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Atlantic City, NJ Surfside Hotel Fire, Nov 1963



Atlantic City (AP) -- At least eight persons died and 17 were missing and feared dead in an estimated million dollar blaze yesterday that spread from a frame hotel for elderly guests to a row of closed hotels near the famed Atlantic City boardwalk.
A woman victim died at Atlantic City Hospital. The others, none identified, were among 24 persons police listed as unaccounted for.
All had been guests at one hotel, the Surfside, where the fire started. Police and firemen picked their way through the Surfside's debris with a huge crane last night in search of other victims.
"Some of the people may have scampered out and have not reported," said Acting Fire Prevention Chief MICHAEL BLOOMBERG. BLOOMBERG, who estimated the damage, also said the cause of the fire was not known.
FBI On Job.
The FBI in Washington said it was sending a three-man identification team here at the request of police, to help identify fire victims through their fingerprints.
The fire spread from the Surfside to buildings on both sides, collapsing walls and roofs and showering flaming rubble to the street. Sparks touched off other buildings. More than 200 firemen worked to keep the fire from spreading.
Five hotel buildings and one rooming house were destroyed, four other buildings damaged.
A family of seven including the owners of the Surfside jumped from a window about 15 feet to the ground. A woman, her hair sizzling, raced down a hallway and crawled through a window onto a porch roof to be rescued by firemen.
MILTON RAUER, owner of the Surfside, said 20 of the guests were year-round residents of the hotel and another 10 were there on short vacations from New York, Philadelphia and other cities.
Engulfed In Minutes.
"I'm fearful to say a number did not escape," RAUER said. "It went so quickly. A number of them were mostly elderly persons." The building was engulfed in flames in about five minutes, he said.
Atlantic City Hospital said 22 persons were treated there, two of them admitted.
Of the 22, about eight were firemen and policemen. Also treated were three members of the RAUER family and five persons who escaped from the Surfside, along with others from the area.
"The night watchman smelled the smoke and called me on the switchboard," RAUER said. "My first thought was to get my family out. I woke up my wife; she grabbed a dress, and then we woke up our three sons and my mother. We all jumped through a back window about 15 feet to the ground."
"In another minute or two the whole building would have collapsed on us."
Heard 12 Escaped.
RAUER said he had heard that about 12 of the guests escaped, but that he saw only four of them.
MRS. RAUER, said 30 guests were registered and all were in the building Sunday night, along with the RAUER family of six and the night watchman, PHILIP JOHNSON.
"We couldn't get out the front door. We got out through a window in our living quarters," MRS. RAUER said.
She said her family was separated from the guest quarters by a ballroom. "My son LARRY tried to go through the ballroom but he couldn't because of the fire."
JOHNSON got out uninjured.
Police said at least five of the 30 guests at the Surfside got out of the building.
The two persons admitted to the hospital were identified as ANNA SHALIT, 63, of Morristown, suffering from extensive burns, and GEORGE DZWONAR, 46, of Atlantic City, who was reportedly having trouble breathing.
A heavy wind from the ocean fanned the flames from the Surfside to seven other buildings on either side of it along Maryland avenue, which intersects the boardwalk. Three more buildings on Virginia avenue behind the burningones also caught fire but were quickly extinguished.
Six workmen in one of the hotels escaped to safety when the owner of the building heard the fire engines and roused them from sleep. They had been staying at the building while making renovations.
LOUIS LEVINE, an artist who lived across the street from the Surfside said he ran to the hotel and heard "screaming death wails. I panicked because the flames were too bright and I couldn't go in."
The fire is about three fourths of a mile north of Convention Hall where the Democratic National convention will be held next August.
The Surfside was the only hotel or rooming house that had guests, according to Police Sgt. JAMES MULLEN, one of the first men on the scene. The others were closed for the winter.
All the buildings except the apartment house were old style wooden structures between five and seven stories tall.
MULLEN and Police Capt. JAMES TOOMEY and Patrolman JACK GODOWSKY were responding to a routine trouble call at the Surfside when they discovered the fire.
"There was no sign of anything" as they opened the front door and entered, TOONEY said.
"Then all of a sudden the place went up," he said.

The Troy Record New York 1963-11-19



Atlantic City, N.J. (UPI) -- Police today hunted a convicted arsonist who was seen near the Surfside Hotel less than an hour after fire flashed through the building and killed 25 elderly persons.
Detective Capt. William Rickert, chief of the city's Arson Squad, said the suspect moved from his known address but still was believed to be in the city.
"I'm almost sure he's still in the city," said Rickert. "I'm hoping to have him in custody today."
The police official said the man, whose identity was withheld pending questioning, boarded a bus just 2 1/3 blocks from the Surfside Hotel about 40 minutes after the first alarm was sounded.
The bus driver recognized the man as a "known arsonist" and told Raymond Stark, superintendent of the Atlantic City Transit Lines. Stark, who also serves as Ventnor City Municipal Court judge, notified authorities here.
Rickert said the suspect previously had been convicted on an arson charge and also had been arrested for prowling. He said the man had been living with his mother.
Meanwhile, an inquest has been ordered into the Monday morning fire, but spiritual needs have posed deeper problems for the victims' survivors.
Some 60 relatives of the dead, most of them elderly Jews, huddled Tuesday with three Orthodox rabbis -- Morris Fishman, Mosheh Shapiro and his son, Joshua Shapiro.
The relatives, "depressed and concerned" tearfully discussed with their spiritual leaders the problem of proper burials for the dead, none of whom so far has been identified.
Fishman gently suggested to the distraught group that the unidentified bodies be interred in a common grave and that a single tombstone be erected with each of the victim's names inscribed.
So far only seven bodies, and part of an eighth, have been recovered from the charred rubble of the Surfside Hotel, where the victims were incinerated. Pathological tests identified them according to sex -- two males and the rest females. Another woman died shortly after she was rushed to Atlantic City Hospital.
There was no formal call for an investigation by Rabbi Fishman but he told the relatives, "be concerned about the fire laws -- and take stock of the causes of fire."
His words, in a more official way, were echoed by Atlantic County Prosecutor Augustine A. Repetto.
Repetto said that the county grand jury would make an investigation of the fire. He said the probe would begin as soon as reports from fire and police departments could be compared.

Lebanon Daily News Pennsylvania 1963-11-20

article | by Dr. Radut