San Francisco, CA New Amsterdam Hotel Fire, Mar 1944


Arsonist Sets Six Hotel Fires; Worst Since 1906, 27 in Hospital


SAN FRANCISCO, March 28. -- (U.P.) -- A pyromaniac was blamed officially today for a flash of fire that reduced the interior of the New Amsterdam hotel at 273 Fourth street to a heap of ashes, killing at least 22 persons and injuring 27 trapped by flames in the bedrooms and hallways.

Worst Since 1906
It was San Francisco's deadliest fire since the great earthquake and fire in 1906. Hours after the blaze burned itself out, firemen still dug through the embers in search of more bodies. The dead were burned beyond recognition, and the process of identification was slow and uncrtain [sic].

Police and fire department officials questioned WILLIAM BERNHOFF, 33, tenant of the hotel, at San Francisco hospital. He was picked up at the Palace hotel, seven blocks from the scene of the fire. His hair was singed and his knees bruised. He was examined by physicians at the hospital psychopathic ward.

Leap From Windows
A few lucky occupants eluded the flames that reared through the three-story frame building.

Screaming men and women jumped from window ledges into life nets manned by firemen, sailors, and coast guardsmen. Others were brought down rescue ladders, snatched literally from death as puffs of fire drove them to the windows.

Some were carried out suffering serious burns, or unconscious from smoke inhalation. They were taken to emergency hospitals.

The New Amsterdam, located in the skidrow district south of Market street, burst into flames shortly after five other hotel fires had been reported in the same area within a four-hour period.

Seek Arsonist.
Police began a hunt for an arsonist believed responsible for not only the San Francisco fires last night, but also for a series of 11 blazes that broke out in Oakland hotels last weekend. Authorities noted an odor of kerosene or gasoline about last night's fires.

Veteran firemen said they had never seen a crowd gather so quickly as it did at the New Amsterdam holocaust.

"They seemed to sense instantly that there was death throughout the building," one fireman said. "A lot of them had just come from dwellings where death might have struck just as suddenly."

Laid in Rows
When the blackened bodies were carried from the building in tarpaulins, the crowd fell silent. The bodies were laid in rows along the curb while the morgue wagon moved back and forth. Father Leo Powelson, pastor of nearby St. Patrick's church, walked among the dead, giving conditional absolution.

The first of three alarms was believed given by a sailor who had just paid for his room and taken off his shoes when the fire broke out.

Asked for his name, he shouted:
"Hell no man! I've got another guy's liberty card."

Others Caught
The other hotel fires last night were extinguished before serious damage was done. The district in which the New Amsterdam is situated is one of pawn shops, saloons and cheap rooming houses, nearly all of wood construction and ready tinder for a blaze.

The Amsterdam fire broke out in all four floors at the same time and spread with lightning rapidity. For the two hours the flames were at their height, the downtown area of the city was overcast by a rosy glow, reflected back by nearby skyscrapers.

Workers in Rooms
The hotel contained about fifty rooms, according to police records, most of which were occupied by sleeping shipyard workers. Many of them fled to the nearest windows and attempted to land in nets held beneath them by firemen. One woman was believed to have broken her back when she landed.

One man, LESLIE McKINNEY, 30, a Negro stevedore employed by the United States marine corps, saved his life by leaping from his blazing third story room to a telephone pole across the sidewalk.

Although rescue workers found bodies all through the building, most of them were found on the third floor where the victims had been caught in their rooms and in the hallways. Three bodies, charred beyond recognition, were found huddled together in an interior lightwell outside a third floor room.

Heard Noise
GERTRUDE BOYD, 37, a Negro factory worker, said she first learned of the fire when she heard a "terrible pounding noise."

"I opened the door to my basement room and saw the fire in the hallways," she said.
She managed to make her escape through a side entrance.

Huge crowds which poured out of bars and night clubs at the time the fire was discovered followed the fire trucks which dashed through downtown traffic to the scene of the conflagration. Extra police reserves were summoned, including every radio car in the city, to hold back the onlookers and prevent them from hampering the work of the firefighters. Predominant in the crowds were sailors on their was back to Treasure Island naval base.

Police in San Francisco and Oakland both agreed that the fire "undoubtedly" was the work of the same person who set fire to 11 hotels in Oakland last Saturday. In both cities, the fires broke out in the same type of district and in the same type of building. Total damages in the Oakland fires were estimated to be $10,000.

Southern station policemen on the scene said witnesses reported seeing two men fleeing from the building minutes before the flames were discovered.

The Amsterdam fire followed by one week a $100,000 fire which destroyed a restaurant, a laundry and several flats in the residential district of San Francisco. That fire, however, was believed to have been caused by defective wiring in an ice cream freezer.

Officials were unable to assess losses in the New Amsterdam fire, but if was reported the building was damaged beyond repair.

San Mateo Times California 1944-03-28


New Amsterdam Hotel Fire

In 1944, an arsonist put the torch to the New Amsterdam Hotel in San Francisco, resulting in the loss of twenty-two lives.

The Bad City in the Good War: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego by Roger W. Lotchin, Published by Indiana University Press, 2003