Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2019.

Hotel Horror

New York City, 1899: the Windsor Hotel fire


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On March 17, 1899, New York City was buzzing with the sights and sounds of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. When a blaze broke out at the Windsor Hotel, a luxurious property situated on Fifth Avenue between 46th and 47th streets, the commotion of the parade made alerting hotel guests difficult. Forty-five people died in the fire, at the time the deadliest hotel fire ever in the United States, according to an NFPA Quarterly article published in 1930.

The fire started after a hotel guest on the second floor reportedly lit a cigar and threw the still-flaming match out of a window, according to the Quarterly article. As the match passed the curtains, it ignited the fabric. The guest fled the room without extinguishing the fire or alerting anyone, and by the time a hotel waiter discovered the blaze, the entire room was in flames. He tried to extinguish it but to no avail, then scrambled to alert guests.

“The streets were lined with spectators and guarded by policemen, interested onlookers were leaning out of the windows of the hotel itself, and the strains of many brass bands deadened all other sound,” the Quarterly article said. “As the [waiter], calling ‘Fire,’ ran into the street and endeavored to reach an alarm box … he was prevented from crossing by a puzzled policeman, who could not understand the excited man’s incoherent explanations above the din of the music.”

By all accounts, the six-alarm fire consumed the hotel at an astonishing pace because of outdated construction methods used to build the 26-year-old structure, which contained large open spaces void of fire blocks. “Within five minutes red waves of flame were billowing from the second-story windows, and when the fire apparatus arrived, the Windsor was blazing like an oil-soaked pitch barrel,” according to a 1928 edition of Popular Science. “Panic-stricken guests hurled themselves out of windows or were incinerated in the drafty corridors.” A 2010 New York Times article likened the disaster to 9/11.

The hotel had only two fire escapes, according to the Quarterly. Safety ropes were provided in each room, for guests to rappel down the side of the building, but few people were able to use them successfully, and some even died trying. According to the Popular Science article, firefighting efforts were also hampered by an inadequate water supply. The Windsor Hotel fire would later become the reason FDNY Chief John Kenlon, a lieutenant at the time of the fire, tirelessly advocated for a high-pressure fire hydrant system in the city, which was installed in 1907.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: NFPA