Back in April 1968 when the Riots hit Baltimore City, I was in the midst of it all. It is something I will never forget! I spent most of 4 nights and 4 days fighting fires. I was located on Caroline and Gough Sts
. which housed Engine Co. #34 and Hose Co. # 5. I was in Hose Co. #5 which had 3 monitor pipes mounted on the engine and carried hose up to 3" in diameter. The 3" hose would put out much more water than the 2 1/2" hose carried on regular engine cos. when needed. The Hose Cos. came about after the great fire of Baltimore in 1904. The city installed an underground water system with a high pressure pumping station. All around the downtown area there are underground portable hydrant connections. The hose cos. carried portable hydrants which could be hooked up to these underground connections. You could connect up to 4 hoses to these portable hydrants and the high pressure pumping station would add the pressure and water. This added so much more water for any Engine Co. that needed it to fight any major fire. If you are downtown and look for what looks like an large iron sewer hole cover, and it has many tiny stars on it, that is where the underground hydrant connections are. They are still there!
Just after Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis Tennessee, The Fire Dept. was alerted that a riot would be going down, but did not know when. We fire fighters were on call at home and were to report back to work when word was sent down. This went on for some time and you just never knew when you would be called or you might be on duty when it happened.
I was working day work on a Saturday, and at the end of my shift went home. I was home less than an hour when I received the call to come back to work ASAP, the riots and fires have started. I remember driving back, and as I approached the inner city intersections, there were mobs of people on all corners. They were turning over cars and setting fire to them. I just never stopped and went through the intersections and kept going until I reached the Fire Station. I was lucky that I got through!
The station was empty as both 34 engine and 5 hose were out fighting the many fires that arose. The only people there were a couple of us firefighters and a Captain that made it back in.
A couple of hours went by and we could hear what was going on through the radio intercom on our watch desk. At this point not many other fireman were getting into the station house. The city was closed off and the mobs wouldn't let anybody get through.
Engine 34 made it back to the station to get more men, as the city was afire and needed all of the help they could get. We piled on the back and out the door we went. As we were responding to a fire, the mobs where throwing rocks at us. Back then the engines didn't have rock shields cages or separate sitting compartments as they do now.
Every piece of equipment in the city and I believe some county Cos. were in use. There were so many fires that there wasn't enough companies to fight the fires as a unit. A normal alarm of fire had 4 engines and 2 truck cos. and a chief. We were lucky just to have another company with us. As time went on most fires would only have an engine co. pumping water on it to keep the rest of the surrounding buildings from catching on fire and destroying.
The fire we arrived on was in a large building and the Truck Co. were throwing ladders up to the 2nd
floor windows. You could see the smoke escaping from the building and hear the crackling of fire. I had a hose over my shoulder and I was wearing my air mask with a air tank on my back. The hose wasn't charged with water yet, and that made it easier to carry it up the ladder. Smoke was pouring out of the window and I could hear and see the fire inside across the large room. The Truck Co. men were on the roof cutting holes to relieve the pressure. I gave the sign to charge the hose with water and the Pump Operator slowly opened the valve to give us water. I had the nozzle and our other men were right behind me on the ladder controlling
the hose. As the water was hitting the fire, the black smoke was turning white and into steam. This was good! We climbed into the window and hit the fire and was driving it back and not having it curling above and around us. AT this the worst thing that could happen to any Fire Fighter would be to lose your water. It was your lifeline! You could put it on spray, if you lost your air mask, and would have air to breath being behind the spray while keeping the fire off you.
As we drove the fire back and making good headway, the smoke was subsiding and the fire was finally out. It is amazing how much fire you can put out with an 2 1/2" hose and some good men behind you helping to control the hose. It is very hard to have a charged 2 1/2" hose at the nozzle and to be able to move with it without help.
This fire was controlled
and put out with 1 engine co. and 1 truck co. We also had a Deputy Chief with us. It is amazing what you can do when you don't have all of the other engine or truck cos. with you. At the time Baltimore City had the number 1 Fire Dept. in the USA. The training and schooling was copied by most other Fire Depts
. in the US. They came to Baltimore to see how we trained. Baltimore City still is one of the top Fire Depts
Just a point of information, just about all of the fires were set on the businesses of the city. Houses next to a business would catch on fire because there were not enough apparatus at the fire to put it out. We would then try and put out the fire of the private houses and the business would just have to burn.
