January 9th, 1912, just after 5 A.M. The wind is howling at nearly 40 miles per hour–with gusts of up to 68 miles per hour–making the already below freezing temperatures even colder. Philip O’Brien, the timekeeper of the swanky Cafe Savarin on the first floor of the Equitable Life Assurance Building, starts his day by lighting the gas in his small office and distractedly throws the still-lit match into the garbage. By 5:18 A.M. the office is engulfed in flames. The flames spread to the elevators and dumbwaiter systems and within minutes the entire Equitable Building is on fire.
The Equitable Building opened in 1870 at 120 Broadway and was considered the first skyscraper at an impressive seven stories and with the first public elevators in the city. It was the home of some of the most well established banking and law offices of the Gilded Age, along with the Cafe Savarin and the exclusive Lawyer’s Club. The basement housed safes and vaults filled with several billions (yes, billions in 1870) of securities, stocks, and bonds. In short, this was the epicenter of most of the wealth of the Financial District.
At 5:34 A.M the first fire alarm was rung at the corner of Pine and Nassau Streets and within minutes the first firefighters arrived. Within half an hour the majority of Manhattan’s firefighters were at the scene, containing the fires within the building and spraying the exterior from neighboring buildings. And yet the fire burned on. For the first time in the history of the fire department, Brooklyn fire companies were called in to help with a Manhattan fire. The Brooklyn Bridge was even closed to traffic to allow the fire engines to get to the Equitable Building as quickly as possible.
The first casualties of the fire occurred at 6 A.M., just as reinforcements were arriving. Three employees of Cafe Savarin were trapped on the roof. Fire fighters tried to rescue them, but the ladders were three stories too short and by the time the fire fighters went up to a neighboring building, the roof had begun to collapse. In desperation, the trapped men jumped to their deaths onto Cedar Street.
At the same time nearly thirty blocks uptown, William Giblin, the president of the Mercantile Deposit Company–whose offices were in the building–was informed of the fire. He dashed down to the Financial District and, with a watchman, went to retrieve important documents from his company’s offices in the burning building. They were unaware the outer doors of the building locked behind them. While they were searching for his papers in a massive vault, a heavy safe fell to the ground floor spreading the fire even more completely. Various rescue missions tried fruitlessly to save them, but instead resulted in the death of respected Fire Battalion Chief William Walsh. Nearly two hours later Giblin and the watchman were freed only after fire fighters used hacksaws to get through the bars of the basement windows. The post card below shows the aftermath.
As the morning wore on, the temperatures dropped even more and the wind speeds picked up causing the water to freeze where it was sprayed. Soon Broadway was coated with layers of ice, hoses were frozen solid, and fire apparatuses were jammed – but the firemen had it the worst. According to the New York Times, “At 9 o’clock Fire Chief Kenlon, who worked like a Trojan at this – his first great fire – was actually weighted down with icicles. They had formed on his eyebrows and hung from his mustache like dumbbells. From his shoulders and arms the men on the lines had to chop away the coat of ice. He looked like a man from another world. It was so with all the firemen whose work took them into the zone of the shifting spray, and it was soon found necessary to open relief stations in the entrances to the various office buildings which faced the building that was in flames. Here police and men detailed from the Fire Department bent over the half frozen men, pressing their stiff gloves onto the radiators, cutting, scraping, and chopping the ice from their helmets and hair and shoulders.”
The fire was contained at 9:30 A.M. and by that time the Equitable Building was in ruins. Six people had lost their lives, including the Battalion Fire Chief William Walsh and two night watchmen who had been trapped inside the building.
This disaster, along with the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, made it clear that new laws were needed to maintain safety in a rapidly changing cityscape.
For more information, the official report of the fire is digitized on Google Books.