Keeping The Memory Alive
SEVENTY YEARS AGO MONDAY, June 10, 1943, Salt Lake City, Utah firefighters were working at a fire in the Hotel Newhouse at 400 S. Main Street. Four of the firefighters were working off an extended aerial ladder shortly after 10 pm when the ladder started shaking, then twisted and buckled dropping the four truckies to the ground.
The fall seriously injured three of them and the fourth, Lt. Paul Hamilton, then age 34, was killed.
This Monday morning a large group of today's firefighters and interested citizens gathered at the site (now a parking lot) to hold a brief ceremony. They hung a department flag from the tip of a raised aerial and placed a memorial wreath that would be left in place for 24 hours.
"We can pass this on to our younger generation of firefighters," Capt. Chris Milne said. "There should never be a time when our firefighters drive by this site and don’t have a moment of reflection [for Hamilton’s sacrifice.]"
KSTU-TV filed this video report on Monday's ceremony:
Read the full report in the Salt Lake Tribune HERE.
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Construction began on the Hotel Newhouse in 1909 and was one of the city's first two skyscrapers. Built of steel structure of the "fireproof" design, it boasted wet standpipes to the top floor with 1-½" hose connections on each level.
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Steve Lutz wrote a complete historical account of the fire and accident that has been published by the Utah Valley University. He writes in part:
Three soldiers from Dugway were guests in room 922 on the north side of the hotel. One of them, Sgt. John Gfoer fell asleep alone in the room when the fire started from his cigarette. He escaped with only burns to his feet. Miss Virginia Owens, the elevator operator smelled smoke and called for help. While the desk called the fire department two bellmen rushed up and tried to extinguish the fire with pans of water and an extinguisher, but the fire had already gotten too big for them to control.
The first alarm assignment for any downtown box typically included Engines 1,2 and 4, Ladder 1(Big Dan) and a Battalion Chief. It took only a few minutes for the rigs to get to the Newhouse from Station 1 about 3 blocks away and Station 2 about 7 blocks north. The response was quickly upgraded to a general alarm, which brought many more units to the scene.
Big Dan pulled up near the northwest corner of the building while engine crews went in the front door of the Hotel and headed upstairs. Lt. Kresser began to raise the ladder while the crew laid 2 1/2" hose to extend up the ladder if an exterior attack was needed.
According to the crew, the ladder was fully extended and well away from the wall of the building just below the fire when (Lieut.) Paul Hamilton went up first to secure the uncharged hose and to man the nozzle. Quickly firemen John Boshard, John Andrew and Ralph Ponderzay joined Hamilton on the ladder to secure the hose to the ladder with straps. The engine operator charged the line to the ladderpipe, which whipped around on the ladder as Lt Kresser started up. The ladder began to sway while the firemen on top yelled at Kresser to "Tow her down".
The ladder began to twist and then buckle. Hamilton, Boshard and Ponderzay tried to get down but instead rode the broken ladder to the sidewalk. Andrew was apparently caught in the ladder. Some eyewitnesses reported that one fireman was pitched from the ladder into the street where the roof of a parked car somewhat broke his fall. The entire ladder collapsed onto the sidewalk on the west side of the building. Thirty-four year-old Hamilton died quickly of massive trauma.
The ladder came to rest in a giant inverted V with a bend at the base and another at the fourth floor with the tip resting on the ground behind the hotel. Hamilton and the injured men were taken to the Emergency Hospital.
This tragedy came less than a month after 3 firefighters died a block away at the Victory Theatre when a balcony collapsed on them. Mayor Ab Jenkins left a meeting concerning an inquest into that fire and rushed to the Newhouse. Authorities had the area of Big Dan’s collapse cordoned off and Jenkins fired off a telegram to American Lafrance demanding that company engineers fly out immediately to determine the cause of the failure. Guards remained with the truck until the Lafrance engineers arrived the next Monday and conducted their examination.
The next week Lafrance engineers Lee Estes and Hubert Walker arrived to examine the wreckage. They told City Attorney E.R Christensen and City Engineer W.D. Beers, the men charged with investigating the accident, that there was no defect in the design, construction or materials of the ladder and that the collapse was the result of the operator striking the side of building by moving the turntable with the charged line and the four fireman on the ladder. Assistant Chief Lloyd Egan, Lt. Kresser, the operator and Battalion Chief Don White, an eyewitness, vehemently denied that version of events.
They also insisted that training and ladder testing was ‘By the book", specifically Lafrance’s own manual on the truck.
The Mayor requested that metallurgists and engineers from the U.S. Bureau of Mines examine the wreckage and do a scientific analysis of the failed areas. Using microscopic photography, the scientists, T.R. Graham and James Long documented numerous cracks and poor welds. Porous welds with little penetration and thermal cracks formed at the time of welding substantially weakened the structure. They determined that bad welds in the handrail of the bed section of the ladder failed under tension. They went on to say, "The welding material is gassy and porous…There is a lack of fusion at the overlapping joint…This is the worst condition that can be encountered…cracks and fresh fractures suggest that welding operations produced the course, brittle structure."
Lafrance continued to deny they were at fault but curiously enough, moved quickly to replace the ladder at no charge to the City and wrote a check compensating the Hamilton family and the injured firefighters. This may have had something to do with the failure of a similar Lafrance apparatus in Boston at almost the same time. It is likely that Lafrance just didn’t want any more bad publicity and wished to avoid a lawsuit.
The total damage to the hotel and its contents was less than $2,000. The rooms were ready to reoccupy in just a few days.
Read the entire, informative report by Steve Lutz HERE.
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