Posts Tagged Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Michael J. Corrigan

Chicago Fire Department history; #PeterPirsch; #ChicagoFD; #smokeejector; #FireTruck;

Peter Pirsch with the smoke ejector in 1931. Kenosha History Center

Excerpts from

It would be impossible to count the number of lives saved by the use of fire engines and equipment manufactured over the years by Kenosha’s Peter Pirsch & Sons, but 92 years ago last month, Kenosha native Peter Pirsch, his employees, and a prototype from his factory were directly responsible for saving the lives of 16 men, all in one stroke.

The telephone rang in the home of Peter Pirsch at midnight on April 13, 1931. Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Michael J. Corrigan urgently needed his help.

Corrigan said that at the intersection of 22nd and Laflin Streets in Chicago, 35 feet below the surface, sewer workers of the Chicago Sanitary District were working construction on a 450 ft. sewer tunnel.

Earlier in the evening about 6:30 pm, workers were using a candle to determine the location of a leak in the tunnel when a pile of sawdust ignited. The men tried extinguishing the fire unsuccessfully for about 45 minutes before turning in a fire alarm. The first apparatus on the scene was Truck 14 and with Captain Timothy O’Neil. A thin curl of smoke was all that could be seen from the surface.

O’Neil and four firemen without breathing equipment rushed into the elevator and were lowered down to the tunnel. Three came back up 15 minutes later, with severe smoke inhalation. The smoke and gases were overpowering.

Next, men from Engine 23 went down without masks and tanks with the same result. Firefighters from the suburbs, which had better equipment, arrived with masks and tanks. They lent them to Chicago firefighters, who kept trying to rescue the growing number of people inside.

This sequence of events was repeated again and again as no one at the surface had an accurate understanding of the intensity of the fire, smoke, and gases inside the tunnel.

After hours of attempts, the construction company informed the fire chief that some of the men — missing sewer workers and firefighters — could have sealed themselves at the far end of the tunnel inside an airtight compartment.

Back on the phone to Kenosha, Corrigan wanted Pirsch to bring a new smoke ejector unit that Pirsch had in his factory. If Pirsch could bring the machine, they could pump out the smoke and fumes and the men below the surface might be saved.

The smoke ejector, basically a huge air blower, was the invention of Minneapolis Fire Chief Charles Ringer. Manufacturing rights, however, were owned by Peter Pirsch & Sons.

At that moment, a smoke ejector was sitting in the Pirsch factory. Pirsch made phone calls and had a dozen of his men meet him at the plant.

The invention prototype was in its second stage: the model had been perfected and dismantled and the second machine was in the process of being connected to the chassis. In a matter of hours the task was completed.

Pirsch, and employees Ed Wade and George Williams left in the wee hours of the morning for Chicago, enlisting the aid of a rookie Kenosha policeman to drive the vehicle.

Years later, Pirsch would swear to the story that they made the 60-mile trip in 88 minutes — with an untested chassis. A pretty quick trip for 1931 era roads and vehicles.

A police car stopped them at the Chicago city limits, but instead of offering to escort them, the officers threatened to throw them in the slammer for speeding! The officers knew nothing of the fire.

Pirsch told them to lead his party to Laflin Street and 22nd … if a legion from the Chicago Fire Department wasn’t there, they could throw him in jail.

It was sheer bedlam as the truck approached the scene at daybreak. Seven hundred fireman and thousands of people filled the streets.

More than 50 firefighters who had entered and exited the tunnel were suffering from smoke inhalation. Some bodies had been recovered. By then, the state mine superintendent from Springfield had suggested sealing up the tunnel to extinguish the fire; a move that meant certain doom for the trapped men.

Pirsch, Wade, and Williams donned gas masks to set-up the blower and the truck was backed up to the shaft where two long tubes were lowered deep into the abyss. Then the blower was revved-up and engaged.

The suction drew the smoke and gas fumes out with one tube at a rate of 20,000 cubic feet of smoke per minute, while the other carried fresh air in.

