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Notable Fires:

Herbert Hotel
July 30, 1946
161 Powell Street

1946 Herbert Hotel Aerial View

Alarms by signal code:

Still Alarm 2:31 am Chemical Co. 3 - 161 Powell Street Dispatched in response of a citizen’s phone call
(A still alarm is a unit dispatch sent to a firehouse by telephone. It does not use the full bell alarm system)
Battalion 1, BC Kane responds, without an alarm, to investigate the Still Alarm for Chemical 3*
2/2 1363 2:54 am SECOND ALARM
3/3 1363 3:00 am THIRD ALARM
3/2 1363 3:10 am 1-3 Special Call – One Truck, (next available)
3/4 1363 3:10 am 1-3 4-1 Cover In - Truck 4 to Truck 1
3/4 1363 3:10 am 1-3 16-4 Cover In - Truck 16 to Truck 4
3/2 1363 3:15 am 2-6 Special Call – Searchlight Unit
4/4 1363 3:24 am FOURTH ALARM
4/2 1363 3:30 am 4-2-2 High Pressure (water system) Call, Asbury Tank - in service
3/4 1363 3:30 am 1-3 5-1 Cover In - Truck 5 to Truck 1
3/4 1363 3:30 am 1-3 10-5 Cover In – Truck 10 to Truck 5
3/2 1363 4:02 am 2-7 Special Call – Air Compressor Unit
3/2 1363 4:03 am 2 Special Call – Large Water Tower (Water Tower Co. No. 1)
5/5 1363 4:15 am FIFTH ALARM
3/2 1363 4:20 am 1-8 Special Call – Salvage Unit
3/2 1363 4:21 am 1-8 Special Call – Salvage Unit
3/2 1363 4:21 am 2-4 Special Call – Large Water Tower (Water Tower Co. No.)
3/9 1363 4:25 am 9-9-9 Chaplin’s Signal to respond
3/2 1363 4:30 am 2-8 Special Call – Fuel Unit
3/4 1363 4:31 am 1-3 15-1 Cover In -Truck 15 to Truck 1
3/2 1363 4:40 am 2-9 Special Call – Coffee Unit
4/2 1363 6:00 am 4-3-3 High Pressure (water system) Call, Asbury Tank - out of service
Still Alarm 6:30 am Truck 17 to 161 Powell – (Fire Watch)
Still Alarm 8:00 am Battalion Chief 12 to 161 Powell – (Fire Watch)
Still Alarm 8:15 am Engine 36 to 161 Powell – (Fire Watch)

*It is standard department policy that the night watchmen in a firehouse with a Battalion Chief notify the chief of a still alarm (a unit dispatch) in their district to addresses of high property value, hotels and night clubs.


Four firemen were killed arid 30 injured or overcome by smoke battling a five-alarm fire that flared furiously early today in the Hotel Herbert, 161 Powell-$t, and the Backstage Bar on its ground floor.

More casualties were narrowly averted when 200-hotel quests, many of them wearing nightclothes, fled to the street after being roused by phone calls from Mrs. Mary E. Perry, 39, night clerk, who turned in the first alarm.

Fifty-five persons fled down the fire escape or were carried down ladders when the flames, whipped by a burst of wind, flared up and blocked off the hotel entrance.

Damage was estimated at $150,000 by Asst. Fire Chief Martin J. Kearns, who described the blaze as "the worst in Fire Department history, in fatalities, since 1906."

One of the four firemen killed was drowned when he was driven into a deep pool of water in the night club kitchen by a sudden flareup of the flames.

His partner was crushed under falling debris near the stand where a jazz band had been entertaining night revelers only a few hours earlier.

Origin of the fire was undetermined, although some investigators said it could have been caused by someone in the seven-story brick hotel dropping a, lighted cigaret out a rear window.

Captain Frank Kelly of the Fire Department's arson squad took charge of the investigation.

The fire, which started in a rear cellar where the Backstage Club had whiskey and food stored, blazed furiously for three hours before being brought under control. The night club was badly damaged and the first four floors of hotel were charred and blackened.

Flames also licked up the back of the hotel, and briefly made a torch of the roof.

Thirty firemen on the second and third floors were forced to flee down ladders when the rising wind whipped up the flames around them.

All 150 occupants of the, Hotel Barclay, 235 O'Farrell-st, in the rear of the Herbert, were also evacuated.

