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Fire report continued

Darkness came on Saturday night, finding about the same conditions which had existed during the afternoon. By this time the  upper floor, with its machinery, had fallen and in the mass of woodwork and machinery the fire played back and forth in spite of many streams of water, at times more than twenty, which were constantly played against it. There is a limit to human endurance, and by this time we find this limit reached in the case of many of the men, who through the long day, with the thermometer at no time above zero, had toiled against the tremendous odds. These men were by necessity temporarily relieved, while the rest of them worked steadily through the long winter night. Sunday morning came and found conditions not materially changed, excepting that the fourth floor had fallen to the third floor, and the third unable to withstand the load, weakened by its charred beams, had late in the night given out for some distance along the centre of the mill. There was at this time no great mass of fire, but innumerable small ones, mostly in the double beams and wreckage. Sunday night came, finding the fire so far under control that the corporation fire pumps, after a record breaking duty, were shut down. All Sunday night however, several streams were in constant use and at one time it was thought that a general alarm would have to be rung in again owing to the starting of the fire among the wreckage. Monday morning the view inside the mills can be neither imagined or described. 

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Inside the ruins

Time or space will not admit a more detailed description of this fire and I pass on to draw a few conclusions which the experience suggests. I cannot but appreciate the fact that many of you may feel that suggestions form me are superficial or possibly out of place; at the same time, I content myself with the thought that there is no great loss without some gain, that the gain in this case must come from the lesson taught, and whether the teachings are accepted or not is a matter beyond my province. 

To begin with, I believe that the facts will warrant the sweeping statement that, generally speaking, but few cotton mills of this country are particular enough in matters of detail connected with the fire apparatus, and the organization of the fire department. The careful inspections made periodically by the inspectors of the mutual insurance companies are all right as far as they go and without them there is no knowing to what extent our indifference in these matters might lead us.

I think if the truth were known, it would be surprising to find how few men in your employ are reasonably familiar with the location of the main shut-off valves, to say nothing of numerous valves perhaps less important, which are found in the larger plants. Of course in the case of a small plant with a single mill or two, especially of modern construction, the water pipe system is extremely simple and easily understood and remembered, but in the larger corporations, and more particularly those covering large areas where buildings have been added from time to time for many years back, you generally find a water pipe system more or less complicated and confusing to those who have not mastered it in detail. 

In this connection, I would say that I believe that each individual mill, where it is possible, should be controlled by one main valve, situated well outside the building and marked plainly with an indicator post. No underground valves, marked or unmarked, requiring a wrench should be allowed. Inside of the building each floor, or each section, dividing as it seems best, should be controlled by its own valve located outside of that department, preferably in the hallways. The location of these department valves is most important. There is the one objection to locating them within easy reach that they may be tampered with by unauthorized persons. Again, there is the serious objection to locating them out of reach so that a ladder or steps of some kind are required. Again, it is a mistake to locate these valves where the steps or ladder used as a means of getting at them come in direct route of the people coming out of the mill.

At the time of the Cocheco fire, the main shut-off valve, shutting off one-third of the entire mill, as explained, was located in the lower hallway, at a convenient height from the floor, where it could be handled readily without the use of steps. At the first alarm of fire the crowds of operatives, who hastened down the stairways and out through this hall, interfered seriously with the two men who were opening the valve. The plan which has been adopted in the new mill locates these valves high up, out of the way, and an iron walkway is constructed and permanently fastened under these valves, at a convenient height for operating them, this walkway being reached from the floor by an iron stairway located in the hallway outside of the course of travel. 

