San Francisco, CA Thomas Hotel Fire, Jan 1961

Old Postcard Hotel Thomas



San Francisco (UPI) -- A tiny fire that started in the room of a drink-fuddled tenant and was at first believed extinguished today muchroomed suddenly into a flaming killer in one of the worst hotel disasters in San Francisco history.
At least 19 persons were killed and 38 injured when flames billowed through the five-floor Thomas Hotel in pre-dawn darkness. The dead included two and possibly three women. Firemen still were digging through charred debris late today.
Firemen said the blaze started in the first floor room of RAYMOND GORMAN, 62, and ordered him arrested on suspicion of manslaughter.
GORMAN and 37 other persons, including two policemen and firemen, were treated at emergency hospitals for smoke inhalation and other injuries suffered as the fire turned the five-story, low-rate hotel into a huge torch.
Most of the 150 occupants of the 50-year-old building were elderly persioners. The brick structure was located at 5th and Mission Sts. in downtown San Francisco.
GORMAN admitted freely to newsmen that he had been drinking the night before and "I was feeling no pain." Witnesses said the fire started when GORMAN dropped a cigarette in his mattress in his first floor room.
Fire Chief WILLIAM MURRAY said GORMAN and a neighbor thought they had extinguished the fire and went back to sleep. But the mattress rekindled during the night, causing the inferno, MURRAY said.
As the blaze swept through the building, occupants leaped in night clothes into fire nets and down light wells onto mattresses hastily place in position by the 200 firemen who responded to the blaze. Firemen helped others down ladders.
A hero of the disaster was clerk HARRY GOULD, 71, who dashed from his second floor room and banged on doors to rouse tenants.
"It was horrible," GOULD said. "It was the first time I've seen anybody at a fire act like animals."
Stunned By Fear.
"But these people were making animal sounds, stunned by fear, as they fell or walked out."
Another hero was night clerk CLARENCE BRODERICK, 53, who remained at the switchboard and called room after room, waking tenants.
MURRAY said the fire might have been avoided had an alarm been sounded more promptly.
"They should have called us the first time it burst into flame," MURRAY said. "That's a standard rule for anyone."
Most of the dead were trapped in their rooms and killed when they inhaled gases.
Firemen saved several lives with swift action with the mattresses. When they arrived on the scene several tenants were leaning out upper story windows over the lightwell shouting that they were going to jump.
Firemen urged them to wait a few moments and piled several mattresses at the bottom. The tenants jumped and landed safely on the mattresses.
At least two of the dead were women.
Flames Attract Crowd.
At the height of the blaze a pillar of flame shot up through the inside of the Thomas Hotel and 150 feet into the air. It was visible for miles and attracted a crowd of several hundreds to the scene at 5th and Mission streets, just one block from Market Street in downtown San Francisco.
The fire was general or five alarms -- highest number for the San Francisco fire department -- with a rare "emergency" alert for the entire department.
It was also the worst hotel fire here since 1944 when the New Amsterdam burned killing 24.
Firemen wearing oxygen masks struggled through gas-filled upper hallways with hoses trying to put out the fire, and old men and women were helped down ladders in the front of the building. When some tenants jumped into fire nets at the rear, one of the nets caught on fire.
Arson Inspector EARL GRIMM found on of the dead slumped over the suitcase he was attempting to pack in his room when the fire started. GRIMM said the man might have escaped alive if he had not dressed and tried to take his belongings.
Temperatures Near Freezing.
Lightly clad survivors were bundled in blankets against a San Francisco cold snap in which the temperature was 36 degrees.
MRS. GENE SLAGLER, 57, a hotel clerk, said "I was in my room drinking coffee about 5 o'clock and heard someone holler fire. I got dressed, grabbed my birds and went to the window. The firemen told me to stay put. Then they came and pounded on my door and I walked out."
One tenant, ED DAVIS, 60, said, "I heard some one yell fire as I slept in my second floor room. I went out and it was pitch black, with smoke and heat, but I knew I had to get out so I just kept going."
Police Heroes.
Two policemen saved at least 30 lives in the fire today.
Patrolman PETER CAPPADONA, 35, and DON TAYLOR, 28, arrived just as the first fire equipment did.
They saw flames shooting from the building and ran into the lobby. About 15 tenants were milling about in the thick smoke.
CAPPADONA and TAYLOR quickly organized a single file evacuation line and directed the men through the front door to safety. Several, crippled or too confused to walk, were carried out.
Then the policemen went to the second floor and rescued more tenants the same way.
They tried to reach the third floor but were driven back by spreading flames.
The officers got on the second floor of an adjoining building and kicked in hotel windows to reach other survivors. They later piled mattresses in heaps onto which several men jumped to safety.
CAPPADONA and TAYLOR later were treated for smoke inhalation.
Fire Marshal ALBERT HAYES said the quick spread of fire that killed 19 persons today in the Thomas Hotel was made possible by an open dorway.
HAYES said he would advocate changes in the state and city building codes to require all such stairways to be closed off at each floor by re-resistant doors.
This requirement now is necessary in new construction, HAYES said. But older buildings have been allowed to keep open doorways.