Louis Raab, owner of the night club, expressed thankfulness that the fire did not occur at a time "when we're really full up."

Only hotel guests reported seriously injured were Mr. and Mrs. G. L. Samson, 77 and 70 respectively, of Honolulu. The elderly couple, recently arrived from Hawaii for a week's vacation, was overcome by smoke and treated at Central Emergency.


The roaring blaze drew a crowd of 5,000 spectators.

A downtown auto jam was averted this morning when police rerouted traffic from five blocks away. Powell-st cable car traffic was disrupted .until 9 a.m.

Thirty-eight pieces of apparatus and 185 firemen were engaged in fighting the blaze.

Mrs. Perry turned in the first alarm when she smelled smoke coming from the Backstage Club about 12:30 a. m. Running to the switchboard she rang all 150 hotel rooms.

Policemen Ed McKevitt and Dave Dillon, first to arrive, ran up and down the hotel corridors, pounding on every door.

Fireman Lynch—the first fatality —was pulled from the night club entrance, asphyxiated by fumes and badly seared. He died at Mission Emergency.

Fireman Hudson and Lieutenant Borman were attempting to control the flames in the kitchen, when the flare-up drove them back. Mr. Bormann fell into the pool of water and was drowned, and Mr. Hudson was buried under collapsing debris, the body of Fireman Elvitsky, buried under a ton of debris, and was recovered from the rear of the basement after it had been pumped out. He had apparently fallen into the flooded cellar when the floor collapsed. The body was not badly burned.

Ambulance crews from Central Emergency and Harbor Emergency Hospitals stood by during the battle, administering first aid to firemen who stumbled from the burning hotel or were carried out. Immediately after recovering, the firemen re-summed their stations and continued at work.

Asst. Chief Kearns was in charge of the contingent in the absence of Chief Albert Sullivan, who is attending a fire chiefs convention at Cleveland.

Firemen overcome by smoke included Asst. Chief D. J. Russell and Battalion Chief James Horan. Others injured, not seriously, were Lieutenant Christian Hayes, Firemen Fred Fahey, John Sheeran and George Lamuth.

Captain Vernon, F. Cody, Lieutenant Henry Lindecker and Firemen Emmett McDonald, Michael Burke, Keith Calvin and Elmo J. Frazie, Wesley P. Dahl were also treated for minor injuries.

A minor rivulet of water was flowing down Powell-st this morning as firemen commenced pumping out the basement's six-foot deep lake. Some water overflowed onto Market-st.

Fighting the fire in the night club interior was complicated by thick clouds of smoke from armchairs, carpets and wall coverings.
Mr. Raab, a former Los Angeles supervisor, recently purchased the night club for a Los Angeles syndicate. He said he could not accurately estimate the damage but there had been about $70,000 worth of liquor stored in the basement.

Mr. Lamuth, one of the first firemen to enter the building, said "the smoke was so thick I couldn't see anything—couldn't even breathe for a while."

Despite the current hotel room shortage, managers of other down-town hotels found space for the evacuated Herbert Hotel patrons.


One of the most tragic fires of recent years struck in July of 1946 when a mysterious blaze broke out in the Hotel Herbert, a shrine of nostalgia in the center of the town's night life area. The Herbert stood near the confluence "of Powell and Ellis streets, a district of frail, jerrybuilt structures thrown up, helter-skelter, after the great quake, in the midst of material and labor shortages.

For years it had housed Herbert's Bachelor's Grill, a retreat for the celibate past whose sacrosanct portals no mere woman was allowed to pass. Not even the American Bar in Paris, the Savoy of London, or Luchow's, or the original Delmonico's, or Hinkydink Kenna's, was more widely known internationally.

"Still Call" Hit Board

At 2:31 on the morning of July 30, 1946, a leisurely still call hit the board at fire headquarters. A still call is the fireman's idiom for an alarm telephoned in and usually involves a fat man stuck in a bathtub or a cat on top of a telephone pole. This one came from the night manager of the Hotel Herbert. She said she had smelled smoke, but couldn't locate the source and wondered if a fire­man might like to drop around and sniff it out.

The alarm went sedately out and an engine was dispatched from No. 2 House at Bush and Grant streets, on the edge of Chinatown. In the meantime, Battalion Chief Joseph Kane picked up the alarm at his Leavenworth and Washington Street headquarters and, playing a hunch, sped with driver Charles Rapp to the scene. It was well they did, since as they arrived, seconds before (Chemical) No. 3, a thick column of black smoke burst through a grating protecting a semi-basement win­dow behind which lay the Backstage Club, a baroque cabaret and bar.

