84 Lumber Company Fire, 4-20-68, Harmans - Three Alarms

84 Lumber Company Fire, 4-20-68, Harmans - Three Alarms

84 Lumber Company Fire 

FRIDAY MORNING, APRIL 19, 1968, AACoFD "B" Shift, was a beautiful warm and sunny Spring day. Actually it had been a wonderful week with daily temperatures in the high 70s and my senior year at Andover H.S., in Linthicum, was winding down.

Anne Arundel County schools had been closed for the week and I was doing work for the Buttrum-German-Morrison (BGM) construction company for a couple of days to earn some money. When I wasn’t working, I was running fires out of Company 32 (Linthicum).

The fire department had been experiencing a busy week. There were a number of multiple-alarm fires along with dozens of Local Alarm engine and jeep only brush fires. I remember responding to a vacant-dwelling fire in Point Pleasant, two-alarm brush fires on Marley Station Road and the RR tracks (near where the Marley Station Mall is located today), Ridge Road near Rt.175 and on a farm off of Donaldson Avenue near WB&A Road in Severn.

On one of the brush fires I picked up some poison ivy, which was starting to break out on my face and arms.

I spent all Friday morning digging and wheel barreling dirt to fill around a brand new above-ground swimming pool for BGM construction behind a house on Loudon Ave. in Elkridge.

Later in the afternoon, I worked with Mel Morrison and we replaced windows in a row house near Franklin Street in West Baltimore. You could still smell the residual smoke and burned out stores from the destructive riots the previous week.

By late afternoon, I was back at the fire station responding to calls. Dinner consisted of a quick cold-cut sub from Chucks’s Drive In and a “Royal-Crown” cola drink from the station’s soda machine. Later, I purchased some calamine lotion from Lindy’s Drug store to treat my spreading poison ivy.

At around 11 p.m., Company 32 was alerted for a transfer to Company 29 (Jessup). Company 29 had responded to a working dwelling fire in Elkridge, mutual-aid to Howard County. Off-duty Friendship Airport Firefighter and Volunteer Lieutenant, Butch Lawall, drove Engine 320 and I rode up in the engine’s cab with him. We had two or three young volunteers on the back step.

We were at 29’s station for a while. I fell asleep on one of the beds in the bunk room. I awoke from the voice of Volunteer Chief (Co. 29) and AACo.FD Firefighter/Engineman Earl Shipley, who was all “charged-up” telling Lawall about the fire they had just returned from.

At around 2 a.m., Saturday morning, with Company 29 back in-service, we were returning to Linthicum following our typical route via Ridge Road to Dorsey Road to Route 170. We drove right past the 84 Lumber Company.

As we turned on to Route 170 to head north, Fire Alarm called the engine by radio and requested our location – I reported. Fire Alarm said "Disregard" and alerted Company 32 for a brush fire on Camp Meade Road and the RR tracks just down the street from the station.

Engine 321 responded with a crew and Firefighter/Engineman Tom German driving. It was a small fire and quickly extinguished. After all the engines were backed into the station, I was washing up in the bathroom and applying more lotion to my poison ivy (It was now driving me crazy).

No sooner than I laid down in bed and pulled the sheets over me with the lotion still in the process of drying, the tones opened up the station’s radio receiver and Fire Alarm announced,

“Box 42, Companies 32, 33, 34 and Truck 31 respond to a building fire at the 84 Lumber Company, Dorsey Road and Rt. 170.” It was 2:23 A.M.

(Engine 321, a '61 Ford/American. 750 GPM/400 GAL/WT, was the first engine out the door to the 84 Lumber Company fire)

I responded on the first engine out the door, Engine 321. German was driving, Volunteer Assistant Chief and AACo. Communications Division Chief David Mentzel was riding OIC. Volunteer Firefighter Dave Johnson and I were riding in the canopy-over jump-seats.

I can only guess who was riding the back step with C.J. Wright and Reverend Ulmer (most likely Grey Dressel, Jerry Minarick and/or Bob Willis)

(Engine 320, a '65 Ford/American. 750 GPM/1000 GAL/WT, had just returned from a transfer to Company 29, Jessup)

Engine 320 was the second engine out the door with Lawall driving – not sure who was riding on the back tailboard – may have been volunteer firefighter Chuck Pryor and some others. Mel Gardner (Gardner, a volunteer lieutenant and a career firefighter with BCo.FD, 5, Halethrope) rode OIC.