Down in the tunnel, the men in the sealed chamber had been able to get some air from a pipe that extended to the surface, but that supply wasn’t nearly enough to sustain them. One of the 17 had succumbed to the smoke, and the others knew they had to make a break for the shaft very soon or suffer the same fate.

Back on the street, Pirsch checked his watch: 23 minutes had passed. Suddenly, a patrolman let out a whoop! There in the smoke, first one form then another, until 16 men, some on their knees, all coughing and bleary-eyed, emerged from the shaft.

The crowd went wild and the families of the men who had been trapped rushed to help them.

Then it was time to bring out the dead. Seven sewer workers and four firefighters. Injured were 54 firefighters and laborers.

The Illinois Fire Service Institute reported the four men who died in the line of duty were Capt. Timothy O’Neil from Truck 14, one of the first to enter the tunnel; Firefighter Edward Bryon Pratt of Squad 8; and Firefighters William Coyne and William Karstens of Engine 23.

Pirsch and his smoke ejector made the headlines in newspapers around the world as he and his men were given credit for saving the 16 lives.

Peter Pirsch died on July 14, 1954 at the age of 88.


thanks Dennis

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Evanston Fire Department history Part 47

From Phil Stenholm:

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department


A new Seagrave Model J-66 canopy cab 1000-GPM / 80-gallon TCP equipped with a Pierce-Arrow V-12 engine for maximum power, and a Mars FL-8 light on the roof, two high-mounted red flashers, a Delco-Remy Twin-Blast siren, and a bell as warning devices, was placed into service at Fire Station # 1 as the new Engine No. 1 in January 1949, and what had been Engine No. 1 – one of the two 1937 Seagrave Model G-80 canopy cab 750-GPM / 80-gallon pumpers – was transferred to Station # 4, where it became the new Engine No. 4.

Engine Co. 1 continued to respond as the second engine to all structure fires and to inhalator calls city-wide, with Engine Co. 5 remaining the dedicated “high-value district” engine company. Also, the 1917 / 1930 Seagrave Suburbanite 500 GPM / 50-gallon TCP that had been running as Engine No. 4 since June 1947 was placed back into reserve at this time, as the EFD once again had both a pumper (Engine No. 6) and the city service ladder truck (Truck No. 3) in reserve. 

Also beginning in January 1949, the Evanston Fire Department no longer provided fire protection to the College Hill section of the Village of Skokie, as the Skokie Fire Department opened its long-awaited east-side Station # 2 at 8340 Hamlin Ave. The new Skokie F.D. Station # 2 was staffed mostly by full-time firefighters, operating with a brand-new 1948 American LaFrance Model 710 PJO 1000-GPM TCP. Together with its Station # 1 at 8031 Floral Avenue in downtown Skokie that was staffed mostly by full-time firefighters operating with a 1937 Pirsch 750-GPM / 60-foot aerial quad and a 1926 Ahrens-Fox 1000 GPM TCP, the Skokie Fire Department was fast becoming a significant north suburban fire department in the post-war years. 

At this point in time, the Wilmette Fire Department was partly full-time but still mostly part-time. and it was  located in a combined police / fire station built in 1915 at 831 Green Bay Road. Front-line apparatus in Wilmette’s two-bay fire station consisted of a 1942 Seagrave Model G-80 750 GPM TCP and a 1943 Seagrave Model J-66 750-GPM quad, with a 1915 American-LaFrance Model 75 750-GPM TCP in ready-reserve.   

The Winnetka Fire Department was located in a very unusual three-bay firehouse at Green Bay Road & Ash Street. The structure was built originally in 1870 as the Academy Hall school, and then it was extensively remodeled and transformed into a fire station in 1925. Like the Wilmette Fire Department, the Winnetka F. D. was partly full-time but mostly part-time in 1949, with a 1947 American-LaFrance Model 775 PGC 750-GPM TCP and a 1926 American-LaFrance Type 14 750-GPM quad in front-line service, and a 1919 American-LaFrance Type 75 750-GPM TCP in ready-reserve.