San Mateo Times California 1961-01-06




San Francisco (AP) -- An open, inside stairway that acted as a chimney was blamed today for the swift spread of the Friday morning fire which gutted a cheap hotel midway between the downtown shopping district and Skid Row, killing 20 and injuring 37.
ALBERT HAYES, head of the city's fire investigators, said the stairway near the back of the ancient Thomas hotel at 971 Mission St. could not be closed off from the rest of the hotel because it had no fire doors. When the fire started in the mattress of a pensioner, RAYMOND T. GORMAN, 61, whose room was near the foot of the stairway, it roared up through the stairway to all five floors.
Denies Smoking.
GORMAN, only slightly injured was booked by police on a charge of suspicion of manslaughter. They said another occupant had put out one fire in GORMAN'S mattress earlier in the night. GORMAN denied he had been smoking in bed.
The fire which broke out at 5 a.m. roared up through the tenement-like squalor where 135 people had been living -- some for many years -- in the threadbare anonymity of the poor, the pensioned, the crippled.
Police said that in some rooms they found several bodies where the hotel's register showed only one person staying -- indicating that the elderly occupants had invited their friends from skid row in out of one of the coldest nights here in recent history. The thermometer stood at 36.
Gaunt old men stood about barefooted in their underwear waiting until the Red Cross could provide emergency clothing, food and shelter.
The fire department, with 237 men in 40 pieces of equipment, raised ladders and rescued people through windows where they were trapped in their rooms.
But not before one man, JAMES BOYER, 48, lost his grip on a rope of blankets and fell to his death.
Another, HERBERT ISETT, made a rope of knotted sheets, but one knot parted and he fell nearly five floors, breaking his back and legs.
Police Heroes.
Firemen with gas masks pounded up the narrow stairways and broke down doors to rescue people from rooms. Two policemen, PETER CAPPADONNA, 35, and DON TAYLOR, 28 were credited with rescuing 10 people on the fifth floor.
Others got out by their own efforts.
DAN TODD, 81 paralyzed on one side, rolled down the stairs, out through the lobby and into the street. "I saw this house built," he recalled, "and lived in it since 1935."
A legless man who for years has pushed himself up and down Mission Street on a little platform on rollers, waited patiently at his window until firemen put up a ladder, then swung himself up, out and down on powerful arms.
An 82-year-old blind man tapped his way out through smoke-filled halls, showing hot the slightest hesitancy. His world was no darker for the smoke.
Six people jumped into nets. Several were injured jumping before nets were available.
"I heard somebody holler," said MRS. JOE AMKERSINGH, "and I says to my husband, 'Let em fight.' Then we smelled smoke. My husband opens the door and there's a man out there who's on fire. So ABE throws a pail of water on him to put out the fire and we head for the fire escape."
Half the dead were listed as JOHN DOE'S, burned beyond fingerprints and their dentures missing in many cases.
Mayor GEORGE CHRISTOPHER said firemen and police saved at least 50 lives.
Damage to the building was estimated at $75,000 by Fire Chief WILLIAM MURRAY.
It was the city's worst fire in 16 years.

San Mateo Times California 1961-01-07