Saturday, January 05, 2008

White and black, young and old, rich and poor

In February of 1967, a tragic fire broke out on the top floor of the Walter Bragg Smith apartment building at 7 Clayton Street in downtown Montgomery, AL. The fire completely destroyed Dale's Penthouse, a well known restaurant and lounge on the top floor. The fire is etched into Montgomery's extremely turbulent and complicated history. 25 people lost their lives in the fire. Some escaped by diving down 11 floors to the street below. Others huddled at the back of the restaurant in a futile attempt to escape the smoke and flames. Those who survived managed to escape by crawling out of broken windows onto the 3-foot wide ledge surrounding the restaurant, which they used to make their way to the restaurant patio where they were later rescued by fire fighters (who, by the way, could not rely much on ladders).

The event of February 7th, 1967 is recalled in detail in a fairly recent article in the Montgomery Advertiser:
Dale's, a regular dining spot for businessmen and politicians, sat atop the Walter Bragg Smith apartment building at 7 Clayton St., two streets over from the newspaper office. Covering the tragedy on the 11th floor restaurant, some reporters experienced the worst story of their careers.

...The dead included former Alabama Public Service Commissioner Ed Pepper and his wife, as well as Rose Doane, Dale's hostess and the wife of then-Advertiser Sports Editor Jack Doane.

... Former Montgomery Fire Chief William C. McCord, who was a captain with the department in 1967, did talk about his experience.

"That was the worst night we ever had in the city of Montgomery," McCord, 74, said.

McCord who retired in 1995 after 43 years with the fire department, sat in his Eclectic home recently and spoke at length about the blaze, which broke out in the restaurant's cloakroom just before 10 p.m. Working out of the department's headquarters on Madison Street, McCord drove to the nearby restaurant expecting a small fire.

"When we got there, it didn't look nearly as bad as it was," McCord said. "But when we drove up, window panes and glass were falling onto our vehicle on Clayton Street."

Some of the people trapped in the restaurant had begun breaking windows in the dining area, which overlooked Clayton, in an effort to escape the smoke and flames. McCord said their actions, while saving some lives, helped fuel the fire.

"When that fresh air got in there, it was like someone turned a blowtorch on it," McCord said. Because of the cloakroom's location near the elevators and the restaurant's only stairwell, employees and patrons had few options for escape.

After trying unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire himself, Dale's chef, Jesse Williams, ran down to the 10th floor, got the elevator and managed to carry two loads of people down from the penthouse before the elevator stopped working. Williams and several firefighters who had gone up in a second elevator had to slide down the elevator cables to escape the 11th floor.

Another group of people, including [Montgomery physician Dr. J.J. Kirschenfeld and his wife], escaped by climbing out through the broken windows onto the three-foot-wide ledge outside the restaurant. They walked around the building through freezing winds to the outdoor patio, where the fire department later rescued them.

Those remaining inside died of asphyxiation, a fire department report said. The majority of the bodies recovered were burned beyond recognition. Eager to escape the fire on the other side of the restaurant, the victims had fled into the office -- which had no exit. That's where McCord's men found them.

"It was a mass of humanity," McCord said. "They were piled on top of each other. White and black, young and old, rich and poor."

McCord said the number of dead would have been significantly smaller if not for the fact that a stairwell that went up to the 10th floor was not extended when Dale's was added on to the top of the building. The stairs on the 10th floor were under the office area where more than a dozen of the victims were found.
The fire that destroyed Dale's Penthouse had a significant impact in how building fires would be handled nationwide:
"News of this fire went out all over America," McCord said. "It put the teeth in the laws they have now."

Montgomery Fire Chief John McKee agreed.

"What the Dale's fire did was bring national attention to high-rise fires," McKee said.

McKee and Assistant Chief William Davis said the national codes and standards became stricter, in turn making local laws tighter. Buildings were required to have a certain number of exits and changes were made in the requirements for sprinklers, the number of occupants allowed in a building and numerous other aspects of construction.

"That fire had a huge impact on the way high-rise fires are handled," Davis said. "It changed things across the country."
Here is the apartment building, which is now known as "Capitol Towers", today facing Clayton Street, and you can see more clearly where the penthouse patio is located.

I find the event interesting and fascinating -- not only because of the tragic fire itself, but also because of the way it seemed to blur Montgomery's very obvious and clear racial and class divisions, if only for a brief time, during the very turbulent decade of the 1960's. As described by Montgomery's former Fire Chief William McCord, "It was a mass of humanity... They were piled on top of each other. White and black, young and old, rich and poor."

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