Fire Buffs promote the general welfare of the fire and rescue service and protect its heritage and history. Famous Fire Buffs through the years include New York Fire Surgeon Harry Archer, Boston Pops Conductor Arthur Fiedler, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and - legend has it - President George Washington.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Boiler Explosion, Fire Killed 22
One of Denver's deadliest accidents

By Vinny Del Giudice

On Aug. 19, 1895, a boiler exploded at downtown Denver's Gumry Hotel while the boiler operator was at a saloon.

"Naught but the walls were left intact," the Aspen Weekly Times reported.

A Utah newspaper called it "a gaunt and sinister ruin."

The explosion killed 22 people including Peter Gumry, proprietor.

Newspapers published graphic details of the disaster.

hotel was located on Lawrence Street between Seventeenth and Eighteenth streets.

"The firemen, with light and torch, entered all parts of the hotel," according to a daily quoted by an insurance journal. "Out of the pile of brick, wood and iron below came feeble moans and piteous cries."

James Murphy, trapped in the ruins, pleaded with firemen to amputate his leg. Moments later a wall collapsed and buried Murphy. He died.

M.E. Letson, a dairyman, who waited 10 hours for rescuers to reach him, told a newspaper correspondent of his ordeal:

"You cannot have the slightest idea of my feelings as I lay there in the bottom of the basement with all the ruins on top and around me, hearing the excruciating cries of the dying and those in agony and being almost overcome by the shock, and also soaked with water and almost drowned and fearing that the next minute I would be buried alive."

A newspaper said: "
Cries of a babe and the moans of men and women could be heard, but the flames and smoke increased, and finally the voices were all silenced."

Three Denver firemen - P. Gilchrist, J.E. Troy and Louis Maguire - were injured when a wall collapsed and "were almost suffocated to death by smoke and dust," according to a dispatch published in a New Jersey newspaper. [Daily True American of Trenton] The firemen were treated at the county hospital "where it was found they were not seriously injured."

Boiler operator Helmuth Loescher fled Denver and was returned to face investigators.

A coroner's jury determined it was impossible to assign blame, according to October 1895 edition of The Locomotive, a publication of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company.

Author Howard Potter Dunham, writing in a 1912 textbook [Google Books archive] entitled "The Business of Insurance," said the boiler contained adequate water.

However, the jury assailed Gumry and his business partner for allowing Loescher to work long hours; censured Loescher for negligence; and criticized the city boiler inspector for lax procedures and standards.

Excerpt of verdict [Chronicling America]:

"From the testimony submitted, which was conflicting, we are unable to fix the responsibility for the disaster upon any one person, but we believe the owners and managers, Peter Gumry and Robert C. Greiner, were blamable for requiring of the engineer sixteen hours' work out of twenty-four - a request far beyond the ability of any man to endure and perform good work; also for employing an engineer whose habits were dissipated and unreliable, and whose experience did not justify them in placing him in such a responsible position, all of which were well known to them.

"We find that the engineer, Helmuth Loescher, had been drinking on the night of the disaster, and further, he had not examined the safety valve to the boiler for two months, proving him unfit to occupy any position where security to life and property depends upon the faithful performance of duty."

Jury members: K. G. Cooper, F. B. Croke, F. E. Edbrooke, Charles W. Babcock, Frank M. Demange and R. W. Speer.

"Walls have been torn down, but three upper floors and an immense square skylight in the roof hangs suspended in midair directly over where the bodies are supposed to be … Firemen, laborers and their superintendents have worked incessantly, but little appears to have been accomplished … Chief of Police Goulding is in receipt of hundreds of letters and telegrams from all over the country making inquiry of the missing" - San Francisco Call [8/21]

Every engine in the city was called to the scene … The firemen worked with great heroism. The heat was intense, and the smoke blinding. Electric light wires dangling in the alley, and walls tottering to a fall, increased the perils of the situation." - Oswego Daily Times [8/19]

List of Dead:


UNITED 859 CRASH - 1961

Crash at Stapleton

The fiery crash of United Air Lines DC-8 jetliner at Denver's Stapleton Field led to reforms at the airport's fire station.
It was 1961 -- the dawn of the jet age and firefighters lacked equipment and staffing to manage modern aircraft.

"The size and fuels of our airplanes has changed," Denver Fire Chief Allie Feldman. "Our firefighting equipment has not."

On July 11, 1961, Flight 859 skidded off a runway and exploded in flames, killing 18 people. One of the passengers died at a hospital.

Airport firefighters were praised for their valiant efforts, but the City of Denver was later criticized for being inadequately prepared.

An FAA inspector had warned that the airport's fire equipment was too old for the jet age.

Stapleton's crash trucks were "at least 12 years old," Feldman said. "It was the best we had at the time." Feldman was quoted in an Associated Press story printed in the Toledo Blade of Ohio.

Flight 859 "ground looped after the crash, swerved off the runway and smashed into a truck," the AP reported in a story printed in the Daily Tribune of Greeley, Colorado.

Truck driver Henry Blom died instantly.

Flames engulfed the cabin.

"When I went out the door, my hat was on fire," said passenger Eva Hershel, 64, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She was quoted in an AP story printed in the Daytona Beach Morning Journal.

Dr. Earl Guyer, clinical psychologist at the Veterans Hospital at Fort Lyons, was at the airport to meet his wife and three daughters. They died in the flames.