We were out all night fighting the fires and getting exhausted
. We got back to station house to be relieved with what men made it in. A couple hours of rest and we were back out fighting fires. There were reports of snipers and gun shots firing at us, and rock and bottle throwing was common.
It was daylight and I was out with my own company Hose Co. #5 with various people from other shifts that made it in. We were fighting fires that would normally call for 2 or more alarms and all we could do most of the time was use our monitor pipes from outside and flood the building to keep it from spreading to houses or other buildings etc.
Owners of some of the businesses would come out and bring us food and tell us to take whatever we needed as they would be fire bombed soon. This was true! We were on West Baltimore St. and would see the fire bombing going on and the store owners knew that they were next. We got a call to tell us that the National Guard was set up in our quarters and to get back when we could.
The rock and bottle throwing stopped as the people realize we were there to save their houses. What a relief that was. It wouldn't be anything unusual to have mobs of hundreds of people around us watching us trying to put out the fires.
We finally managed to get back to our home station after being out all night and part of the morning. When we got back, there were cots set up in the upstairs rooms and the National Guard were waiting for us. With some relief from other Fire Fighters I got a chance to get some needed shut eye. As tired as I was, I couldn't seem to fall asleep right away. Later on getting up with some rest, my appetite was apparent. There was plenty of food brought in and what the merchants gave us before being Fire Bombed we ate pretty well.
# 5 Hose came back in so it was time to go out again. With the little bit of rest I got and a good meal in my belly out the door we went. This time the National Guard was riding in our hose bed with their rifles for our protection.Headquarters
sent us to Central Ave and Lombard St. which was close by. They told us that there were several buildings fully involved in fire which are located on Lombard St. the heart of the Jewish district. This area is just east of Little Italy and is the Corned beef
Row of the City. One of my favorite places to eat!
When we arrived at the intersection, one of the Battalion Chiefs and other apparatus (Fire Engines and Fire Truck) were parked around the corner. Police were everywhere at that intersection. The places that were on fire were still burning and no Companies were in there fighting the fires. We soon found out why! Just to the Northwest of Lombard St. were the ghetto High Rises. It seems that some of the rioters were taking target practice at any Police or Fire Fighter that tried to come into the area to put out the fires. So the business just burned.
Frantic calls to headquarters by citizens to report that no one was trying to put out the fires caused headquarters to keep calling us to go in and put out the fires. The response back to headquarters was that snipers were firing on us. Not being on the seen, headquarters had no clue at the time what was going on.
All of us including the Police were behind walls or some kind of protection so we wouldn't be shot at. The Police were in contact with their headquarters and were told that their men were swarming the High Rises in search of the snipers. In the meantime our headquarters are still telling us to go to the fires and do what we could. Our Battalion Chief had just about enough of headquarters trying to put us in harms way. I will never forget what he said to headquarters.
"When I see the Police walking up that street and not hiding under the cars and not being shot at I will take our men in to fight the fires." This Battalion Chief later became Chief of the Fire Dept. ! He was a Fire Fighters Chief whom I knew well when he was a Capt. in my Battalion.
The Police did clear out the High Rises and we all got to go in and control the fires. Yes, there was some serious damage to a few of them, but no one was hurt or killed.
As time went on, we all were tired and weary! At this point It didn't matter where we were sent we just went into the building and put out the fires as best as we could. Looking back we Fire Fighters did a lot
of good and save many places from burning down and saved many houses.
After 4 days and nights the word got out that the riots were being called off. I remember cars driving around with megaphones calling for an end. Eventually it did stop! The riots were planned and now it was over. Thank Goodness! We all were tired and weary and relieved to have it ended. Later on talking to people that lived in the different neighborhoods, they were hurt by the riots as much as anyone. Some of their houses were badly damaged, the stores where they shopped were burnt out, so it affected everyone in the city where it took place. In all of these year, the riots are one thing I will never forget!
Being home felt good, but I was seriously on edge and couldn't come down, my nerves were on edge. I grabbed my fishing gear and headed up to the Susquehanna River and by the end of the day I was finally relaxed.
Who said fishing wasn't good for you!!!!!