Built in 1897, the Evanston Police / Fire headquarters at Grove & Sherman was essentially condemned in 1948 due to rampant plumbing problems in the basement cell-block of the police station, and serious structural cracks in the apparatus floor of the fire station. There was also a potential fire hazard related to decomposing 19th century electrical wiring insulation buried deep inside the walls that would have required gutting the interior of the building to replace.

A new two-story Evanston Police / Fire Public Safety headquarters was constructed at the northwest corner of Lake & Elmwood during 1949, and opened for business on August 27th of that year. The old headquarters at Grove & Sherman was torn down almost immediately after the police and fire departments vacated the facility, and the lot was filled-in and leveled and used for more than 25 years as a parking lot for the Valencia theater. An 18-story high-rise office building known as One American Plaza was constructed on the site during 1975-77.

While about 20% larger than its predecessor, the new Public Safety headquarters mirrored the configuration and orientation of the old one. The Evanston Police Department occupied the east side of the facility with an address of 1454 Elmwood Avenue, and the six-bay Fire Station # 1 was located on the west side of the complex at 909 Lake Street.

A brick drill tower was built into the rear of the fire station, replacing the EFD’s old drill tower that had been constructed behind Station # 3 in 1925. The west bay was separated by a brick wall from the rest of the station, and served as the EFD‘s repair shop. The two bays located closest to the repair shop were longer than the other three bays and could easily accommodate aerial-ladder apparatus, with room to spare.

A small two-bay garage for the police ambulance and the prisoner wagon was located on the far northeast corner of the structure facing onto Elmwood Avenue, just a few steps from the EPD’s front desk, where police officers were on duty at all times and available to staff the ambulance when needed. The structure also included a basement parking garage that was used mainly by the police department for vehicle storage, and a basement handball court that was available to both Evanston police officers and firefighters.    

On September 20, 1949, EFD Capt. Ed Hanrahan (Engine Co. 1) suffered a fatal heart attack while playing handball in the basement handball court, less than a month after the station opened. Capt. Hanrahan suffered from what is known today as morbid obesity, and playing handball was part of his diet and exercise weight-reduction regimen. A 22-year veteran of the EFD, Hanrahan had served as one of Chief Hofstetter’s buggy drivers prior to being promoted to lieutenant in 1945, and was said to be one of the most popular men in the department.

Capt. Hanrahan was only 44 years old at the time of his death. He was also the fifth EFD officer age 50 or  younger to die suddenly of a heart attack since 1929, the other four being 39-year old Lt. Walt Boekenhauer (Engine Co. 4) while on vacation in July 1929, 41-year old Lt. Frank Didier (Engine Co. 2) while off-duty in September 1931, 50-year old Lt. Carl Dorband (Engine Co. 3) while sitting in front of Fire Station # 3 in May 1942, and 43-year old Lt. William Elliott (Truck Co. 1) while on his day off in January 1945.  


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Evanston Fire Department history Part 46

From Phil Stenholm:

Another installment about History of Evanston Fire Department


On June 10, 1947, the pump on Engine No. 4 broke-down during a routine annual pump test and could not be repaired. The 1917 Seagrave 750-GPM pumper had been in nearly-continuous front-line service for more than 29 years – as Engine No. 1 1918-37, and then as Engine No,. 4 since 1938 — and because its frame and chassis had extensive corrosion and rust damage, it was not likely to survive much longer, even with a new pump.

With the gravitas of a long-time chief of the Evanston Fire Department, Albert Hofstetter requested and received an audience with the mayor and the city council. Chief Hofstetter explained that replacing the pump on a 29-year old rusted-out fire engine would be a waste of money, maintained that the safety of all Evanstonians was at risk, and convinced the aldermen to immediately issue an emergency appropriation in the amount of $18,000 to purchase a new triple-combination pumper.  

Seagrave (naturally) won the bid, and the EFD’s lone spare pumper – the 1917 Seagrave chemical & hose booster pumper that had been rebuilt at the Seagrave factory in 1930 as a 500-GPM Suburbanite TCP with a 50-gallon booster tank — was temporarily placed back into front-line service at Station # 4, thereby leaving the EFD without a spare pumper for the 18 months it would take Seagrave to build the new rig. Meanwhile, the Seagrave engine with the broken pump was dismantled for spare parts to help keep the other two 1917 Seagrave rigs running, and then the frame & chassis and whatever else was left of the relic were sold for scrap.      

