Monday, November 6, 1939
The Gray Building Fire
336 South Broadway
In Memory of
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous Gray Building fire which occurred on Monday afternoon, November 6, 1939. This fire in the downtown commercial district gave the LAFD its first golden opportunity to mobilize and demonstrate to the citizens of Los Angeles and to the fire service nationally, its new heavy duty and innovative manifold wagons, duplex pumpers, water tower/truck combination and all metal one hundred foot hydraulic aerial ladder. This heavy duty apparatus was equipped with windshields and completely enclosed crew cabs, a bucket tiller seat with windshield and tilt wheel, and the latest Mars figure-eight warning lights, the latest innovation in warning lights, which was first introduced to the West Coast on these new rigs. All of these rigs were equipped with the powerful new American LaFrance or Seagrave V-12 engines, the duplex pumpers each having two V-12 motors and all boasted of all wheel braking systems, including the trailer wheels on the water tower truck and the tractor drawn aerial.
The manifold wagons were equipped with the largest monitors ever mounted on land apparatus. Monitor tip sizes ranged from 1 3/4 inches to 3 1/2 inches, the 3 1/2 tip being capable of 3500 gpm at 80 pounds nozzle pressure. Each manifold wagon carried 1000 feet of 3 1/2 hose in a split conventional hose bed and 1000 feet of 2 1/2 in a transverse bed, an innovation that did not reappear on LAFD equipment until the purchase of the 1948 Mack high pressure wagons.
The Gray Building fire was first reported to the Westlake Signal Office by telephone, but unfortunately, the address given was 3336 South Broadway, several miles south of the fire. A few minutes later, at 2:03 p.m., Street Box 1133, at Third and Broadway was pulled by someone seeing smoke coming from the Gray Building at 336 South Broadway. Engines 3, 4, 5, 16, Trucks 3 and 4, Salvage 3, and Rescue 23, along with Acting Battalion Chief MacDougall in the buggy for Battalion 1, were dispatched.
Heavy smoke was coming from the second and third floor windows as Engine 3, commanded by Capt. Jones, turned south on Broadway from Third Street. There was no doubt in anyone's minds that they had a working fire.
Capt. Jones spotted the duplex pumper on a double four hydrant almost across the street from the Gray Building, which was on the east side of Broadway, midway between Third and Fourth Streets. Two 3 1/2 lines were laid by the manifold wagon as the rig was spotted on the streetcar tracks in the center of Broadway, just opposite the northern edge of the fire building. Truck 3 took a position in the center of the street, just ahead of Engine 3's wagon and raised their new 100 foot metal aerial to the roof of the fire building. Later in the fire, a 2 1/2 inch hand line would be directed into the upper floors from this ladder, as the fire spread through to the fifth floor. Truck 3 also threw their two 35 foot extensions to the original fire floor for access and hand line advancement.
Engine 5, the second manifold wagon and duplex pumper, under the command of Capt. Zink, turned right onto Broadway from Fourth Street and found the same fire conditions. They took a double four hydrant at Fourth and Broadway, and laid two 3 1/2 lines to a position in line with Engine 3's wagon at the southern edge of the fire building. As the fire progressed, both Engine 3 and Engine 5's monitors were used to great advantage to knock down the fire on the second, third, fourth and fifth floors, as recorded in many photos, including the cover of shot of the November 15, 1939 edition of The Grape Vine.
Engine 16 also arrived on the Broadway side along with Salvage 3. Salvage 3 started salvage work on the ground floor and Engine 16 assisted with hose lines from Engine 3's wagon. The manifold wagons and duplex pumpers were doing what they were designed for: supplying large volumes of water and lots of hose for other companies to use. And that they did as the fire progressed.
Engine 4 (Capt. Kaplan) and Truck 4 (Capt. Fishburn) traveling west on Third Street towards Broadway, looking down the alley between Spring and Broadway, spotted heavy smoke coming from the rear of the fire building. Engine 4 laid into the rear of the fire with their dual carrier, reducing their 3 1/2 inch line to two working 2 1/2 inch hand lines. The truck raised their 85 foot wood aerial to the roof of the four story Trustee Building, immediately south of the Gray Building. The members of Truck 4 were credited with saving many lives of the employees of the fire building and exposures who were trapped on the fire escapes and upper floors of the three buildings.