Rapp sprinted to a call box and pulled second and third alarms. The hotel man­agement's effort, appallingly common in hotel fires, to avoid the business-wreck­ing stigma of a general alarm had given the fire time to take hold and now the smoke billowed up the elevator shaft into the dormitory floors.

When Rapp returned to the scene, Deputy Chief Martin J. Kearns already had plunged into the hotel, followed by Lieut. John Borman of the Rescue Squad with three of his men, Firemen Albert Hudson, Walter Elvitsky, and Charles Lynch. On the chance that someone had been trapped there, the four fought their way heroically to the night club floor. Twelve hours later, Arthur Oliva helped to carry their charred bodies out.

By a peculiar idiosyncrasy of fire, the flames had escaped the basement by a vent in the rear made by firemen work­ing from that point. But the carbon mon­oxide laden smoke had been sucked back into the basement by a backdraft created when others had breached the front win­dow. In this deadly inferno^ the four heroic firemen lived but a few seconds.

The department fought this blaze for eight hours. Despite the caution of the hotel management, 20 pieces of apparatus were at the scene within 15 minutes after Rapp pulled the second and third alarm (there were five in all), and not so much as a window sash on an adjoining building was destroyed. All told, however, 14 firemen were injured, in addition to the four dead, a toll which made the date the blackest in the department’s modern record.
Source: “Bravery is a Habit,” by: William Richards

Living Dangerously, 7th in a series

“In San Francisco’s tinderbox---America’s biggest firetrap---the cry of “Fire!” would mean certain catastrophe if it weren’t for the crack smoke eaters for whom…

Fatal Flash Seen By C-B Writer


(Call-Bulletin Reporter, who was at the scene of this morning's tragic Herbert's Hotel fire.)

I was standing in front of the Backstage Club when the fire flared up in the flashback that killed four firemen.

Jimmy Knepher. photographer, and I had been at the real entrance of the hotel, but the smoke was so thick there that we moved over to the night club entrance.

Just as we reached there, ii 'happened.


There was a roar and a hiss and a red burst of flames leaping out across the sidewalk into the street.
The concussion sent me staggering backward. I breathed in hot, strangling fumes.
I heard Jimmy shout:
"There it goes!"
The front of the place seemed to buckle. Glass shattered on the pavement.
From behind me, I heard Fire Captain Edward Duliea's order:
"Get that line up there!''
A wave of firemen surged past me.


They fell back as the fire leaped out.
The firemen went down their hands and knees crawled slowly forward into place, regaining lost ground
But when the mass of flame died down, it was too late to save the four men who had been inside.


Four members of Rescue Squad No. 1 raced to the Her­bert's Hotel fire from the station Truck Company No. 1 at 418 Jessie street early today. Hours later, Fireman Neil F. Beggs, 45, of 283 Twentieth avenue, sole survivor of the four—-ironically because of a faulty mouthpiece of his oxygen mask —rode back alone. "It sure felt like hell," he said, "to go out like that and come back alone.” Beside him, on the seat of the truck, were the soft caps and personal equipment of his three companions — Lieutenant John Borman, Lieutenant Albert Hudson, and Fireman Walter V. Elvitsky.

Beggs described how he and others, wearing oxygen masks, were fighting the blaze far back in the interior of the Backstage Club. Minutes before the tragic backdraft caught his fellow firemen, Beggs discovered the mouthpiece of his mask wasn't working properly 'The mouthpiece of my mask had blown out," he said. "Al (Hudson) tried to fix it for me. He said “You need another piece for that.' So I went outside the building to get another mouthpiece-—and when I went out it blew.

''The backdraft came up through the floor from the basement, throwing the flames right out into the street. In the explosion, flames shot out and everyone was crawling on the floor—hosemen, enginemen, everybody, "Our men (the rescue squad) were much farther in than the others because they had their helmets on. The men on the street side were able to get out.”


