(Map: NY Public Library.See Block 40. This map is from 1886, a year after the fire. State Street and the interior of the block are now empty.)
On May 5th, 1885, a devastating building collapse and fire tore apart the industrial park located inside the blocks of Atlantic, Hicks, State and Columbia, down near the waterfront. A warren of interconnected factory buildings pressing into the backs of tenement buildings facing Atlantic Avenue came crashing down that May morning, as shoddy repairs to structural beams in the central building called the Glass House, could not stand up to the stresses on the old building, and it collapsed, bringing fire and horrible casualties with it. See Part One and Part Two for more details and background. The building collapse and fires happened so quickly that many were either sucked into the maelstrom in the first moments, or lost trying to escape from the destruction. The fire department arrived within half an hour of getting the call, which went out as a four alarm major disaster, bringing in 18 different fire companies. As the fires were brought under control, a growing list of the missing, and presumed dead, began to grow.
Among the first bodies found was that of the janitor of the complex, Daniel Loughery. He lived with his wife and daughter in the Atlantic Avenue tenements, and had rushed to help rescue people. His wife and child were not at home, fortunately for them, as the flaming debris had torn out the backs of many of the tenement buildings, setting fires and putting those buildings in danger of total collapse, as well. His body was found under the debris of the Glass House, the extent of his injuries so severe, he must have been killed instantly.
In the days that followed, more and more bodies turned up, to add to the seven found on the first day. Many were so badly burned that it was impossible to guess gender or identity. Most gruesomely, in some cases only burned body parts, not even whole corpses, were found. Some were identified by personal possessions, or their place in the wreckage. One man was identified by a false tooth. Some were never identified, and some of the young teenage workers were only known by their first names. Many of the dead came from the brass foundry, the third floor Glass House factory shop of William Durst. When the building initially collapsed, a huge hole like a whirlpool opened up in the middle of his floor, taking his uncle, Henry Durst, and at least 5 other workers to their deaths, in a mass of heavy equipment, molten metal, fire and falling debris. None of them had a chance.
Recovery work was slow, and made difficult by the nature of the industries and the basement collapse. It took time for the workers to extricate the body of Henry Durst, as he was found in the bottom of the Glass House basement, but his body was completely encased in the gelatinous mess of soap and silicate, which had poured down from the soap factory on the fourth floor, and congealed in the water soaked basement. While most of the workers were working to clear out the site, many had heard of the thousands of dollars in gold that had melted in the fire, and searches for melted treasure were combined with searches for bodies. Twenty tons of silica made the entire site a recovery nightmare, as bones and more and more parts of the dead were unearthed in the muck.
There was good news as well, as some feared dead turned up in hospitals, or safe. There were many heroes that day, bosses and supervisors who made sure all of their workers got out, brave co-workers who shepherded many of the very young, female factory workers to safety. At least four firefighters were hospitalized for injuries sustained in rescues, including the rescue of an elderly lady named Mrs. Haas, who lived in the tenements, and had a wall fall on her. She would make a full recovery.
When the police and investigators first arrived at the scene, George Abbott, the manager of the building, would not even tell them the name of the owner, apparently hoping to keep the whole mess out of the press. He had to be threatened before notifying his employer, who lived in Boston. The police initially arrested George Miller, one of the three contractors who did the repairs to the support beams. As the days went by, and funerals were held, and witnesses interviewed, a coroner’s inquest was finally held, on May 15, 1885. The jury would listen to testimony for over ten days. During the questioning, the following was made clear:
1. George Abbott, the building manager had let the conditions of the Glass House factory deteriorate over the years, to the complaints of tenants.
2. He never replaced fire escapes in the Glass House building after the last fire, several years before. Other buildings did have fire escapes.
3. He hired three contractors to replace the rotted beams, knowing that they had never done this kind of job before.
4. The contractors did not get a permit from the Buildings Dept., nor did Abbott insist that they do so. One of the contractors, mason John McDermott, testified that he didn’t apply for a permit because he didn’t think it was his place to do so. Abbott testified that he thought the contractors would be responsible for their own permits.
5. Abbott also testified that he told the workmen to take the jacks out, so the building was resting on the new beams, even though the beams were not yet carrying posts. He then testified that he really didn’t know much about building construction.
6. When asked about his not notifying the tenants that this work would be going on during the workday, he said that he had told Mr. Durst on the third floor, three floors above the work. Durst would lose the most workers in the collapse, including his uncle. Abbott informed no one else.
7. When asked by Coroner Menninger about why the building collapsed, Abbott said it was because of the beams. When asked whose fault that was, Abbott replied, I shouldn’t like to say.
After days of testimony and evidence, including a trip to the ruined factory block, the jury of thirteen men in the Coroner’s inquest deliberated. All of them agreed that George Abbott was culpably and criminally negligent, in causing repairs to be done while the factories were occupied and in operation. He also was negligent in supervising work that he did not have the expertise to supervise. They all agreed that more building inspectors were needed, and that the Dept. of Buildings needed to change the way it inspected factories, and needed to keep better records of inspections and findings. Eight of the jurors also found the three contractors, Miller, McDermott and Watson to be guilty of contributory negligence, and two building inspectors guilty of careless and superficial inspection of the building in previous visits. Three other jurors agreed with the above, but exonerated the three contractors. Another juror agreed with the majority, but exonerated the inspectors, while one other juror placed all the blame on Abbott, with a scolding to the inspectors. The Coroner took his findings to the District Attorney, who arrested George Abbott, Miller, McDermott and Watson, and held them for trial. If found guilty, they could be sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The charges were dropped against Watson, McDermott and Miller, by the summer. George Abbott made bail in August. Public opinion was not on his side, as the Eagle wrote several editorials on the subject of the fire, the loss of seventeen lives, and the guilt of the man who had so cavalierly ordered major structural work in a building full of people, without their knowledge or consent. In October of 1885, Abbott was again in court, and thenâ€¦â€¦the case simply disappeared.
Three years later, in 1888, the Eagle wrote an editorial slamming the judicial system that had allowed this high profile case to simple slide off the table like greasy paper. They were complaining that this was not the only high profile case that had mysteriously disappeared. Regarding the horrific fire, the editors wrote: The Eagle will recall the facts in the awful State Street fire, by which seventeen lives were lost on Tuesday, May 5, 1885. The ruins of that conflagration still rear aloft their blackened chimneys and ragged walls, and the memory of the catastrophe, except in the District Attorney’s office, is fresh as it was three years ago. In the District Attorney’s office, the event seems to have been forgotten altogetherâ€¦The State Street fire, was with the exception of the Brooklyn Theater fire, perhaps as shocking as any in the history of the cityâ€¦ (Followed by a description of the fire and casualties and the cause) A true bill of manslaughter in the second degree was found against him [George Abbott] by the Grand Jury on July 31, 1885â€¦On October 9th; Abbott was arraigned in court and pleaded not guilty. That was the last step ever taken on the case. It never came to trial, and the record in the office of the clerk of the Court of Sessions shows that it now stands as it did three years ago, while Abbott, who was judged to be criminally responsible by the representative businessmen of the city, has enjoyed continuous and unrestricted liberty. Abbott had some sort of pull.
And so ended the investigation of one of the worst industrial disasters in Brooklyn’s history, an event that today, no one knows about at all. Next time you are in Montero’s, raise a glass to the 17 people who died horribly and tragically that day in 1885. Most tragically, they never got justice, and no one ever paid for the mistakes made that day. But the fire caused changes to be made in the Dept. of Buildings, and factory buildings were inspected more often and more closely after that, perhaps saving hundreds of lives.