"…. Bravest of the Brave?"
A Historical Vignette
by Tom Parquette
Throughout the history of the fire service, from it's rudimentary beginnings up to and including the moment you may read this, we have been blessed with dedicated, courageous, seemingly fearless and honorable men and women who answer the call to serve their fellow man in this profession. It's time we recognize some of those notable warriors.
A young man was born in 1848 in County Wicklow (near Dublin) Ireland. Named Phelim O'Toole (pronounced Fail- Im) by his parents he went off to sea at about the age of twelve to become a cabin boy. Phelim served on the seas for a few years but managed to arrive in St. Louis, Missouri in the US in 1866. The St. Louis Fire Department was really in it's infancy then having been officially formed as full time paid regulars in 1858. Phelim O'Toole was hired on as a regular firefighter at the age of 18.
The records intact with the St. Louis Fire Department (and Museum) indicate by all accounts that Phelim O'Toole was an outstanding member of the department and served with the highest distinction. But this was a different sort of fireman. Just something about O'Toole told those around him he was uniquely different and even more so uniquely suited for his chosen profession.
On April 11, 1877, a noted luxury hotel in then-downtown St. Louis was the scene of a devastating fire. The Southern Hotel was a six-story hotel building which, that night at least, held over three hundred guests. The fire broke out in the basement of the hotel but the flames and heat soon exploded up the elevator shaft to the upper levels, trapping those on the top floors. The guests in the lower floors were all, with minor exception, able to escape on their own.
The Southern Hotel fire
Phelim O'Toole arrived first on the scene aboard what was called a "Skinner Escape Truck" which was an early version of the hook and ladder powered by horses. The unit was known to be difficult to set up and control and the ladder capacity was only to the fifth floor at best. O'Toole saw the trapped people on the sixth floor and raised the ladders to the fifth. He then shouted to the terrified guests to tie bed sheets to a bed post and drop them out the window, which they did. O'Toole then swung on a rope from the top of the ladder, grabbed the sheets and climbed up to the smoke filled rooms. He lowered each individual down to the ladder and waiting firefighters continually repeating the process until the last guest was saved just moments before the walls of the entire building collapsed into the basement. 21 people did die in the Southern Hotel fire that night. O'Toole saved at least twelve. A young lady whom O'Toole rescued, Joanna Halpin, would later comment that O'Toole, "dropped into the window like an angel".
To honor O'Toole the City of St. Louis awarded him a check for $500.00. O'Toole donated every dime to help orphans. A moving gesture for a man making a $75 monthly salary.
Sometime later, a devastating fire would break out in the domed St. Louis County Courthouse. Here comes O'Toole. He scaled the courthouse dome on a rope with an ax and a hose, chopped a hole through the dome and fought the fire hanging on the rope from above.
The Old St. Louis Court House
All of the bravery and selfless actions of Phelim O'Toole will not be forgotten. Neither will the startling contrast of the death of this heroic man. You see, it was on July 6, 1880 when O'Toole was called to extinguish a relatively small fire in the basement of a vacant house in St. Louis. He approached the fire scene, surveyed it, and entered the basement with a single hand-carried extinguisher. As he triggered the extinguisher, it exploded with such force as to rip open O'Toole's chest. He was said to exclaim to an associate, "Oh God, I am killed!". Dead at 32. Phelim O'Toole was buried with honors from St. Louis Cathedral to Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. It was estimated that some 20,000 attended his memorial.
Phelim O'Toole (courtesy St. Louis Historical Society)
H.C. Sexton, St. Louis Fire Chief in 1880 is reported to have obseved, quote, " He was one of the bravest men who ever lived,….bravest of the brave!"
To honor this local fallen hero, The St. Louis Fire Department named a 32 foot twin engine Fire Marine Rescue Unit boat the "Phelim O'Toole". It is based at Engine House 11 at the foot of S. Seventh St. and Pestalozzi St. Phelim O'Toole has descendants living in the vicinity of St. Louis as this is written.
Assistant Chief Lindsay, commenting on O'Toole in 1881 said, "He was a hero, the true stuff, and St. Louis ought to be proud that he was one of her own. But I will venture to say that there are many who have never heard of the brave deeds of the brave Phelim O'Toole." Now you have.
Information provided by,
Frank C. Schaper, Deputy Fire Chief, City of St. Louis
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