Dazed with grief and exhaustion, Fireman E. J. Russell sat curb near the wreckage of the Hotel Herbert where four firemen in a five-alarm blaze early today. Tears were in his eyes and his voice broke as he spoke.
"My best buddies,” he said. "My best pals. I saw them die." His friends were Albert Hudson and John Borman.
“I saw them when they died' Mr. Russell said brokenly, "They were right ahead of me, in the back kitchen.
"There was a sudden flash of fire that reached out and enveloped them just for a moment,
"Johnny fell. He was still alive, but I couldn't reach him. He drowned in the water from our own hoses.
"Al was burned badly. I couldn't see what happened to him."
(Mr. Hudson's body was found under the bandstand, where he had apparently fallen after attempting to flee from the flames.)
Mr. Russell fought to control his sobs.
"We were from No. 2 Division. I don't remember our company now. I can't think.”
“I can't find my truck. I don't care if I never find it."
All I can think of is those two fellows and Walt Elvitsky. I didn't know Lynch (Charles Lynch, the fourth man killed), but he must have been a nice guy, too-—all these fellows are.
Borman has a youngster—a daughter just two years old. And Hudson's wife is going to have a baby in a week or so. I saw those fellows die. I couldn't help them. I couldn't even help the other fellows get them out. It was too much for me. They were my friends.
“God, their poor kids.
''Those wonderful fellows."


Today's Herbert Hotel fire, in which four firemen were killed, con­firmed warnings of Fire Marshal Francis P. Kelly that the recent series of Midwestern hotel disasters might happen here.

To keep the toll of such tragedies; down, Marshal Kelly repeated his I caution that every one, on entering in a place of public assemblage, immediately note the nearest exit.

Patrons of a hotel, he emphasized, should take a moment to determine the location of fire escapes, in case the elevator should cease operating.

"We were lucky in the Herbert Hotel fire. Marshall Kelly said, "that the flames were confined to the basement for some time. That gave all the occupants ample time to get out. They even would have had time to dress and gather up their luggage if they had wanted to."

The marshal declared, so far as he knew, the Backstage Club and the hotel had complied fully with all fire code provisions.


High winds, more than twice nor­mal velocity, helped fan the fire that struck the Hotel Herbert early today.
The Weather Bureau said wind velocity at 3 a. m.—about the time the blaze started—was 13 to 15 miles an hour, about eight miles taster than normal for that hour at tins time of the year.
Wind was from the west and maintained the high velocity during the entire blaze.


Guests at the Hotel Herbert today could thank Mrs. Mary Perry, night-manager, for saving their lives in the fire which swept the hotel.
Mrs. Perry, 39, was on duty when the fire started about 2:30 a.m. She immediately placed a fire alarm, then hit the hotel switchboard, calling every one of the 150 rooms and rousing the occupants.
Police and firemen, answering her alarm, ran through the building pounding on doors.
Only two of the estimated 200 guests in the hotel were injured. Both were overcome by smoke,


A 23-year-old Australian girl, who has been in this country just 10 months, worked as hard as many of the firemen battling the five-alarm Hotel Herbert blaze this morning.
She is Lillian Peterson, waitress in a Powell-st restaurant, who was on duty when the fire started.
Miss Peterson went to work with the first of the firemen, started hustling' hot coffee to them. She estimated she served more than 150 cups of coffee during the night.
"And I don't think the boss will charge me for them," she smiled.


One of the four firemen killed in the Herbert's Hotel blaze early today had told friends only last week that he was considering leaving the department because of the hazards of the profession.

Charles P. Lynch, 29, of 1517 York street, a member of the department's salvage corps and a victim in the disaster, talked of quitting only a week ago, according to his brother, James, also a fireman.
Lynch, a graduate of Mission High School, served throughout the war with the Seventh Division in the Pacific, and went through five major campaigns without receiving a scratch.
After receiving his discharge, Lynch, a veteran of such bitter campaigns as those on Okinawa, Leyete, in the Marshall Islands and at Attu, entered the fire department on November 7 of last year.
His brother, James, 31, a Navy veteran, fought the same fire this morning but escaped uninjured. When he heard the news of his brother's death at the scene, James said that he was going to leave the department.

Lieutenant John Borman, 35, of 172 Twenty-first avenue, another of the victims, was killed in the blaze because he was temporarily filling in on the department's rescue squad. He was shifted to the squad only yesterday to take the place of Captain Otto Lippert, who was injured in a fall while fighting a fire Sunday.
Borman ordinarily was as-signed to Truck 8, and other members of that crew said he would still be alive if he hadn't been shifted to the rescue, squad.
Borman is survived by a widow and a 19 months old daughter, Irene, and by three sisters. Born in Los Angeles, he was brought here as a child. He attended St. Ignatius High School and entered the department in 1935.

