The Blizzard of 1888
The great blizzard of 1888, which began March 12th, 1888, created a condition which made it almost impossible for the department to respond to fire alarms & resulted in such an incongruous situation as a 3rd alarm fire raging through 2 5 story buildings on West 42nd Street with only 3 pieces of apparatus on the scene.
21 inches of snow fell in under 24 hours with wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour.
During the 1st 5 days of practically impassable streets, there were 45 fires. The situation was such as to call for extra-ordinary efforts on the part of the Uniformed Force under Chief of Department Charles O Shay, who promptly took all possible precautions. Leaves of absence were suspended, a large number of horses & sleighs of all kinds were obtained & a special corps of telegraph linemen was put at work restoring the fire alarm system.
A testimonial of the New York Board of Fire Underwriters commended the “heroic efforts of the firemen — in so successfully coping with almost insurmountable difficulties during the period of peril to the City”.
During the 1st night of the blizzard paralysis, there were 2 multiple alarm fires.
The alarm for the 1st of these fires was received at 6:45pm on March 12th from Telegraph Station 164. This fire originated on the 2nd floor of 9-11 Laight Street & extended to all parts of this building & to adjoining building at 7 Laight Street. Only 1 Engine & 1 Ladder Company of the 5 Companies due on the 1st Alarm found it possible to reach the fire in the 1st 20 minutes. 2 other 1st alarm companies – Engine Companies 13 & 30 arrived about an hour later. These 3 units, with a total of 6 lines, stopped the fire in 3 hours. None of the Companies responding on the 2 additional alarms ever arrived with their apparatus, although the men of 1 & 10 Trucks finally reached the scene on foot carrying tools.
Later that night, a patrolman discovered a fire in the 5 story building at 559 West 42nd Street. The policeman made his way to Engine 2 – directly back of the fire on 43rd Street (present day quarters of Rescue 1), and gave the verbal alarm. The company tapped out the verbal at 2:30am & reached the hydrant at 42nd Street & 11th Ave (a distance of 1,000ft) 17 minutes later, the fire by that time having extended from the cellar to the roof of the building & to the adjoining 5 story building at 557 West 42nd Street. The officer transmitted a 3rd alarm from Station 472, skipping the 2nd alarm. Of the 12 Engines & 4 Ladder Companies due on the 3rd Alarm, only the Steam & 1 horse tender of Engine 2 & the 2-horse tender of Engine 26 ever arrived at the fire. Men from the 2 Ladder Companies assigned on the 1st (Ladders 2 & 4) arrived with tools but no apparatus & assisted the crew of Engine 26 tender in stretching a line from a hydrant. Engine 2 had 1 stream; these 2 lines stopped the fire in about 2 hours.
Several breweries & the horse car lines placed a large number of horses & sleighs at the service of the Department & by arranging “spike hitches” of 4 or 5 horses on Engines & Trucks & by loading hose on sleighs, the Department was enabled to respond within a reasonable time after the comparative paralysis of the 1st 24 hours.
At the time of the blizzard, only 12 pieces of apparatus were provided with 3 horse hitches & a number of the tenders had only 1 horse. The experiences during the blizzard gave great impetus to the furnishing of an additional horse to all types of apparatus. Another immediate result was the acceleration of plans then under way for placing the fire alarm wires under ground. A start on this program was made in 1888.