Ten minutes before touching down at Stapleton, the pilot reported hydraulic problems.

The airport's three fire engines were placed on "stand-by" at the east end of the runway, standard procedure for aircraft reporting potential mechanical problems.

"The fire trucks were standing by where they were supposed to," said Dick Martin, the airport manager. Martin was quoted in an AP story printed in the Lewiston Morning Tribune of Idaho.

However, the city's other fire stations were unaware, and that led to a delay in the arrival of reinforcements.

"No other fire stations were notified because nobody, including the pilot, realized it was so serious," Martin said.

Additionally, questions were raised about the airport's water supply.

United Airlines mechanic Earl Darling said he fought the flames with a fire extinguisher because "they didn't get any water on the burning plane for at least five minutes after it crashed." Darling was quoted in an AP story printed in the Lewiston Morning Tribune of I

However, Denver Fire Captain Edward Trunck said: "We started rolling our trucks when the airplane hit the runway. We started on that foam immediately."

Even if there had been more equipment and firefighters placed on standby, there was little that could have been done because speed and intensity of the flames.

"It didn't make any difference how many pieces of fire equipment we had there," Feldman said.


On July 16, 1944, fire roared through a "tunnel of love" boat ride at Denver's famed Elitch Gardens amusement park.

A locked gate delayed fire engines from reaching the blaze.

Smoke blackened the "Old Mill" boat ride, which featured colorful vessels and oil-painted canvas scenes.

Six people died. Four of the dead were soldiers and their wives. Two worked at the park and rushed into the flames to save the others.

"Flames were still at their height when firemen crashed through the walls of the Old Mill with axes," the Associated Press reported.

The International News Service reported: "For nearly an hour firemen feared the entire million dollar park would be burned down".

William Kilbourne, a soldier from Louisville, Kentucky, was credited with saving lives by pushing boats out of the tunnel.

"I heard a scream and looked back over my shoulder," Kilbourne said. "I saw a flash of flame in other boat or beside it."The tragedy led to reforms in the municipal fire code.


Holiday Pursuit in Downtown Denver

By The United Press

DENVER - "Julius Caesar," a milk wagon horse with a sense of humor, and the Denver Fire Department gave Christmas shoppers a treat when they played "tag" in the main business section Saturday.

Julius, as a rule, goes about his business like any ordinary horse, but when an oil stove in the wagon exploded while the driver was delivering a bottle of milk, he broke away.

As Julius kicked up the snow in a burst of speed down a busy avenue, scattering bottles of milk, six fire trucks took up the pursuit.

The firemen "tagged" Julius after a chase of five blocks and extinguished the blaze.
[Pittsburgh Press - Dec. 22, 1929 - Page 2]


'He Knew He was OK'

On April 16, 1955, Aurora fire crews rescued little David Mark Counterman, 2, from the bottom of an 18-foot water well shaft.

Firemen lowered into a rescue shaft bored by city workers and telephone company drillers cut through dirt and rock to reach the boy who tumbled into the abyss.

Oxygen pumped into the well sustained David during the four-hour drama.

"He screamed all the time he was in the hole," said George Moorehead, fire chief of Aurora. "But the minute we laid hands on him, he gave us a feeble smile and stopped.
"He knew he was OK," Moorehead said in an Associated Press story printed in the Sunday News-Press of St. Joseph, Missouri.

FIRE BUG - 1935

The Life and Death of Warren Cramer

Warren Cramer was just plain bad.

As a teenager, he confessed to an arson spree in Denver. 
As an adult, he confessed to a murder in San Francisco -- and was executed in the gas chamber.

On Aug. 26, 1935, Cramer, 17, son of a prominent dentist and attorney from Oakland, California, confessed to setting 20 fires across Denver in five days, including blazes at a Catholic cathedral, two Catholic churches, City Hall and police headquarters.

"I got a thrill out of it," Detective Sergeant Walter Fox quoted the youth as saying, according to an Associated Press story printed in the Southeast Missourian newspaper. "It was fun, especially last night when I started a fire in police headquarters."

Cramer said he used a stolen bicycle to move from fire to fire.

Police caught him at a night club phone booth.

At first, police had suspected a "religious fanatic" or "Nazi sympathizer" with setting the church fires, according to a United Press story printed in the Telegraph-Herald of Dubuque, Iowa.

A headline in the Herald Journal of Spartanburg, South Carolina, read: "DENVER FEARFUL OF FIRE MANIAC."

The boy's father, Dr. Harry Cramer, said his son served 10 months at the Preston industrial school for petty theft and had repeatedly run away from home since he was 12.

Dr. Cramer also said the boy's mother, who died shortly after his birth, "was insane" and "this undoubtedly explains his actions," according to an Associated Press story in the Lawrence Journal-World of Kansas.

Cramer went onto an "eight-year career of thievery, arson and jail breaking" and was executed in California's gas chamber at San Quentin on May 14, 1943, for the slaying of Ernest Saxton, a San Francisco drug store clerk in 1942, according to a United Press story printed in the Bend Bulletin of Oregon.

At the end, San Quentin Warden Clinton Duffy described Cramer as a “brilliant” man who thought he had a “rotten streak in his system which he couldn’t control.”

His last words in the gas chamber were: "I can't smell anything yet ... It smells like rotten eggs," according to the book "Last Words of the Executed" by Robert K. Elder and Studs Terkel.