The third victim was Lieutenant Albert Hudson, 35, of 4065 Twenty-fifth street, a member of the rescue squad. Hudson had been injured twice before during his fire fighting career.
Hudson, whose widow was reported expecting a baby, first entered the department in September, 1935. He took a military leave to enter the Navy as a volunteer in March, 1942, returning to the department on the first of February, 1946.
Shortly after, on February 16, he was appointed a temporary lieutenant.
Hudson received a meritorious conduct award from the fire department January 28,1942, for aid rendered in rescuing a man from a burning apartment on November 5, 1941.

The body of the fourth victim, Walter V. Elvitsky, of 1778 Twentieth avenue, was not recovered from the basement, until several hours after the fire. Elvitsky, a hoseman with rescue squad one, entered the department in 1942.
Elvitsky's father, Walter Sr., said that his son's wife, Lydia and their daughter, Natalie, 4, were vacationing at Jordan Park in Lake County, friends who telephoned Mrs. Elvitsky in-formed her only that her husband had been "seriously hurt.”


The complete list of firemen killed and injured, with the two civilians hurt, follows:
BORMAN, Fire Lieutenant John —35, Truck No. 8, of 170 Twenty-first Avenue.
ELVITSKY, Fireman Walter V. —33, Rescue Squad, of 1778 Twentieth Avenue.
HUDSON, Fireman Albert---35, Rescue Squad 1, 4065 Twenty-fifth Street.
LYNCH. Fireman Charles P— 29, Salvage Corps, 1317 York Street.

Assistant Fire Chief D. J. Russell, smoke inhalation.
Battalion Chief James Horan, of 2578 Eighteenth Avenue, smoke inhalation.
John Sheeran, chiefs operator, smoke inhalation.
Captain Vernon F. Cody, 46 Engine, 38, of 540 Thirty-sixth Avenue, smoke inhalation.
Lieutenant Christian Hayes, 43, of 151 Bonview Street, lacerated thumb.
Lieutenant Henry Lindecker, 38, Truck 2, of 2339 Eighteenth Avenue, smoke inhalation.
Hoseman George Lamuth, 27, of 558 Arkansas Street, smoke in eyes.
Emmett McDonald, 34, Truck 2, of 1133 Shrader Street, smoke inhalation.
Michael Burke, 25, Engine 15, of 900 Chenery Street, smoke inhalation.
Keith Calvin, 27, Engine 15, smoke inhalation.
Elmo J. Fazio, 33, Engine 28, of 4327 Cabrillo Street, smoke in­halation.
A. K. Benton, Engine 28, smoke in­halation.
Wesley P. Dahl 28, Truck 5, 741 Balboa Street, smoke inhalation.
Hoseman Fred Fahey, 34, of 99 Jersey Street, puncture wound, left foot
John Finn, 36, of 869 Van Ness Avenue, South, lacerated thumb.
Nichols Pearson, of 208 Fair­mont Street, smoke inhalation.
John Edwards, 38, of 3444 Van Ness, injured eye.
William Duplisea, 35, of 112 Parnassus, cuts.
Gealusha L. Sampson resident, of the hotel, overcome by smoke.
Mrs. Alice Sampson, 70, his wife,


A solemn parade, in strange, quiet contrast to other parades this city has seen, left the City Hall this, morning with its marching men moving in slow cadence.
It was a funeral parade for four local young men whose lives were snuffed out in seconds as they did their routine job early one morning this week.
Their names—John Borman, Wal­ter Elvitsky, Albert Hudson and Charles P. Lynch.
Their job—firemen.
Today, more than 600 firemen from San Francisco and Bay Area cities marched in formal homage to the four. There was no music not even muffled drums.
They were joined by an honor guard of 60 policemen and Navy fire fighters from Treasure Island and Hunters Point.
In strange contrast, too, were the firemen in the guard of honor, all of whom were men who fought the same fire which killed the men to whom they were paying tribute. About the same time of day last Tuesday, they were smoke-black­ened, in some cases injured, and weary firemen. Today they were in their formal blue uniforms with white gloves.
Thousands of citizens, slowly
(Turn to Page 8, Column 1.) (We have been unable to retrieve the remainder of this article)

Extracted from original sources with grammar and spelling as published.

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