In 1948, downtown Evanston was a vibrant area with many high-end stores that provided a significant commercial tax base for the city. The downtown area was anchored by three large department stores,  Wieboldts’s at 1007 Church Street, Lord’s at 1611 Orrington Avenue, and Marshall Field & Company at 1700 Sherman. While the Evanston Field’s store was a smaller suburban version of the company’s world-famous headquarters store that occupied an entire city block at State & Washington in Chicago’s Loop, it was considered to be the most exclusive department store on the North Shore. 

Just a few days before Christmas in December 1948, the Marshall Field warehouse at 1224 Emerson Street was gutted by fire. Four engine companies, two truck companies, and a number of men from the off-duty platoon battled the stubborn blaze for hours, attempting to salvage as many of the valuable goods as possible, while at the same time working to contain and extinguish the flames without injury to firefighters. It probably would have been useful if Chicago Fire Insurance Patrol No. 8 on Ravenswood Avenue was still in service and responding to fires in Evanston to provide dedicated salvage work, but unfortunately that arrangement had ended in January 1933.  

The Marshall Field warehouse fire occurred during the period of time when the EFD had no reserve pumper, so Engine Co. 4 operating with its four-man crew plus additional manpower from the off-duty platoon, and another eight off-duty men staffing the reserve 1917 Seagrave city service truck, provided a modicum of fire protection to the city from Station # 1 while the rest of the EFD was fighting the fire. At the behest of Field’s president Hughston M. McBain, Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Michael J. Corrigan ordered the CFD’s Main Fire Alarm Office to immediately dispatch whatever assistance the Evanston Fire Department might request to help extinguish the fire.  

The CFD wasn’t needed, but the estimated $177,430 loss to the Marshall Field & Company warehouse and its contents was the third-largest loss from fire in Evanston’s history up until that point in time, with only the Northwestern University Technological Institute inferno in December 1940 and the Boltwood School conflagration in January 1927 incurring a higher loss.

With the new more-favorable state pension law now in effect, there were a slew of retirements involving very senior members of the EFD in 1948, as 46-year veteran 1st Assistant Chief Tom McEnery, 40-year veteran Capt. Ed McEnery (Tom’s brother), 38-year veteran 3rd Assistant Chief Carl Windelborn, and 28-year veteran Lt. Harry Jasper all retired at about the exact same time 

Assistant Chief J. E. Mersch remained commander of the Fire Prevention Bureau and by virtue of seniority automatically became 1st Assistant Chief Fire Marshal with the retirement of Chief McEnery. Capt. Henry Dorband was promoted to Assistant Chief and replaced Chief McEnery as both company officer of Truck Co. 1 and a platoon commander, and Capt. Jim Geishecker was promoted to Assistant Chief and replaced Chief Windelborn as company officer of Truck Co. 2 and a platoon commander.

Also in 1948, Lt. Ed Hanrahan was promoted after having scored first on the 1947 civil service test for captain, and was assigned as company officer of Engine Co. 1, Lt. William Murphy scored second on the test, was promoted to captain, and was assigned as company officer of Engine Co. 5, and firemen Lincoln Dickinson, Ronald Ford, William Owens, and Fred Schumacher were promoted to lieutenant.

Besides the loss of a number of veteran EFD officers to retirement in 1948, firemen John Monks (38 years of service), John Lindberg (28 years), John Anderson (21 years), and Lou Knockaert (21 years) also retired in 1948, and Fire Equipment Mechanic Norman Fochs (21 years of service) and firemen Dominic Bartholme (25 years), John Gleeson (21 years), Ted Thompson (21 years), and Walter Janz (20 years) retired in 1949.

30 men – mostly all veterans of World War II – passed the entry-level civil service test for fireman and were hired over the three-year period 1946-49 to replace the many veteran firefighters who had retired or died, and so the Evanston Fire Department suddenly got a lot younger.

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