Ossining Fire Recalled
BY ROBERT MARCHANT
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: July 22, 2004)
July 22, 1934, was supposed to be a day of picnics and ballgames for a party of city folks from Brooklyn headed to Westchester for some cooling breezes on the Ossining riverfront.
Instead, a bus with malfunctioning brakes ran off the road near the Ossining train station and landed in the middle of a lumber yard. The result, in the words of the local paper, was a "pyre of screaming humanity." Twenty-one people died on that ill-fated trip 70 years ago today.
"What a tragedy it was," said Roberta Arminio, the director of the Ossining Historical Society. "It's an accident that could have been avoided."
The trip to Sing Sing prison was sponsored by the Young Men's Democratic League of Brooklyn, and the outing to the state prison was far from unusual. The prison was far more integrated into the fabric of regular society than it is today, and sporting clubs and civic groups from around the region frequently took trips to Ossining to play against the prison's football and baseball squads, popularly known as the Black Sheep.
A caravan of seven buses carried the weekend excursion to Ossining. Everything went wrong on the creaky old bus with bad brakes at the rear of the line. The bus stopped several times for emergency repairs by driver Frank Incarnato of Brooklyn, and the squeal of grinding metal gave passengers some nervous moments along the way. As the bus turned down Main Street in Ossining, a very steep hill, it picked up speed. Then the brakes died.
Witnesses estimated the bus, carrying 44 people, hit speeds of 50 miles an hour down the hill.
"Traveling at a terrific speed,'' recounted the Ossining Citizen Register, "the bus ran up on the (train) station ramp and dashed along the viaduct (leading to the waterfront). Striking the steel pipe fence, it broke the railings as though they were matchsticks and hurtled off the ramp. ... There followed the terrific blast of the gasoline exploding, and the vehicle was engulfed in flames. Screaming and completely panic-stricken, the passengers attempted to fight their way from the flaming vehicle. Some fought for the doors of the bus, others leaped from the windows with their clothes flaming.''
The bus landed 30 feet into a lumber yard. There had been no rain for two months. "The fire spread through the lumber as if it had been tinder,'' said Fire Chief Duane Byble after the fire.
Passengers coated in flames ran toward the river. Survivors wandered around the riverfront in a daze. Two hundred firefighters sped to the rescue.
There were acts of great heroism in fighting the flames. One volunteer firefighter, George Adcock, was said to have plunged into the fiery wreck seven times to bring people out.
"I have a lot of respect for what those old-timers did back then," said Ossining's current fire chief, Don Farrell. Fires were just as deadly in 1934 as they are today, he said, but the tools to fight them were much more primitive in the earlier era. The rubber coats worn in 1934, for instance, offered far less protection than the turnout gear in use today.
"They wore raincoats, basically," said Farrell, "They melted in extreme heat, and they easily caught fire."
A Briarcliff Manor priest, the Rev. James Kelly, happened to be at the Ossining train station, where windows burst from the heat of the blaze several blocks away. Kelly administered last rites to the dead and dying, and he was a very busy man that day. Fourteen people died in the flames, including the driver, and four more at area hospitals. One body was pulled from the river two days later by a search team. Two people were never found â€” either lost to the Hudson or vaporized by the flames, leaving no physical remains behind at all that could be identified.
The community was galvanized by the tragedy.
"People pulled together," recalled Frank Tassini, a longtime Ossining resident who was 18 at the time of the fire, "Everyone was trying to help all they could." He recalled a scene of frantic activity in Ossining, as a huge column of smoke rose from the riverfront. Later, he said, townspeople helped console the survivors and the bereaved.
Two whole blocks were destroyed, and the commercial damage was estimated at $250,000, a vast sum in Depression-era America. The pain and suffering it caused are impossible to calculate.
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Protection from the Past