A curious coicidence happened when I published this story online. A man I didn't know contacted me and told me that he knew the Fulmers, the two sons and the mother that died, that I described in this story. I didn't know the man or know of him.
Last night I watched Ladder 49, a 2004 movie starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix. I got it at the thrift store; it was on VHS. It was a pretty good movie; firefighters are heroes. The movie placed some emphasis on the practical jokes that firemen play on each other. They need to relieve tension; they are like a family, living together at the station house and cooking for each other and of course facing danger together.
I also have read about volunteer firefighters starting fires so that they can be heroes. Regardless I began thinking about my experience with fire and how fire has touched my life.
My parents had friends, Chester and Dorothy Fulmer and they had three sons, the oldest was about my age. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the son’s names. We had been to their house in Brooklyn, in Brownsville I think, and Chester had been to our apartment on Ave Z in Brooklyn. Chester was a drinker, and I can remember my father getting drunk with him on scotch and vomiting all night long. The Fulmer’s were Presbyterians and we were Jews, but my parents shared the same liberal beliefs and attitudes as them. He was a big man with a full beard, and Dorothy was an attractive slight woman. I think the boys were about a year apart in age.
We moved to NJ and one day soon after; I was probably eight and a half, and one day my parents told me that Dorothy and the two younger boys died in a fire. The three boys were playing in the basement, and they made a tent out of a blanket, and they had a lamp, the incandescent bulb started the blanket smoldering and the oldest ran upstairs for help. The mother, Dorothy ran down to try to save her children, was overcome with fumes and the three of them died.
That might have been my first glimpse of mortality as something more than a concept. The father, Chester, remarried a black woman. I recall seeing them some time after. The boy seemed quiet.
When I was in Argenta, British Columbia, on a farm up there, this was a non-curricular boarding school, and a newly built sauna burnt down. This was next to a pond. The chimney wasn’t properly insulated, and it put the roof on fire. It was sad, but nobody got hurt, and we rebuilt it. I was thirteen.
I was living in a tiny little studio apartment on top of a corner store. I shared the bathroom in this place, and it was one room with a sink and a stove and a small half fridge. This might have been 1976, and this was in Victoria BC. I wasn’t working at that time, a common occurrence for me; I was collecting unemployment benefits. There wasn’t a lot of work at that time in Victoria.
I had a broken left foot; I had broken the metatarsal bone, a hairline fracture and this was from skipping in Converse sneakers on cement believe it or not, and I had a full plaster cast up to my knee. I was in my apartment sleeping in the afternoon, and this is a clear memory, I woke up instantly, fully awake in seconds. I have been told that you have no sense of smell when you’re sleeping, but the way I woke up leads me to believe otherwise. There was smoke in my room, and I opened the door, I felt the door for heat first. I opened the door, and the hallway was thick with smoke. I phoned 911, and they told me that the truck was already on its way. My apartment had a little alcove with a peaked ceiling and a window, and I crawled out onto the roof, and the firemen put a ladder up and I got down to the street, and it was over shortly after that. It was a grease fire, something like that.
I can remember another grease fire that happened in maybe 2008 at Tony Pep’s boxing gym in the Royal Towers Hotel; the gym was underneath and behind the rest of the hotel. This area had been some different things, offices, and a beauty parlor, there were showers down there, and the gym was in front, but there were rooms you could live in. They weren’t supposed to be living in there, but it was free rent. Ivan, Pep’s friend, starts a grease fire; lots of smoke, and the fire trucks came and evacuated the entire hotel.
So the fire marshal told them not to live down there anymore, and Pep had to rent a room upstairs.
My first job in Vegas was at Bally’s but before the place was Bally’s it was the MGM Grand, the site of the notorious fire in 1980 that killed 85 people and injured 700, mostly from inhaling toxic fumes. As a result of this fire, the second worst hotel fire in American history, there was significant changes and retrofitting of hotels all over the world but particularly in Vegas.
