Walls of the Hunt, Wilkinson & Company furniture emporium came tumbling down the morning of October 25th, 1901. By lunchtime, firefighters declared the conflagration of the 8-story, 14-year-old building at 1219–1221 Market Street under control.
Twenty-two were dead, ranking this as Philadelphia’s deadliest fire.
Yet it’s missing from the top “25 Most Deadly Building Fires in America,” a list that recalls the 1908 Rhoads Opera House disaster in Boyertown, PA which killed 171. (That ranks #8.) Philadelphia’s 1901 fire had the same number of casualties as the Detroit’s Study Club dance hall disaster of 1929, the 24th worst disaster.
“Never in its history has Philadelphia experienced a fire which spread with such great rapidity,” reported the Inquirer. Never before were so many victims “speeded through gates of eternity,” reported the Atlanta Constitution.
“Rows of charred bodies at the morgue, a score of homes made desolate, a gaunt pile of twisted, steaming ruins on Market street between Twelfth and Thirteenth, are monuments to a fire” that was “swift as a whirlwind, sickening in its horrors.”
First responders were quick, “but the flames were quicker.” The fire rose quickly “from cellar to roof, eating into adjoining buildings and hanging in a seething, spark-dotted canopy over Market street.”
Hell reigned outside and in: “Sixty or more men, women and children were at work on the upper floors of the building. The roaring flames and the suffocating smoke that cut off retreat were their first and only warnings. Madly they groped for windows and the fire escapes, many meeting death where they stood, others reaching the iron railed balconies, only to find themselves and like rats in a trap, confronted with the alternative of being gridironed or the chance of being crushed on the stones below. Most of those killed were at work on the sixth floor, where women were engaged in sewing. It was reported that goods were stored against the windows, which prevented the women from getting out on the fire escapes, but this was positively denied by a member of the firm.”
“Thousands from the streets below witnessed tragedy upon tragedy, powerless to help. They saw women penned in by flame tearing out their hair in their frenzy. They saw men struggle on wires and gratings and burn as they hung between earth and sky. They saw others plunge from the windows or turn and stagger back into the pitiless cauldron. The stones of Commerce street, the narrow highway at the rear of the building, rang the dirge of more than one victim who jumped blindly and missed the net.”
“Squares away the screams of the dying could be heard. Tongues cannot tell the horrors that eyes saw.”
At one point, “all eyes turned to the fire escapes” outside a 7th-story window, where upholsterers “were running down the escape pell-mell.”
“The smoke ascending in their faces was growing blacker and blacker. A man appeared at the window with a woman. He put his arm around her waist. They began to climb down the escape and reached the sixth floor. He seemed to faint. They stopped to rest, and then made another struggle.”
“Cheer after cheer went up from the street at this. But the situation was growing more desperate every second. When the next wave of smoke passed the woman was seen standing alone on the landing. It was impossible for her to get down thought the flames beneath her. She heard the shouts and news the net had been spread below to catch her. She had one chance in a hundred to save her life by a leap. The firemen grabbed their net and looked up. They could not see her. The woman peered down. She could not see them. Persons father away tried to shout directions. It was a guess. It was her only chance. She leaped. Her form came straight through the air, feet foremost. She jumped well and clear. Thousands of eyes watched the flying form. They saw it strike the iron rail of the awning. She dropped a little to one side of the net outstretched to save her and struck the pavement.”
“Such was the death of Susan Gormley, 42 years of age, of 1727 Filbert street.”
A special jury of experts convened by the City Coroner collected evidence, reviewed testimony and found the structure in compliance with what safety codes existed. They couldn’t zero in on what started the fire, suggesting the deceased “could probably explain the direct cause.” And they recommended sweeping changes aimed at prevention, mitigation and “providing proper and sufficient means of escape.”
[Sources include: “Flames starting in basement of Hunt, Wilkinson & Co.’s Furniture Store, 1219–21 Market Street Form Funeral Pyre for Many and Cause Estimated Property Loss of $500,000,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 26, 1901; “Eight Story Building Fire,” The Atlanta Constitution, October 26, 1901; “No Cause Found for Fatal Fire,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1901; The 25 most-deadly building fires of all time, firesciencedegree.com.]