All inside valves should be outside screw and yoke, or so called rising stem, valves, discarding entirely the ordinary form of gate valve, which you can never be sure of as being open of shut without trying it, and then we may run into the most annoying uncertainties caused by the occasional introduction of a valve of the opposite hand. The left hand valve is certainly an invention of the Evil One and it has does much toward developing the profanity of mankind. In the use of these valves, as to the closing and opening of them, little can be said beyond the warning which has been already sounded so vigorously by the insurance companies, to the effect that no valve should be closed without some responsible man being left at the valve to open it immediately in case of necessity. I believe, however, that we should go further than this and establish a fixed rule that whenever it becomes necessary to close a sprinkler valve during working hours, the overseer or foreman of every department in which sprinklers are put out of commission must be notified. Even with this precaution, it would seem as if the closing of a sprinkler valve, especially while the mill is running, was an act to be avoided by every reasonable means. In the case of the Cocheco fire, I do not believe that had a man been stationed at the valve the results would have been materially different, unless the overseer or second hand in the card room below had been notified at the moment the valve was shut. It may be that valuable time would have been saved had it been known in the card room that the water was shut off from the sprinkler heads. Certainly a risk is taken when a main valve controlling any large portion of a mill is shut off. If a fire starts, especially in the card room where there is any amount of loose cotton, it might gain such headway during the time taken to give the alarm and to roll the gate open that the efficiency of the sprinkler service, by the reduction of pressure, would be greatly impaired, if not entirely ruined.


Unfortunately, there has not yet been devised or invented a proper hose for factory use. The Standard Cotton Rubber Lined Hose answers the purpose perfectly when it is new or in good condition, but this type of hose wears out faster with disuse than with use. The average life of a good quality of rubber lined fire hose hung up on reels, depends to a great extent on the temperature of atmospheric conditions in the room which it is located. During the fire there were many lines of hose, some belonging to the Cocheco Company and a great deal belonging to an outside company, all cotton rubber lined standard weight, or better, which failed to stand up for any length of time under high pressure. Usually the rubber lining found its way in chunks or bunches into the nozzle, making it necessary to shut off the water and clean out the nozzle, an easy matter to do under ordinary conditions, but practically impossible when the temperature was so low that to shut off a stream meant to abandon it.

The linen hose which is allowed by the insurance companies and which is used to a very great extent, especially for inside protection, is a snare and a delusion and should be labeled “Not for Use.” A few years ago I was so far misled as to purchase a considerable supply of Underwriters’ Standard Linen Hose, from a most reputable manufacturer. A great deal of this hose found its way into action at the time of the fire, but caused so much hard feeling that after a few hours most of it was banished to the back yard to thaw out at its leisure. This hose was hard to handle, and it choked so badly with ice and leaked so much that you could not approach within a radius of many feet without becoming thoroughly drenched. In fact to hold the nozzle on a line of linen hose was practically an impossibility, owing to the shower of water which leaked through the hose and froze as it fell, encasing one in a straight jacket in short order. I think you will find that this is the ordinary performance of a linen hose under fairly high pressure. Some of it no doubt better than others, and in some locations or conditions of weather its faults would not be so emphasized. What we must have is a light, thoroughly waterproof hose which will stand up under the maximum pressure without leaking, which will not burst if there happens to be a kink in the line, which will retain its strength and flexibility for a number of years, the longer the better, and which has a smooth inside surface to minimize friction.

A chapter might be written on the subject of nozzles, but to boil it down into a few words, I would say, equip with approved shut-off nozzles as far as possible. Working from inside of the building, a shut-off nozzle is almost indispensable. With the shut-off nozzle a line of hose can be easily moved, whereas with the open nozzle it is often dangerous to attempt it. In the case of a large fire, the size of the nozzle used is of great importance. The Standard Underwriters’ 1 1/8 inches is quite large enough for all ordinary fires, and in fact much too large for most of the fires with which we have to contend. With a large fire, however, the effectiveness of a larger of more powerful stream is very marked, I believe that every manufacturing plant, depending at all upon its own fire department for protection, can well afford to investigate the merits of the Siamese of Deluge sets, which throw a much more powerful stream than can be obtained through single lines of hose.

These powerful streams are easy to handle and with them it is possible to get water onto the roofs or towers which are beyond the reach of ordinary streams. 