90 days later there was an arson fire at the Big Hilton. This time, only eight people died because firefighters had learned from the MGM fire and got television stations to broadcast a warning for people to stay in their rooms. The Hilton was in the process of being retrofitted when the fire broke out. Philip Cline, a bus boy at the Hotel, started the fire on the eighth floor. He sat on a couch, smoked a joint laced with cocaine and PCP and took a lighter and set some curtains on fire. He is now serving eight consecutive life sentences in the High Desert State Prison in Nevada, near Indian Springs.
There are hundreds of notorious fires in history. The San Francisco earthquake in 1906 caused a fire that raged for days and as a result of the quake and fire 3000 people were killed, and 80 percent of the town was razed.
The great Chicago fire of 1871 killed hundreds and destroyed 3.3 square miles ofChicago. It burned for days. This fire was blamed on a cow kicking a lantern over in a barn, but that was a story made up by a reporter, and the real cause is unknown.
One aspect of the aftermath of these terrible tragedies is that generally whatever burned was rebuilt better, and safer, and sometimes bigger than what had stood before. There was an impetus to surmount and transcend, “This will never happen again…”
One of the most horrifying historical fires, to me, is the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire in the Asch Building on March 25, 1911. This was the second deadliest disaster in New York City history, until the destruction of the World Trade Center 90 years later.
146 garment center workers died 129 women and 17 men. The employer had locked some of the exit doors to so they could check the women’s purses for theft and as well to prevent unauthorized breaks. The opened exit door was blocked by flames. There was one flimsy, ramshackle fire escape. It collapsed spilling about 20 workers to their deaths.
The elevator was able to make three trips before the rails buckled from the heat.
A large crowd gathered below and watched in sublime horror as 62 women jumped or fell to their deaths.
It was surmised that the fire was started by a cigarette, or by a faulty engine, the engines that run the sewing machines.
As described by observer Louis Waldman:
“Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”
“The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical; scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.”
The two owners of the factory were acquitted of manslaughter. The defense argued that they didn’t know the doors were locked. They were convicted in a later civil suit in which plaintiffs won $75.00 per victim. The insurance company paid the owners Blanck and Harris $60,000 more than reported casualties or about $400.00 per reported victim.
Two years after the fire Blanck was arrested for again locking the door and fined 20 bucks.
Did any good come out of this? There were changes, slow changes. You couldn’t image first world working conditions like that today, although I’m sure many, many of the products we purchase from China could have similar working conditions. My grandmother, my father’s mother was a garment worker.
In 2011 the last six unidentified victims of the Shirt Waist Factory fire were identified.
I haven’t even gotten into nightclub fires. These usually have heavy casualties. These fires involve many people in a confined area, and some of these fires happen fast. What people do is to instinctively try to get out the way they came in. People get crushed in the panic.
Here is a fairly brutal one: 100 lives, The Station Night Club on Rhode Island. The act was Great White, and the fire was started on the stage by the pyrotechnics and when things began to get out of control the audience though it was part of the act. The pyrotechnics were next to highly flammable sound baffling foam. There was no sprinkler system.
Within 6 and one-half minutes from when the fire started the whole building was engulfed in flame. This was the fourth worst nightclub fire/disaster in US history.
I don’t go out these days. Don’t go to nightclubs or bars or concerts; not a whole lot of public places. We know that conditions are better now, probably the best in history. I wonder if you wouldn’t want to phone up a place before you go there. Do you have sprinklers, ever had a fire?
Do you lock people in? Do you have evacuation procedures? They would probably blow you off, “Yes, yes, very safe!” I don’t know if you get to pick out your demise. Mostly, all things being equal, if you don’t have a violent death—my mom died of cancer, she was in a light coma when she passed. My uncle died more recently of pneumonia, that’s peaceful, a light coma, and.
If I have any say at all, I would rather not burn to death or smother to death or get trampled to death.
The Great White band’s tour manager got four years for activating the pyrotechnics, but he served less than half. The nightclub’s owners, one got four years, and the other one got probation and 500 hours of community service.