by Paul Hashagen
It was March 8, 1915, when the first rig went into service.
It had been 50 years since hand pumpers gave way to steam. Internal combustion engines were replacing horses. Reliable gasoline power now cost less than real “horse power.” Fire apparatus still gleamed and belched smoke, but the sound of galloping horses was drifting into history.
In modern cities, the fire service was having trouble keeping up with architectural excesses and increasing population densities. Taller and larger buildings and new inventions and technologies posed unique and dangerous problems to the already hazardous occupation of firefighting.
In New York City in 1912, a major fire proved how outdated the firefighters’ tools were. While battling a difficult, wind-driven blaze inside the “fireproof” Equitable Life Assurance Building, the Fire Dept. of the City of New York (FDNY) would be confronted with new and different challenges.
The Equitable Building was actually a huge composite structure of five interconnected buildings erected at different times that occupied an entire city block. At the height of the fire, a large section of the building collapsed, trapping a bank president, several clerks, and a watchman in a cellar vault. Their cries for help, shouted through a barred window at sidewalk level, attracted attention. “New York’s Bravest” immediately initiated a dangerous rescue effort. As a waterfall of freezing water cascaded down the face of the building, firefighters began the perilous task of sawing through the iron bars—by hand. Blade after blade dulled or broke with the effort and was quickly replaced as the hacksaw work continued. After an exhausting hour-and-fifteen-minute operation, the last bar gave way, and the men were freed. Sadly, one had already perished in the deadly smoke.
After the fire, the FDNY tried to form a special unit to handle such difficult tasks. As is the way in most governmental functions, these talks and plans languished for lack of funds. The catalyst for action occurred three years later, when a fire broke out in the subway tunnel between Columbus Circle and the 50th Street station. Toxic smoke killed one person and injured more than 700. Two hundred people were rendered unconscious. Rescue work was extremely difficult for firefighters forced to operate without any breathing protection in the thick, noxious smoke. The FDNY realized it was time for action. It was time to form the Rescue Company.
A call for volunteers to staff the new unit went out across the department. Hundreds volunteered. The chief and his staff handpicked the new officers and men. On Jan. 19, 1915, Captain John J. McElligott and his new 10-man company began an intense month and a half of specialized training. Chief John Kenlon then met with Charles Demarest, the battalion chief in charge of the FDNY shops. The new company would need a new type of apparatus, and it needed it quick.
The FDNY had been working to motorize its fleet since 1913. The department switched to tractors built by J. Walter Christie and others to pull its existing apparatus. Now, a new challenge confronted the department: the need for a specialized apparatus that could move men and equipment quickly though the congested streets of the city. Based in lower Manhattan, the new Rescue Co. would respond to fires and emergencies across the island and the other five boroughs as needed.
The Rescue Co. started with a 1914 Cadillac touring car chassis. Working with his team of mechanics, Demarest designed and fabricated a special rear section that would comfortably carry the men and needed equipment. Unlike with the other FDNY apparatus, there would be no hoses or ladders. It carried only special tools and specially trained men.
The new truck was presented to the department several days before the new company went into service. On the afternoon of March 2, 1915, Demarest brought the rescue truck to the Municipal Building in downtown Manhattan and presented it to the fire commissioner and the chief. The new truck attracted a large crowd of interested citizens, fire department officials, and the media. It was quite a hit!
On March 8, the new rig went into service with a cache of specialized tools that were new to the FDNY and state-of-the-art for their time.
- Draeger smoke helmets would allow the rescuers to enter dangerous atmospheres filled with carbon monoxide, toxic smoke, illuminating gas, and ammonia fumes. Ammonia was the primary refrigerant at this time and was widely used in commercial and residential settings. J. Heinrich Dräger’s German-based company invented and manufactured the smoke helmet and countless other pieces of equipment used for lifesaving, medical, and diving purposes. Its products have been marketed in the United States under the differently spelled “Draeger” label.
- Another major specialized tool transported by the Cadillac was a Blau gas torch. This cutting torch set comprised two cylinders: one for oxygen and one for Blau gas. “Blau” is the German word for “blue,” but the name actually comes from its inventor, Dr. Hermann Blau. With this torch, firefighters were able to cut through iron bars in a matter of seconds. Cylinder capacity could handle 26 one-inch cuts before switching or refilling. The rescuers could now handle difficult situations such as freeing people trapped behind bars (as they had been during the Equitable fire), entangled in elevators or machinery, or in vehicle collisions.
- The third groundbreaking piece of equipment was the Draeger Pulmotor. This oxygen-driven resuscitation device would initiate what commonly became known as “street medicine.” The Pulmotor was a revolutionary device that would save countless lives by forcing oxygen, under pressure, into the lungs. This tool allowed rescue men to apply aggressive treatment to patients who would otherwise be left to crude and ineffective arm-lifting resuscitation techniques.