There is not much to be said on the subject of ladders. It is unfortunate that the ordinary extension ladders, such as are found in our mill equipments, are so unwieldy and so difficult to manage. They serve their purpose, however, and, as in the case of the Cocheco fire, may prove invaluable. For the saving of a life, a good Life Net is a splendid adjunct to the ladder department.

 A few years ago but little attention was paid by the Insurance Companies, or by manufacturers, to the subject of stand pipes. At one time I understand they were considered by many as being of little value, and their discontinuance recommended. I think I am right, however, in stating here that this opinion is rapidly changing. From my own experience, I believe that Stand Pipes are next in importance to the sprinkler head, and that Stand Pipes of ample size should be located in every tower with hose connections in the hallways, and Stand Pipes also in the centre of the buildings, especially where the buildings are large in extent, with a good supply of hose immediately available. The only chance of checking a large fire is by getting close to it with powerful streams. The Stand Pipe brings the water, in a most convenient way to every floor, saving all the time which would have otherwise been consumed by the dragging of hose up the stairs or up ladders raised on the outside of the building. Under no consideration should we abandon the stand pipe system. 

Another piece of apparatus which has received but little general attention is the Chemical Fire Extinguishers. It was fortunate for those who were struggling with the Cocheco fire that they had at hand a good equipment of chemical extinguishers. For some years past I had personally believed in their efficiency and had from time to time added to the numbers in use about the corporation, until many of the rooms where a fire was likely to start, were equipped with them.

The fire pail, on account of its cheapness, its extremely simplicity and at the same time its comparative effectiveness, perhaps should be place first in the list of factory apparatus, but the fire pail has its limitations in more ways than one, and it is at some of these points that the chemical extinguisher comes into play. You can with the extinguisher throw a most effective, although small, stream against the ceiling or into nooks and corners or out of the way places, where it would be impossible to throw water from a pail. I believe the time is coming when the chemical extinguisher, with possibly some improvements over its present form, although it is now pretty satisfactory, will have an important place in every mill department.

It is unnecessary to comment on the advisability of ample and well located supplies of fire axes, bars, spanners, lanterns, etc. It goes without saying that without these you are liable to find yourselves in a most uncomfortable position.


Leaving the subject of apparatus thus incomplete, I wish to call attention to a few points in mill construction which are brought out in the following of my subject. 

Belt Towers.- The running of main belts from the engine room up through a mill building, no matter whether it be at the centre of the building or at the end, is without doubt bad practice, speaking form the question of fire protection. The rapidity with which fire will travel, up and down, through belt boxes, is surprising. At the Cocheco fire, the engine room had fire in it a very few moment after it was discovered in the card room three stories above. The rapid spread of fire from room to room was without doubt due a great extent to the openings in wall and floors, made necessary for the passage of main belts. Construct your belt tower wherever it seems best but build it fire proof and have it entirely cut  off from the rest of the building. There should be no openings from the engine room through which a fire might pass into the mill.

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Small engine after the fire

Tinned fire doors are almost perfect protection against the spread of a fire. At the Cocheco fire not a single door failed to do its duty. They will get out of repair, as regards the running parts, usually the morning the insurance inspector arrives, but otherwise than this they are most satisfactory, An ordinary sheathing partition, supplemented by a stream of water, is a valuable fire retardant. A temporary partition across the end of the card room stopped the spread of the fire in that direction.

The subject of column caps or plates deserves a moment’s attention. It seems to be general practice to use for a column cap on which the floor beams rest, a cast iron plate of considerable length. In Cocheco No. 1 Mill these plates were 24 inches long and about 14 inches wide, the width of the beams. The overloading of the floor beams on the lower floors by the wreckage and ice, deflected them to such an extent that a great weight was brought on the ends of the plates and many of them were broken. There certainly can be no reason why a long plate should be used as it can add nothing to the strength of the building. A column cap should be only sufficiently long to cover the column or post with enough additional length for the lag screws or bolts holding the timber. These caps of which I speak were fractured square across the centre, or directly over the centre of the column. These were of good design, being about 2 inches thick on the ribs. 

