- Historic Sites
’Twas Was The Night Before Christmas…
When up on the roof there arose such a clatter That Herbert rushed out to see what was the matter
December 1970 | Volume 22, Issue 1
The first persons into the President’s office were Larry Richey and the Hoover and Newton boys (who, the Star approvingly said, “played a man’s part”). In the already smoke-filled office the three cleared off the desk and began manhandling files out of the room. President Hoover, who had pulled a heavy blue topcoat over his dinner jacket, arrived moments later and took charge. But Secret Service men, tumbling in from all parts of the White House, hustled the President and everybody else out of the office. Mr. Hoover thereupon took post on the roof of the adjacent conservatory, donned a black hat brought by his valet, and lighted a cigar.
Meanwhile, Patrolman Trice had finished his sprint to the White House fire alarm box (Number 157, a typical red Gamewell model of the era). He broke the glass, turned the handle, opened the door, and pulled the hook.
At Fire Alarm Headquarters there came a single tap on the “joker” as the box was pulled. There was a pause, then the box number rang in. After another pause, a second round of bell strokes commenced.
Box 157—the White House !” sang out the telegrapher. The switchboard man swiftly cranked in the uptown home of Chief Engineer George S. Watson. Seconds later, in all Washington fire stations, polished brass gongs chimed: 1-5-7 …1-5-7 …1-5-7. …
As the big new 1927 Seagrave pumper of Engine 1, the first-due engine at the White House, roared through the front gates, Captain Edward O’Connor could already see fire behind the small attic windows of the West Wing. So could Central Battalion Chief C. W. Gill as he sped westward along Pennsylvania Avenue. With Engine i’s line stretched from the pumper to the front door of the Executive Offices, Chief Gill led the hosemen inside the smoke-charged building. Amid the heat and fumes, Gill called for Rescue Squad 1, in those days the only firemen with “smoke helmets” (respirator masks), to lead the way up the attic stairs. As they advanced the hose line into the attic, the atmosphere grew thick and heavy. Suddenly a rush of hot gas, a blast of heat, and a fireball of flame whooshed into the stair well, blowing Chief Gill and most of his crew down to the main floor.
Because of back draft, the fireman’s most dangerous foe, superheated fumes were ignited when fresh air from the stairway reached the fire in the attic. As Gill staggered to his feet amid the injured—four men were down—his first action was to order a second alarm. Then he reorganized his people, called for water, and advanced upward again behind Engine 1’s stream.
While the first-due companies in front of the White House had their hands full with what was evidently a “working fire,” Engines 16 and 23, responding at the rear, had problems of a different kind. Although they could see the fire plainly enough, the massive iron gates on the sides and rear of the White House grounds were locked and barred.
This contingency was one that Chief Engineer Watson had long ago foreseen. As a result of his urgings, master keys to the White House gates had been issued to the captain of each company due on a first alarm from Box 157. What Chief Watson could not have foreseen, however, was what now happened. With Keystone Cop supersecurity the Secret Service had had the locks changed but failed to notify the Fire Department. Thus when Engines 16 and 23 reached the east and west rear gates, they, together with Truck 3, whose 85-foot aerial ladder could reach the burning roof, had to wait in the street until puffing White House policemen could get the keys and run to open them.
When the back draft blew Chief Gill down the attic stairs, the time was approximately 8:15.∗ A minute later Deputy Chief Engineer P. W. Nicholson rolled in at the rear, took one look at Truck 3’s ladder being cranked up and at the fire in the windows, and at 8:17 ordered a third alarm. With Chief Gill’s second alarm at 8:16, this meant that eight additional engine companies, two more truck (that is, hook-and-ladder) companies, and the water tower were converging on the White House from all over central Washington as fast as the snorting new motorized pieces could travel.
∗This was six minutes after the time recorded for the first alarm! The records are perhaps not entirely precise.— Ed .
Like Sheridan at Cedar Creek, Chief Watson was also approaching the scene at high speed, but in his red Cadillac touring car, not on horseback. “I was notified by Fire Alarm Headquarters,” he reported, “that the White House box was being received and immediately left my home and proceeded to the White House as rapidly as traffic congestion would permit.” This is something of an understatement. With isinglass side curtains whistling, Watson’s rig covered the thirty-five-block stretch from his house to the President’s through downtown evening traffic in eight minutes flat.