*Story by Fire Chief Steve Moody
I was on the department a whole one week when the tone went off, “Fire at the St. John Military Academy.”
This was back when firefighters rode on the back of the fire trucks. Hence, you were called a “tailboard man.” One of the first things I was taught when I started my career was “how to ride on the tailboard.” What I was told was simple; ”When the truck is getting ready to go over railroad tracks or a dip or a hump in the road, bend your knees and hold on tight.”
Back to the fire.
As we left the station we turned right on Elm Street, then another right on 9th Street. Once on 9th Street, approximately one mile away, you could see a smoky silhouette on the crystal blue sky. This was going to be a good one. Battalion Chief Charley McCabe took the east route – left on Elm, then left on Santa Fe. It was a standard policy we take two ways to ensure passage across the railroad tracks by one or the other.
We rolled up on the round-about in front of the four story school. The smoke was concentrated to a couple upper story windows as well as the eaves.
As my partner and I jumped off the tailboard, McCabe rolled up in his red station wagon. Steam was coming from the hood which was quite smashed. McCabe had t-boned a car on the way to the fire. It turned out to be an omen of things to come.
A crew of Lieutenant Tom Girard (later Chief) teamed up with Firefighter Steve Ade to make an interior attack.
This was a time in history when fighting a fire from the outside simultaneously with an interior attack was acceptable. As Girard and Ade attempted an interior attack, the rest of us were directed to ladder the building to get water on the fire from the outside.
The massive school was too far from the street to reach the building with our 100’ ladder truck, so several firefighters including myself took 50’ ladders off the ladder truck. These ladders were called Bangor ladders. They were controlled by means of poles attached to the top of the ladder’s first section. The poles were called tormentor poles.
Raising these ladders was a four-man operation. One firefighter heeled the ladder, one stood by to pull the rope to extend it, one firefighter held and positioned one of the tormentor poles to help steady the forward/backward movement of the ladder, and the last firefighter held the second tormentor pole 90 degrees to keep the ladder from moving side-to-side.
Girard and Ade made their way inside up to the fire floor. The fire was down the hallway within their sight. The two of them grabbed a hose from a wall cabinet. Forward they advanced the line. Ever so close, but the hose wasn’t going to be long enough. Suddenly the fire flashed and just as speedy as the flashover was the retreat of Girard and Ade.
Unbeknownst to anyone on the exterior attack the two firefighters inside had ever so closely dodged death.
The common attic space on the monstrous building toyed with the ladder crews. The fire was pushed to one end and then to the other end – back and forth. It quickly became clear the majestic St. John Military Academy would succumb to the fire.
Only a few of us old timers have any firsthand memories of the St. John Military Academy fire, and some – like this author – may have memories that are slightly askew. Things have changed a lot since that fire back in October of 1978, and fortunately the new school was built with something the old didn’t have. Sprinklers.