- Sets of rubber waders and gloves protected the men from high concentrations of ammonia and other hazardous liquids and gases. There was no such thing as a specialized hazardous materials response; Rescue 1 was the first. Several small hand tools, fire extinguishers, and ropes for manual signaling while using the smoke helmets were also carried. Extra cylinders of oxygen for both the smoke helmets and cutting torch were also stored onboard.
- And finally, there was the Lyle gun (or “life gun”), a technological marvel originally developed to fire lifesaving lines between ships at sea. This short-barreled, .45- to .70-caliber rifle was used to cast a line up to 850 feet, depending on the cartridge and line used. A brass projectile with a strong, lightweight line attached was delivered over the remote target such as a ship or the roof of a tall building. When the line was received, a rope could be attached and pulled up into position. Named for inventor David Lyle, the Lyle gun became the Rescue Co. insignia and was also used to signify rank. On the officer’s hat and lapel badges, one gun signified a lieutenant and two indicated the rank of captain. This was similar to the way trumpets ranked engine officers and axes identified ladder company officers.
This gear was carried in the customized rear section of the Cadillac rig. Two bench seats facing each other doubled as riding positions with storage areas beneath. There was also a central storage compartment between the seats.
Four of the smoke helmets were stored in the center compartment, ready for use. The remaining four helmets were stored in the firehouse. The smoke helmets were disassembled, cleaned, reassembled, and tested after each use. They were also rotated onto the rig weekly, if not used, to equalize wear and tear. Two of the eight helmets were equipped with battery-powered telephones that allowed the wearer to communicate through 300 feet of wire to a rescue man with a telephone outside. One telephone-equipped helmet was always kept on the truck as part of the regular gear, but the telephone feature was used only under certain circumstances.
The sparkling red, right-hand drive Rescue 1 was by far the fastest “apparatus” in the fire service, excluding some chief’s cars, of course. The 5,600-pound vehicle (without passengers and tools) had a wheelbase of 11 feet and was said to reach 60 miles an hour during some responses. While thinking of a vehicle that size moving that fast, consider also that the streets of Manhattan and the other boroughs in 1915 were packed with trolleys, horsedrawn wagons and carriages, automobiles, and trucks.
Warning devices included a large bell mounted in front with a hand-cranked siren in front of the officer. The now-familiar red lights were not in use on emergency vehicles at this time. Attached to the right-side runningboard, next to the driver, was a spare tire with demountable rims. This meant the rims, with the tires on them, could be unbolted from the wheels, which made it possible to carry a spare tire ready to install. Also stored on this runningboard were small axes, extinguishers, and a mechanic’s toolbox.
The 1914 Cadillac also had a Delco electric starter, a 21-gallon gasoline tank, and three forward speeds. In New York City, apparatus operators (known as “chauffeurs”) had to be more than drivers; they had to be expert mechanics, as well. The chauffeurs—then, as now—maintained their trucks. At the start of each shift, a chauffeur made a diligent check of all the vital elements of his vehicle: tire pressure, oil levels, cooling systems, fuel, and batteries.
The public’s fascination with the new rescue company grew as their extreme firefighting, hazardous material mitigation, and aggressive resuscitation efforts gained notoriety with the many city newspapers. Another popular aspect of the new unit was the speed of response. (It seems people have always been interested in speed.) An article appearing in the Dec. 5, 1919, edition of the New York Tribune began with this headline: “Speed Record Shattered By Fire Department.” The story went on to recount how the company responded from its quarters on Great Jones Street to an ammonia leak in a movie theater at 368 E. 149th Street in the Bronx. It took 14 minutes from notification (including getting geared up and out the door) to arrival at the scene. The article went on to explain how “a speed of more than a mile a minute was attained, all of it through streets well-travelled at that hour.”
This sturdy little rescue wagon and its men rumbled through the streets for years, until it became clear the Caddy was aging. The company’s role was expanding, and the amount of tools being carried was increasing. Among the new tools were hydraulic jacks for building collapse and vehicle accidents, various filter and gas masks, additional resuscitators, and first aid equipment.
It was time for a new rig.
In 1921, the FDNY purchased a rescue truck from the White Motor Co. of Cleveland, Ohio. It was a bit larger, with more power (it was rated at 50 horsepower), but it looked almost the same as the old Rescue 1. The left-hand-drive open-cab vehicle still did not have a windshield. The Cadillac, held in reserve at the shops, was used as a spare until a new Mack “Bulldog” rig was purchased in 1924. The original Rescue 1 Cadillac was then sold at a public auction.
[ART NOTE: This author info is a bit too large to make into our usual closing sentence. Figure out a way to set it apart, without making it a separate sidebar. Thanks.]