About five minutes later Volunteer Captain and Firefighter/Engineman Melvin Morrison responded with Engine 322 with Calvin and John Hargett. All three of the station's engines were on the road responding.

When Engine 321 proceeded up the elevated approach on Route 170 towards the Dorsey Road intersection, we could see flames extending out of the roof of the building.

When we arrived on location, we had some problems with the lock on the main gate. Engine 333 (Firefighter/Engineman Clyde Willis was driving) pulled in behind us. I remember it took us about five minutes or so to break the lock off of the gate and Engine 321’s crew dropped off a supply line. With the gate opened German drove the engine towards the main building.

(Pictured at the Embers Resturant Fire, October 1971, Engine 333, a 1962 GMC/American 750 GPM/WT/500 GAL arrived behind Engine 321 and Engineman Clyde Willis was the driver)

German positioned the engine on the North side of the structure within 10-15’ of the building. It was a loading dock area and on the other side of the engine there was a chain link fence about 20’ away. Engine 333 pulled into this area and Engine 341Firefighter/Engineman John Hoy driving) positioned behind the two engines.

(Engine 341)

Chief Mentzel requested two additional alarms and a large capacity tanker (BWI). I think Mentzel’s initial plan was to try and hit the fire quick with the water from the three engines. We pulled off a two-and-a-half-inch pre-connect attack line and German charged it.

Either Volunteer Firefighter Bill Poteet (Co.#34) or I took an axe and opened a hole in the exterior sheet metal wall as CJ Wright and a couple of other firefighters were trying to open up a huge sliding bay door in the exterior wall of the loading dock.

Volunteer Firefighter John Miller and a couple of other firefighters from Company 33 laddered the large one story building and were climbing up the slight pitch towards the flaming peak. It was all getting very crazy.

As Poteet and I completed the hole and opened the nozzle on the two-and-a-half-inch attack line, we could see through the opening that the fire was throughout the interior of the building. Simultaneously, Wright and others forced open the large sliding door and all "hell" broke loose.

I remember German hollering, “Everyone off the roof…Get the Hell off the roof!” Miller and someone else came sliding down the ladders faster than anything I’ve ever seen since – I can’t believe they were able to save the ladders. As the huge roof started to collapse the engines started backing up. One firefighter got tangled in the uncharged supply line and came very close to being run over by Engine 321.

I remember jumping on the tailboard of the Engine 321 to hit the back-up alarm-buzzer-button so German would stop – which he did. The firefighter untangled himself and he and I moved some equipment and quickly uncoupled the hose so German could back-out the engine to a safer position.

(About five minutes after the engines retreated from the area between the loading dock and the chain linked fence seen here. Photo - Jim Vecheck)

At the time, there was no established command (as today) and companies were free-lancing. Miller and maybe Dressel were taking down the deluge set off of Engine 321 to set up a master stream, so I jumped in and helped.

In the meantime, Butch Lawall with Engine 320 laid a supply-line-hose from Engine 321, now located at the West side of the building, to take a position on the southeast side to protect a pavilion that covered stacks of lumber some 15’ to 20’ high as the structure’s outside wooden facing beam was already burning from the radiated heat.

Tanker 43 (Friendship Airport FD – 5,000 gal tractor/trailer) arrived and started pumping to Engine 321 and 320. With the deluge gun set up on the parking-lot, we had it charged and directed a stream of water into the southwest corner of the building. On the southeast side of the building, Engine 320’s crew readied to place a two-and-a-half-inch attack line in service.

Company 32 Volunteer Chief and AACo.FD Training Division Chief Raymond Smith arrived and took charge. When Smith saw what we were doing he immediately grabbed me and told me to tell German to shut down the line supplying the master stream - it was wasting water. Once I accomplished my mission, I looked towards Engine 320.

On the Pennsylvania railroad spur that separated the main building from the pavilion was Volunteer Firefighter Chuck Pryor operating the two-and-a-half nozzle. Four others were pulling on the hose and backing him up.

The crew was able to extinguish the exposure fire and save the structure (that still stands today) along with thousands of dollars’ worth of framing and plywood. It was a masterful operation in the use of large flowing hand line.