Rescue 23, arriving later from another response, assisted Engine and Truck 4 at the rear of the fire.
Despite the aggressive attack by the first alarm units, the fire spread from the second floor, the floor of origin, through the fifth, or top floor.
At 2:18 p.m., three additional engine companies were requested for a second alarm. This was not transmitted over the alarm system as a 9-2 for Box 1133, but rather by telephone. Engine 24, 28 and 58 were the three additional companies responding to Acting Assistant Chief Rothermel's (Division One) request.
Fire Chief Ralph J. Scott took command of the fire and special called Engine 23 to the Spring Street side of the fire at 2:50 p.m. because of the heavy fire condition on all floors at the rear of the building. This was the third of the manifold/duplex companies carrying a large diameter hose and a large volume monitor which was definitely needed at the rear by this time. Engine 23's monitor, however, was not doing the job of knocking the fire down on the fourth and fifth floors. Chief Scott special called Water Tower Truck 24 to the Spring Street side of the Gray Building fire at 3:03 p.m. The hose lines and water of Manifold 23 were used to supply the elevated tower of Truck 24. The 2 1/4 tip on Truck 24's tower made good penetration and knock down of the fire involving the fourth and fifth floors. Portable monitors (Moorse Deluge Sets) and 2 1/2 inch hand lines operating from the roofs of the four story Trustee Building on the south and the Rude Building on the north were definitely reaching the fire burning deep inside the center of the fifth floor.
Auto Fireman John C. Hough of Engine 3, who was Chief Rothermel's driver for the day, was struck in the head by falling debris during rescue operations. He later succumbed to injuries, passing away on December 12, 1939.
Reflecting back on the years since the Gray Building fire, one might note that the Trustee Building, the southern exposure, is still standing and the painted sign on the south wall still reads "Trustee Building." A vacant lot (parking lot), exists today where the Gray Building once stood. The Rude Building, the northern exposure, was destroyed by a three alarm fire on the early morning hours of Wednesday, February 28, 1951. A McDonald's now occupies the lot where the Rude Building once stood. The Rude Building fire of 1951 raised serious fears during fire fighting operations that there might be a floor collapse similar to the fate that befell the Gray Building. Because of these fears, there was a reluctance to summon Water Tower 3 to the fire. Nevertheless, it was special called to the Rude Building fire and was used for a short time on the Broadway side. This was the last time the Water Tower was used at a major fire and ironically, it was used on a building fire next door to where it was first used on November 6, 1939. It was also the last time the the Water Tower, once the pride of the LAFD, was used with a manifold/duplex engine company, Engine 3.
As a youngster of eight years, I had the opportunity to witness the Gray Building fire, and the tremendous effort put forth by men and equipment to control a major fire in the downtown area. I remember quite clearly the sound of the duplex pumpers, their two V-12 LaFrance motors working with a thunderous noise. Just think, as a kid, I personally had the good fortune to witness four duplex pumpers and three manifold wagons with monitors in operation, pouring fourth their large streams into a multiple story commercial building. To top it off, the latest and most modern water tower ever built was in action at the same fire, for the first time, directing its large caliber stream into the upper floors of the fire building.
On Wednesday morning, February 28, 1951, shortly after 5:00 a.m., I again witnessed a similar fire in a multiple story Building at 332 South Broadway, next door to where the Gray Building once stood. Many of the same companies that operated at the famous Gray Building fire were at work attempting to control the fire. This time, however, they had natural barriers between exposures. A vacant lot, once the Gray Building, now stood between the Rude Building and the Trustee Building. Ironically, I also had the opportunity to witness the last operation of the Water Tower.
Happily, I report that there was no major structural collapse at the Rude Building, although I remember portions of the front walls being knocked out by firefighters to allow water to run off from the upper floors. There were no firefighter fatalities nor serious injuries that I recall.
On November 6, 1961, 38 years after the Gray Building
fire, the LAFD had a major
conflagration that has come to be called the Bel-Air fire. Thus, November 6 has seen two
major incidents in history of the LAFD. In each case, the LAFD has displayed to the
citizens of Los Angeles and to the fire service nationwide, their ability to mobilize and
utilize the latest and most innovative of firefighting apparatus.
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