Paul Hashagen is a 40-year veteran of the fire service. He retired from the Fire Dept. of New York (FDNY) after 25 years of service, with 20 of those years in Rescue Co. 1. Hashagen is a former chief of the Freeport (New York) Fire Dept. and is still a member of Truck Co. 1. He has written several books and numerous stories on the history of the fire service, including the official history of the FDNY, titled Fire Department City of New York: The Bravest; An Illustrated History 1865-2002. Hashagen is also the author of One Hundred Years of Valor: Rescue Company 1 New York City Fire Department 1915-2015, which won the 2016 New York Book Festival for non-fiction.
Rescue 1 Vehicle Specifications—March 8, 1915
Vehicle……….. 1914 Cadillac gasoline-propelled rescue wagon
Weight (pounds)……….. 5,600 (without men or equipment)
Manufacturer……….. Cadillac Motor Co., Detroit Michigan (rebuilt at FDNY shops)
Tires (inches)……….. 37×5, pneumatic
Tread (inches)……….. 60
Wheelbase (inches)……….. 132
Engine……….. Cadillac 4-cylinder, 4-cycle
Engine bore x stroke (inches)……….. 4-3/4 x 5-1/2
Engine output (horsepower)……….. 36.4
Gasoline tank (gallons)……….. 21
Carburetor……….. Cadillac, gravity fuel supply
Self-starter……….. Delco electric
Engine lubrication……….. Splash and mechanical, oil supply regulated by hand
Ignition……….. Two independent Delco systems
Sparkplugs……….. Two sets run on battery
Electrical……….. Equipped with generator that charges storage batteries
Batteries……….. Used for ignition, self-starter, and lights
Cooling System……….. Forced circulation, includes radiator, pump and fan
Transmission……….. Selective sliding-gear type
Gears……….. Three forward speeds and reverse
Clutch……….. Leather-faced cone, runs dry
Final drive……….. Shaft to floating axle
Rescue 1 Onboard Equipment
4 Draeger smoke helmets (1 helmet with telephone, transmitting set for street, battery equipment, and 300 feet of telephone wire)
6 oxygen cylinders at 2,500-pound pressure used in conjunction with smoke helmets and capable of lasting 80 minutes
16 regenerating cartridges for use on masks to remove carbon dioxide when exhaling (Carbonic acid gas is given off from the lungs, and the potash in these cartridges neutralizes the poison.)
1 Blau gas cutting torch, capable of making 26 one-inch cuts in iron or steel
1 cylinder of oxygen at 2,250 pounds pressure for cutting torch
1 cylinder of Blau gas at 700 pounds pressure for cutting torch
2 Pulmotors (40-minute capacity, 4 extra oxygen cylinders at 2,500 psi)
2 cylinder pillows (used with Pulmotor to position patient)
4 pairs wader trousers (protection against ammonia fumes)
4 120-foot-long Manila ropes (used as signal line)
2 4-pound axes
2 small jimmy bars (prying tools)
1 life gun (Lyle gun) with canister and line
2 pairs of rubber gloves
2 Pyrene extinguishers
1 Ever Ready hand electric searchlight
2 Dietz hand lanterns
Francis Blessing, the Original Chauffeur
FT 06 #02 05
Lieutenant Francis Blessing Jr. was an outstanding Rescue 1 chauffeur, firefighter, and officer. His name appeared seven times on the Roll of Merit for acts of heroism. He was also awarded the James Gordon Bennett Medal—the FDNY’s highest award for valor.
An experienced motor mechanic when he joined the FDNY in 1907, Francis Blessing’s skill at the wheel of the new motorized cars and trucks quickly became apparent. He was soon assigned to drive Chiefs of Department Croker and, later, Kenlon. He also drove Deputy Chief Smoky Joe Martin and Deputy Chief Ahern for brief periods. When Rescue Co. 1 was organized in 1915, Blessing was sent to drive the new rig. For some reason, his name was not officially on the roster until 1917, but his name is mentioned in the company’s first heroic actions—ranging from ship fires to sub-cellar fires and chemical leaks.
Blessing continued as the primary driver of the rig until he was promoted to lieutenant in 1917. In a most unusual move, he remained in Rescue 1 as an officer and continued driving. Blessing would drive to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1918 for an extremely dangerous fire onboard a submarine moored at the docks. Despite the danger, which included the presence of live torpedoes, Blessing led a team of smoke-helmeted rescue men into the blazing sub to rescue crew members and extinguish the fire. He was awarded the FDNY’s highest award, the James Gordon Bennett Medal for his performance at this fire. It was his seventh award for valor. Sadly, Blessing contracted pneumonia in March 1920 and, after a two-week battle, passed away. It was noted in his New York Evening World obituary, “He had a record of taking the apparatus seven miles into the Bronx in 10 minutes one night last winter.”
The five-foot, nine-inch 34-year-old fire officer’s career lasted only 13 years, but during that time he cast a long shadow among the heroes of the FDNY.