to some of these fires and to other smaller fires that occurred … These extra companies did excellent service, for which District officials were very grateful and so expressed themselves in proper form.

``The writer was off duty that night, and was just starting to leave the Willard Hotel, where he attended a meeting of the Board of Trade. My attention was attracted by the speed and direction (of the engines and hose wagons) … So out of mere curiosity – second nature – I followed and was not long in finding out.''

Black Thursday - 1953

Arlington County firefighters were also on the scene in the nation’s capital on Jan 15, 1953 – Black Thursday – as the D.C. Fire Department contended with almost simultaneous disasters – a runaway locomotive that plowed into the concourse of Union Station, and an explosion that leveled the Standard Tire and Battery Store.

Train No. 173, the Pennsylvania Railroad's Federal Express, was carrying passengers to Washington for the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower. The engineer attempted to slow the train, which had been traveling at about 80 mph, two miles from the station, but the primary as well as the emergency brake failed, according to to the website

The engineer stayed at the controls sounded his horn as a warning. The operator at the tower at Union Station heard to horn blasts and told the stationmaster to evacuate the station. Minutes later, the ``GG1'' electric locomotive and two cars crashed through a stop block and a wall, slid across the concourse and plunged into a basement baggage room. Eighty-seven people were injured in the accident.

``With the inauguration just days away and with thousands of visitors scheduled to arrive, the station had to be repaired quickly,'' according to ``By 7 AM the next day, the cars, which had fallen through the floor, had been removed. The GG1 was left in the baggage room, a temporary floor was built over the locomotive, and the station was opened just three days after the accident.''

At the battery store, a minor fire triggered an explosion that injured more than 40 D.C. firefighters, including Fire Chief Millard Sutton, who fell through the floor into the basement, according to a history of the D.C. Fire Department. Fortunately, there were no deaths. The battery store was located about 10 blocks from Union Station, and many of the injured firefighters had been at the train wreck earlier in the day. Fire apparatus was also damaged in the blast at the battery store.

1968 Riots

Four days of riots in 1968 gutted entire blocks of the nation’s capital following the April 4 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.

At the request of the D.C. Fire Department, Arlington County dispatched Wagons 2, 9 and 10, Engines 4 and 10, Truck 2 and three chief officers to help contain the conflagration. Arlington’s crews spent much of their riot tour along Georgia Avenue, Northwest.

By the end of the riots, 12 people died, 1,200 were injured and hundreds buildings were damaged citywide.

According to the official web site of the D.C. Fire Department: ``70 mutual aid companies aided the DC units; and before it had ended, over 500 initial blazes and 300 rekindles had been extinguished. This one statistic says it all: 120 rescues were recorded by firefighters during those four traumatic days.''

Green Valley

In Arlington County, itself, firefighters contended with scattered fires set by rioters in Green Valley, and Fire Chief Joseph Clements restricted the use of sirens near the civil unrest, according to an old logbook from Station No. 7.

Following are some of the log entries:

APRIL 5, 1968
2:30 p.m. ``Flag to be flown at half mast until further notice.’’
4:30 p.m. ``A Platoon held over with B Platoon for night duty.’’

APRIL 6, 1968
2 p.m. ``By order of Chief #1 (Clements) let all volunteers ride the equipment, even if it makes a crowd on the apparatus.’’
8:25 p.m. ``Fire Call 3024 So. Buchanan’’
8:35 p.m. ``Fire Call 2700 So. 16th St.’’
8:42 p.m. ``Fire Call 2912 So. 17th St.’’

9:10 p.m. ``All small tools to be put in compartments.’’
9:57 p.m. ``Fire Call 2411 S. Kenmore.’’

APRIL 8, 1968
12:20 p.m. ``On emergency runs to Green Valley ... DO NOT use sirens when entering.’’