(The pavilion on the left was saved by Engine 320's crew and still stands today. Photo - Jim Vecheck)

It was always the plan that in the event of a fire in any of the buildings that made up the lumberyard or surrounding the complex, the large pond at the Maryland State Forestry property about a-quarter-mile south of the lumberyard would be the drafting site (water source). In 1968 the Hanover and Harman’s area along Dorsey Road was non-hydrant (a county water system would be installed in 1974). 

Morrison, driving Engine 322, was aware of this plan and immediately proceeded down a partially dirt and gravel road to set up draft. With the help of the Hargett brothers, Morrison laid double lines about 800’ on his way to the pond and the crew dropped the hard tubes into the water and set up a drafting operation.

(Engine 322, a 1956 Mack, 1,000 GPM/500 GAL/WT set up draft at the Forestry pond by Engineman Melvin Morrison assisted by Firefighters Calvin and John Hargett)

Engines from the additional alarms would be sent to the dirt road to lay additional lines and be positioned to pump in the relay.

Back at the fire, the roof of the main building had totally collapsed and the complex was fully involved. On the west side of the building, Truck 315 set up a ladder pipe operation once the quarter-mile engine-hose relay was established and flowing water.

With the exception of one small glitch, the water supply component was in operation quickly and ran extremely smooth. I remember Engineman John Hoy, Co.34, saying on the radio, "this relay is all screwed up," but whatever the problem was, it was fixed immediately. I don't recall ever losing water on the fireground.

(Truck 315. a 1959 Pirsch 85' Aerial Ladder. Pictured here at Company 31, on the 11th Avenue side. Photo - John Floyd II)

As Firefighter/Engineman Virgil Buttrum operated Truck 315’s turntable, off-duty Firefighter/Engineman Burton Phelps operated the ladder pipe, which was now flowing a decent stream of water. Flying brands from the fire had set a number of small brush fires along Route 170 and Brush 334 and Jeep 324 were dispatched to suppress the fires.

At sunrise, in addition to the ladder pipe, multiple two-and-a-half-inch-hand lines were now in operation on all sides of what was left of the structure. By mid-morning, the two-and-a-half-inch hose lines were wyed down to one-and-a-half-inch lines and nozzels to assist crews in maneuvering the hose lines among the still high piles of burning wood, roof shingles and other building supplies.

(Joseph Ross backing up a firefighter, possibly from Company 15, wet down flames and smoldering debris. Photo - Maryland Gazette)

By noon, I was one of the only original response members from Company 32 still working the fire. I refused to be relieved. This was the biggest fire that I had ever fought and I was determined to stay, work and learn, as long as I could.

Two bull-dozers were brought in (one from Forestry and the other from Fort Meade) to break up the smoldering wood piles to assist with effective suppression and extinguishment.

Companies responded as follows:

First Alarm: Engines 321, 333, 341, Truck 315, Engines 320 and 322

Second Alarm: 331, 294, 283, 182, Tanker 43 and AACo. Alarmers

Special: Brush 334, Jeep 324 and Tanker 285

Third Alarm: Engines 311, 291, 153, 141

Special: Engines 122, 131 and Companies 11, 20, 17 sent relief crews in utility vehicles.

I was relieved from the fire ground around 4 p.m. and went back to the station to assist with washing dirty fire hose. I finally arrived home around 5 p.m. and took a shower. I decided to lie down on the bed to take a little nap. Before I did, I asked my mom to wake me up around 6:30 so I could get dressed for the Saturday night Teen Center dance at the high school.

When I woke-up the sun was bright and shinning – I wasn’t sure where I was. I could hear birds singing outside the screened bedroom window and there was a light breeze in the air. I couldn’t understand why it seemed like morning and then realized it was!

It was Sunday morning April 21 – l had slept entirely through the evening and the night. I asked my mom, why she never woke me up? She said she tried but I was dead asleep – l was exhausted.

After breakfast, I put on my clothes and went back to the fire station. We would respond back to the lumber company at least a dozen times between Sunday and Monday afternoon for rekindles.

The week that started on Sunday, April 13, 1968, had been one of the busiest in the history of the Anne Arundel County fire service culminating with the three-alarm fire at the lumberyard on Saturday morning.

It was a week I would never forget for much was learned and experienced and believe it or not, my poison ivy had vanished.

Engine photos and detailed apparatus information provided by Joseph MacDonald.






Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published