Hempstead, L. I., NY Poorhouse Fire, Mar 1910
INMATES CAUGHT IN BLAZING POORHOUSE.
OLD MAN DEAD, FIVE PERSONS IN HOSPITAL AFTER MIDNIGHT FIRE IN HEMPSTEAD.
PANIC ON STEEP STAIRWAYS.
HAND GRENADES KEPT THE FLAMES BACK AND SAVED MANY LIVES, BUT SOME OF THE INJURED MAY DIE.
Hempstead, L. I., March 10. -- The Hempstead Poorhouse, about two miles from this village, burned to the ground just before midnight tonight.
One man was burned to death on the third floor and five -- mong them men and women -- were removed afterward to the Nassau County Hospital in Mineola, all of them seriously hurt. Several may die.
How the fire started is not known, but the flames appeared first in the kitchen. Supt. BENJAMIN SPRAGUE and the thirty-seven inmates, as well as MR. SPRAGUE'S three assistants, were all asleep.
They were awakened by the odor of smoke and the sound of crackling flames, which already had made great headway in the kitchen. The occupants of the poorhouse, as many as were not already awake, were aroused by the cries of others, and presently the narrow, steep stairways of the building were congested with terrified men and women, most of them old and many of them almost invalids.
To assist these unfortunates out of the place, which was beginning to burn like so much tinder, there were only MR. SPRAGUE and his three assistants. They did manage to get some of them down, but the flames cut off the escape of others. Several jumped from the windows.
It was some time before the Hempstead Fire Department could reach the Poorhouse. When the firemen did get there, they found the place a mass of flames. Three stories in height and built of frame and shingles, the building offered no resistance to the progress of the fire. Flames leaped from room to room and from floor to floor with dreadful rapidity. Only those who had been first to make use of the stairs could use them at all.
One old man who jumped from the second story broke an arm and injured himself so badly internally that he is almost sure to die. He is one of those in the Mineola Hospital.
Before the arrival of the firemen Supt. SPRAGUE and his men had got out the lines of hose with which the building was equipped, and with only the pressure from the tank at the top of the windmill, which provided the water system of the place, they tried to fight the flames.
Their efforts were almost useless, and what benefit resulted from them was hard to see. Nevertheless the men worked at top speed, and those of the male inmates not physically unfit or mentally incapacitated by fright helped them.
The building had hand grenades for use in case of fire. These were fitted in brackets on every floor, and many of these were used. It is probable that their use prevented a greater catastrophe, for by this means the flames were kept from the stairways longer than otherwise could have been the case.
The stairways were the least modern feature in the construction of the building. Besides being narrow they were unusually steep, making them difficult to climb or descend. In the rush and panic many of the fire awakened inmates fell head over heels down the whole flights to find themselves covered at the bottom by others of their fellows who had rushed along close behind.
When the flames were finally put out the firemen made a search of the building and discovered the body of a man in the third floor. It is believed that he is the only one who lost his life, although others may die. No other bodies were found, but in the excitement following the fire the inmates became scattered, and at this time, 2:30 A.M., it is impossible to count them.
The dead man was known only as "OLD NICK." He was on the third floor when the fire started, and some of the other inmates tried to help him downstairs. The old man was paralyzed with fright, and could do little to help himself. Other men half dragged and half carried him down the two flights of stairs to the first floor.
The lower story was already blazing like a furnace, and dense clouds of smoke made it almost impossible for the men to breathe. When "OLD NICK" saw the flames and smoke he lost what little courage he had left. He shouted and cried in a frenzy of terror and whereas before he had merely hung back and let his rescuers carry him, he now actually fought against being dragged through the flames which had to be passed to reach the open.
Those who were with him pleaded and argued. They tried to carry him, but with a strength born of his great fear the old man fought them off, crying that no one could pass the flames and live.
"Leave me!" he cried. "Leave me! I can't get through that."
His would be rescuers struggled with him until one by one they themselves were almost overcome by the smoke they were forced to inhale. At last they had to leave him, one after the other. They could stand the ordeal no longer. Finally the last of those who would have saved him staggered into the open.
The fireman pitched forward out of the radius of the heat radiating from the burning building and sank on the grass gasping, his eyelashes burned and his face and hands blackened by smoke.
"OLD NICK is in there," he shouted. "We did what we could and he wouldn't come out. No one could have stayed longer."
His own appearance and the looks of the other men who had given up the fight sooner showed that he spoke the truth.
The New York Times New York 1910-03-10