There is nothing to be said against the wooden column, and in case of fire, I believe it is much safer than the iron column. The wooden column chars easily but burns away slowly. The floors fall along time before the posts have become sufficiently charred to weaken them materially.

As to the question of floor beams, I have already given you my opinion of double beams construction. It is practically is practically impossible to describe briefly the difficulties encountered during the Cocheco fire on this account. The open spaces between the two timbers formed a safe retreat or abode for the fire and also furnished a ready and safe means of travel from one side of the room to the other, or in a number of cases, through the medium of the posts the fire would travel from floor to floor, as well as from side to side, A number of times fire started in the double beams on the lower floor, in spite of the fact that there was one to three feet of ice and water on the floor above. Time after time did it become necessary to send men into the lower parts of the building with fire extinguishers to put out these small fires, which would appear in the double beams in most unexpected locations. It took forty-eight hours of constant attention with chemical extinguishers and small hose streams to save that part of the floor in the ell which was over the main engines and in spite of this it became necessary to shore up under the beams, they had become so honeycombed. In a number of cases the beams were burned away, always from the inside, out, until what was left fell of its own weight leaving the floor above practically intact with the floor spikes sticking through it.

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Section of burned beam

It was practically impossible to extinguish fire in the beams, without getting under it so that the stream could be directed squarely into the open space. From any location except directly beneath, the stream of water, no matter no powerful, had little or no effect as it could not get at the fire. It is readily understood why these beams, when greatly overloaded with ice and water and the wreckage from above, could stand but little of such treatment before they gave way. During the progress of the fire these beams broke down continually, making working side of the building extremely dangerous.

Those of you who have buildings constructed with double beams are facing this danger, and some practical methods should be devised for at least remedying in part this evil.

At Cocheco we are now experimenting with the filling of the space with a cheap grade of common cement. A batten strip is first nailed along covering the opening on the underside of the beam and then the space is filled with cement grout, poured down through holes bored in the floor above. I hope some better way will be devised, however, as this is a rather slow and laborious process, necessitating the boring of many holes through the floors. The fastening or dogging of floor beams to the brick walls is also to be avoided. It is a remarkable fact that although every beam in No.1 Mill was securely fastened to the walls by irons imbedded in the brick work, in every case the beam in falling either pulled the irons clear from the beam, or tore the fastening away from the brick work without doing material damage to the walls themselves. 

The fact that the brick walls stood so well goes to prove conclusively that this mill broke down rather than burned down. There was of course a large area of fire, which, augmented by the extreme cold weather, proved most stubborn, but at no time after the first rush of the flames through the rooms was the heat intense. Had this mill been constructed of solid beams, the loss would have been without doubt comparatively small.

Much could have been written upon the organization and training of the cotton mill fire brigade, but I will touch on this subject only as far as to say that the men who have to fight the cotton mill fires are those who happen to be on the spot at the time. During running hours the problems are far different form those presented by a blaze in the night. It is the man with the good head and reasonable amount of common sense who makes the best mill fireman, after all. Nine-tenths of the battle is won when ample apparatus, all in good condition, is available, together with a few steady, active fellows who will keep cool and obey orders.

Confusion is the one thing to be avoided. It is also the one thing which invariably occurs to more or less extent. The value of the fire drill is that it disciplines the men, and discipline is the surest preventative of confusion.

To attempt to cover at all satisfactorily the subject of Cotton Mill fires would, I fear, monopolize and entire evening’s session. I have been compelled, therefore, with the time at hand to treat it in a most general way, but before closing I beg to impress upon you the truth of the old saying “In Times of Peace Prepare for War,” and because you have had no serious fires in your own mill, do not be misled into believing that such a thing is an impossibility. Even with good general organization and perfect equipment, there are pretty sure to be at times weak or vulnerable spots open to the attack of the devouring elements, although it make take strange and unnatural combinations to develop them. Eternal vigilance will go a long way towards weakening the effect of these combinations, while indifference encourages disaster.


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