Paying Tribute: The 100th anniversary of the Chicago Union Stockyards Fire

In 1910, the Chicago Union Stockyards were one of the largest centers of industry in the world.

Just after 0400 HRS on the morning of Dec. 22, 1910, a fire broke out in the basement of a six-story cold storage warehouse building, specifically Warehouse 7, operated by Nelson Morris & Company. The warehouse was located within the Chicago Union Stockyards, which at the time was one of the largest centers of industry in the world.

The 450-acre site contained thousands of wooden animal pens, barns, haylofts, slaughterhouses, packing plants and warehouses owned and operated by more than 100 meatpacking businesses. On that fateful day, the stockyards became the scene of the worst fire service disaster in Illinois history and the deadliest building collapse involving fire service members until 9/11.

Today, we remember the 23 men who gave their lives 100 years ago:

• Lt. Herman Brandenberg
• William Burroughs, assistant fire marshal
• Capt. Patrick Collins
• Thomas Costello
• Nicholas Crane
• Edward Danis
• Capt. Dennis Doyle
• Nicholas Doyle
• George Enthof
• Lt. James Fitzgerald
• James Horan, chief fire marshal
• Capt. Alex Lannon
• Michael McInerney
• Charles Moore
• Albert Moriarty
• George Murawski
• Peter Powers
• Edward Schonsett
• William Sturm
• Frank Walters
• William Weber, driver
• Andrew Dzurman
• Patrick Reach

Initial Hazards & Delays
Two major hazards contributed to the fire’s strength and rate of spread: the animal fat and grease that coated the walls of the warehouse, and the hundreds of cured hogs inside, which were preserved with saltpeter, one of the main ingredients in gunpowder.

Upon arrival at the warehouse, Chicago-area firefighters found themselves completely helpless against the growing inferno, as all the nearby fire hydrants had been shut off to prevent freezing. By the time firefighters were able to activate the valves that fed the hydrants, it was too late. The warehouse was completely involved.

To make matters worse, the building was surrounded by various railway cars, brick walls and other warehouses, which prevented firefighters from accessing the warehouse’s upper floor windows. Had they been able to reach the windows, they could have opened them to release the air pressure that was building up inside the structure.

The Blast
At about 0500 HRS, the pressure inside the warehouse could no longer be contained. One firefighter on scene said he saw the walls bulge and immediately shouted a warning to others on scene. The building exploded, causing the entire structure to crumble. A 6' wall of the building collapsed onto the nearby loading dock, killing the 23 firefighters.

The blast also caused a second fire to start in a nearby seven-story warehouse, making the scene even more chaotic. But many firefighters paid little attention to the second fire. Instead, they made a desperate attempt to uncover the 23 men who had been buried in the rubble. They frantically dug with their hands, throwing bricks off the scorching-hot pile in a futile attempt to rescue those who had obviously perished. They had to be ordered to stop digging and continue with the firefight.

With what little command structure was left, several additional alarms were called, which resulted in more than 50 engine companies and hundreds of off-duty firefighters responding to the scene.

Upon hearing of the fire, relatives and friends of the deceased flocked to the scene. Both firefighters and civilians took part in uncovering the bodies, but water had to first be poured onto the pile to make it cool enough for the digging to resume. It took 24 hours for firefighters to knock down the fire and recover all 23 bodies.

According to reports, an ammonia pipe caused the explosion.

Sources:, Wikipedia, Illinois Fire Service Institute

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