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Memorial Monday

The Millard Hotel Fire: Remembering Local Fire Inspector and Six Omaha Firefighters

Memorial Monday

The Millard Hotel Fire: Remembering Local Fire Inspector and Six Omaha Firefighters

Over twenty firefighters also injured in the 4-alarm blaze
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Incident Date:

February 8, 1933

Department:

Omaha Fire Department (NE)

Number of Line-of-Duty Deaths:

6

At just after 10:00 pm on Wednesday, February 8, 1933, a fire broke out at the historic Millard Hotel at Thirteen and Douglas Streets in Omaha, Nebraska. The fire started at the back of the building and quickly spread before firefighters arrived on the scene.

Firefighters were dispatched on Box Alarm 224 and arrived to find fire blowing out of the second and third story windows.

After assessing the state of the building and the fire, Chief Patrick Cogan ordered his firefighters to attack the seat of the fire using hose lines over ladders. The second alarm was struck at 10:15 pm. Firefighters deployed these lines across the back alley of the building, and there were six ladders in place helping firefighters to direct their streams to the source of the fire.

A Fireproof Marvel

The five-story hotel, which opened in 1882, was touted as “a model of comfort and elegance” and was visited by many dignitaries and celebrities. In addition to its aesthetic qualities, original owners also boasted of its fire protection measures, including a Benner’s standpipe system, six fire walls, fire escapes and six fire exits; towering over the property was a sign that read “FIREPROOF.”

Just over fifty years later, the building was under foreclosure—and like many Great Depression businesses, the building was in disrepair. Parts of the building were closed off, and there was concern that the sprinklers would not work due to the extreme cold in the unoccupied sections of the hotel. It was later discovered that the system had been turned off completely before the fire occurred.

Extreme Weather

Heavy fire wasn’t the only issue the firefighters battled on the scene. Temperatures that night were fifteen degrees below zero. Once the water started flowing, the firefighters were operating in curb-deep ice that surrounded the building—and the structure itself became encrusted with ice. Water from the hose lines sprayed a cold sleet, making it hard for firefighters to see. As it froze, it cut their faces.

The First Collapse

At around 10:30 pm, an explosion occurred—destroying seventy-five feet of the wall where firefighters were operating. Five firefighters were overcome by the wall collapse and died instantly. The falling debris covered the alley in at least six feet of rubble, which then iced over in the extreme cold. • Captain “Big Ed” Smith, of Engine Company 14, was atop a ladder when the collapse started and shouted to his company below to get off the ladder. As the ladder fell, it shielded the other firefighters from the falling debris. Firefighters recovered him forty-five minutes after the collapse. • Captain Thomas Shandy, Pipeman George Brandt, and Firefighter John L. Cogan, of Engine Company 10, and were last seen on a ladder in the alley. All three were found on Thursday evening. • Firefighter Franklin Kane, of Engine Company 6, whose ladder snapped in half, was buried under the rubble. He was the last firefighter recovered from the scene, found two days later on the edge of the debris field. On the south side of the adjacent Dodge Hotel, a firefighter ran a hose line up a fire escape to prevent the fire from spreading. When the wall collapse occurred, he grew faint and began to fall into the alley. A hotel guest reached out of his third-story window and pulled the firefighter in to safety. The firefighter steadied himself—and went on with his work. Although their comrades were buried under the debris and ice, making rescue difficult, the battered, bruised, and frostbitten firefighters worked to bring the fire under control and make rescues. Even when ordered to take a break, firefighters remained steadfast in their duties.

A Second Collapse

At around 1:00 am, after the fire was thought to be under control, crews from Engine Companies 3 and 4 accompanied Omaha Fire Inspector Clarence Urban and W.S. Rathburn, of the National Board of Fire Underwriters, to inspect an unburned section of the building. They were trying to determine whether the sprinkler valve was open or closed at the time of the fire. They were ordered not to go into the basement, so they cut a hole in the floor and peered down through the opening. At around 3:00 am, W.S. Rathburn left the building. One of the firefighters inside also left to get the crew warm beverages—just before a secondary collapse occurred. This building failure brought the second, third, and fourth floors crumbling inward from the weight of the water that had been pumped into the structure, which had quickly turned to ice.

Over 20 Firefighters Injured

Firefighter Louis Morocco was killed instantly, while Firefighter Walter Hoye, Inspector Urban, and Captain George Cogan were trapped. The first to be rescued was Firefighter Hoye, who had facial burns and a broken knee. Crews located and communicated with Inspector Urban, but as they worked to free him from under a heavy timber in the basement, they lost contact and later learned that they were too late. Captain George Cogan, of Engine Company 4, who was the brother of Fire Chief Patrick Cogan, was trapped in the basement for over six hours under heavy timber. His chest was crushed by debris and he was unable to move. Fearing the worst, Captain Cogan asked for a priest. As firefighters dug a hole in the debris to get to the captain, a priest was summoned. Reverend Edward Gleeson of St. Philomena’s Church arrived and crawled into a hole to hear Cogan’s confession. Fifteen minutes later, firefighters were able to pull him free using a rope wrapped around his body.

Other injured firefighters included:

• Captain George Winston, Engine Company 6 • Harold Hodin, Engine Company 2 • Harry B. Lewis • James Donahue • Paul Wusteohausen • Mike Giddings • Charles Huston • Fred Jacobsen • Charles Cline • Earl Newton • John Marchetti • Jack Mattern • Battalion Chief Patrick McElligott • Frank Poneo • Clarence Brown • Millard Nickols • Thomas Lynch • John Jackson • Edward Dodrill • Joe Fitzgerald

Chuck Winston, son of Captain George Winston, was at the local hospital visiting a friend when a police officer asked him to help him with one of the wounded being brought in a wheelchair. As he hurried over to help, he realized the injured firefighter was his own father.

The Rekindle

On Friday morning, a crew remained on the scene to find Firefighter Kane and catch any hot spots. While they worked, they noticed a fire in the southwest corner of the building. As the crew began to direct their streams to put that fire out, a small explosion occurred. They called for two more engine companies to assist them at the scene.

The Aftermath

Ultimately, all the hotel’s forty-five guests and staff escaped the building unharmed. But the fire had lasting effects on the Omaha Fire Department, its firefighters, and the families of the fallen. Of the twenty-two injured firefighters, some never returned to duty.

While officials never determined an exact cause, the fire’s origins were considered suspicious, as the building was in foreclosure, heavily insured, and the owners had two other hotel properties that burned. The estimated loss was over $250,000. Conflicting testimony made it hard to determine exactly what had happened at the Millard, underscoring the need for fire investigation and code enforcement.

Due to budget restrictions at the time, the department had no fire investigators—so that role fell to the captains on the scene. In January of 1934, the department officially organized its Fire Prevention Bureau, which included four firefighters who inspected public buildings and enforced fire codes. They also investigated suspicious fires until the creation of the Arson Bureau in 1935. The department’s creation of these bureaus put properly trained firefighters in place to prevent future tragedies and prosecute those responsible for arson.

Remembering

More About Memorial Monday

Memorial Monday is established to remember the sacrifice of firefighters who died in the line of duty before the National Memorial was created in 1981. On the last Monday of every month, a firefighter, or groups of firefighters, will be remembered as we share information about these firefighters and their sacrifice.