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Bowery Church Fire


from Firehouse/September 1978

On July 27, 1978, Manhattan Borough Commander John J. Fogarty faced a difficult fire at the 179-year old Episcopal Church, St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery, a New York City landmark that is the oldest site of continuous worship in the city.

The fire was a three-alarm blaze which began around 1:30 P.M. and was apparently caused by a restoration worker's acetylene torch. It was spotted by a returning company, Ladder 8 (interchanged with Ladder 9), whose detailed captain then requested a full first alarm assignment. On his arrival, Acting Division Chief John J. Moffatt (Division #1), seeing heavy brown smoke pushing out from the steeple, tapped in the second alarm. Assistant Dept. Chief Fogarty arrived five to ten minutes later and placed the third alarm. Engine companies 5, 33 and 14 and Ladder 3 were first to arrive. Before it was declared under control at about 3 P.M., the operation employed approximately 75 firefighters, consisting of 10 engine, one rescue and five truck companies, and one division and two battalion chiefs. Two tower ladders were used. Three stang portable nozzles and eight hand lines were stretched to control the flames.

A six-foot iron fence that surrounded the church and a graveyard on one side prevented the companies from utilizing normal operational equipment. Instead, they had to rely heavily on portable equipment, such as stang nozzles and very carefully stretched hand lines. The two tower ladders, utilizing a heavy caliber fog stream to prevent lateral spread, had to be deployed front and rear, while the sides of the church remained protected by exterior hand lines. There was also danger of the 150foot steeple collapsing. "We kept an eye on the steeple supports," recalls Chief Moffatt.

As it was, however, the steeple did not fall, but the back section of the 50foot high peaked roof did, collapsing a half hour after the fire began. According to Moffatt, there was heavy slate on the roof weighing it down. The slate, which fell in pieces during the fire and hampered operations, also made venting impractical.

The fire, therefore, had to be fought from the outside. "I set up a stang in the doorway to operate after the roof I collapsed," says Chief Moffatt. The tower ladder used its stang nozzle in the cornices, while hand lines were brought in through the unexposed Church House located at the rear of the church. In addition, standard venting procedures could not be employed because of the structure's 50-foot high interior.

Pockets of flame were still being found hours after the blaze was brought under control. Although there were no injuries and no other buildings were involved, the loss of the roof and interiors and also of nine of the 23 stained-glass windows was a setback to the Bowery area, where the church has been a focal point of community activities for generations.

The church was dedicated on May 9, 1799 on the site of Governor Peter Stuyvesant's farm. Stuyvesant is generally regarded as the founder of New York's first volunteer fire company. Architects agree that the building, the second oldest in Manhattan, remains structurally sound, and St. Mark's officials announced that efforts would be made to raise the $500,000 to $1 million needed for restoration.

"The big problem in this type of fire," sums up Chief Moffatt, "is the heavy wood construction of the roof. It's like fighting a lumber fire. Since it's four stories high, it's very difficult to deal with."

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