Just before midnight on Saturday, March 29, 1952, the Denver Fire Department received a call for the Miller Furniture Company on Larimer Street. Units arrived on the scene to find heavy fire and immediately called for the second alarm.
This three-story building, dating back to the early days of Denver’s booming mining era, was once a hotel. It was located on the once-historic main thoroughfare, which in recent years had become run down. The building was packed with new furniture on all floors and was adjacent to two hotels and another furniture store.
While firefighters battled the fire, over seventy hotel occupants were evacuated from the nearby buildings. Thousands looked on as the fire raged, sending flames 30 to 40 feet into the air. Patrons of Larimer Street’s local watering holes rushed out to the street to cheer firefighters on during the height of the fire. Ultimately, the fire would reach three alarms before it was extinguished.
Just after 1:00 am—and after the fire was under control—the weakened structure collapsed onto itself, sending firefighters and bystanders scrambling for cover. The Denver Post reported, “Firemen estimated that a total of twenty tons of debris crashed into the basement when the building folded up.”
The Search for Firefighters
After a quick roll call, it was discovered that eight firefighters were missing—and the search began.
- Captain Kinney, who was trapped in the basement, was freed by crews as they moved debris with their bare hands. They removed the weight pinning him and he was able to walk out on his own. He later said, “I saw a miracle.”
- They dug for hours rescuing six other firefighters, including Captain Herman Orbloom, whose shoulders were wedged in between timbers and was unable to move. A police surgeon crawled into the debris to offer Orbloom some pain relief until rescuers could free him. He was unable to reach him on the first try, and as he backed out to try again, he heard Orbloom plead: “For God’s sake, cut this off so I can get out of here.”
- Two on-duty police officers were called to the scene to help rescue their brothers who were buried under heavy timbers in the basement.
Crews finally breached a basement wall in the furniture store next door to access the trapped firefighters and recovered rookie Firefighter Fred Erb and Firefighter Leonard A. Shire – both of Squad 4.
About the Investigation
Police later determined that the fire was set after a botched robbery attempt at the store.
- They found evidence in the unburned section of the building where an office door had been removed at the hinges and the safe inside was damaged—but still secure.
- A ball pein hammer was found on the floor next to the safe. The investigators’ theory was that the would-be robbers were frustrated when they could not crack the safe, choosing to set the building on fire as revenge.
- Because the building was so badly damaged, they were unable to determine the origin of the fire.
Inspections by the fire investigators revealed that the when the building was built, “it was the practice to put wooden joists and beams only slightly more than one inch into the walls instead of the eight to ten inches in present day  steel beams are put in. When the soft fabric of the stored furniture sponged up the water, the weight on the old beams increased ten or fifteen times, and the old beams just gave way. There was no explosion.”
The Aftermath of the Fire
After two separate funerals, Firefighters Erb and Shire were buried at the Crown Hill Cemetery with fire department honors as well as military honors for their service during World War II.
Firefighters were praised for their efforts to rescue the trapped firefighters. Two others were singled out for recognition for their efforts to free firefighters from the rubble – volunteer Everett Schumacher and civil defense worker Glenn Dotson.
The families of Firefighter Erb and Firefigher Shire received state compensation insurance checks and widow’s pensions. Fellow firefighters recalled that “both Shire and Erb had talked about joining the Firemen’s Protective Association not long before going out on their last assignment,” which would have provided an additional group life insurance policy and benefit checks.
Demolition would also prove to be tricky with the instability of the remaining structure. Since two of the walls were flush against the walls of the neighboring hotels, it was unknown if those would collapse when the remaining walls were removed. Shoring was put in place and the hotels remained evacuated until they could safety remove the rest of the building without risking the collapse of the nearby structures.