Union Fire Company No.1
 

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The Cumberland Fire Company Fire 50 Years Ago Today Thursday, June 27, 1974 3:53 AM John Sheaffer…My story and recollection This is long…but very informational in my opinion I was Foreman at the time of the fire
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By Union Fire Company No.1
June 27, 2024

In those days, the company by-laws still identified the fire ground leader as the Foreman. I lived 2 ½ blocks from the firehouse and was off from my full time com center job that night. I worked midnight shifts just prior to this day and was in my standard toss and turn mode most of the night unable to sleep. In those days, tone alerting was non existent for the firefighter at home unless you purchased a Plectron tone activated monitor. Almost no one had one of these and relied just on the roof siren or a turned up scanner to awaken you if a call occurred. On this particular night, I had my old regency scanner cranked as always.
Here is the chain of events as I witnessed first hand.

While lying in bed, out of my scanner came the voice of an excited Dick Shughart saying
“554 from Engine 140”. Dick Shughart was the paid full time engine driver was a very non excitable person. The first thing that crossed my mind was there must be a fire near the fire house somewhere. It was not unusual in these days for someone to call the firehouse or go beat on the door. 911 was not available yet. Within seconds of his first radio transmission, he repeats his response.
By now I am in overdrive racing down the steps in my Morning Pride bunker pants
heading to what I am sure of was a working fire somewhere. Just prior to making my way out the kitchen door, the base answers his call “Go ahead Engine 140”. Dick replies back that the Cumberland Firehouse is on fire and it is a working fire. Dick then added to hit the tones before the power went out. Needless to say, my 20 year old heart just about stopped. My thoughts were that this can’t be happening. I jumped into my car and flew to the firehouse. I was there in about 30 seconds. The front bay door was up and the engine was at Bedford and Louther at the hydrant. A 2 ½” line was layed from the engine bay to the hydrant. Inside the engine room, there was a slight smoke haze lingering. The fluorescent light in the small room to the rear of the engine bay could still be seen. I drove past the firehouse and parked along the curb. On the west side of the firehouse, black smoke was pouring from the stove vent on the first floor in the “recreation room”. I ran to the front of the firehouse and the live ins were frantic as expected. The initial concern was the safety of Dick’s three daughters, Denise, Dosha, and Diane. Live in Jamo Miller had been awakened by the smoke and went immediately to the drivers quarters which was above the recreation room to alert him. Jamo, Dick and the three kids fled the building via the bunkroom hall and down the steps into the engine room. There was a rear entrance also from the second floor but was not used. Other occupants in the building were Ken Bishop, Harry Hershey, and Gerald Royer. Their escapes all had happened prior to my quick arrival. Also arriving at the firehouse at the same time I did was Mark Boyles and Ralph Smith. Without calling all of the parties involved, I am not sure who pulled the remaining equipment out of the firehouse. Dick had moved the engine and the ambulances were scattering as I walked into the bay. The new Squad had been sent to the Swab Wagon Co. for some minor repairs the day before. It would have been rescued regardless.

Having arrived on the scene, an eerie silence other than frantic voices was the only thing you heard. No sirens were wailing and no help was in sight. It was at this time that I ran back to the intersection of Bedford and Louther and pulled street box 31. I ran back to the fire house to assist suppressing the fire. The old Gamewell horn was now bawling up the street at the Union Fire house and help was on the way. Within seconds, the roof siren at the firehouse started blowing. It apparently was shorted out at one of the siren switches.
Here I stood at my beloved firehouse watching it burn, the siren is blowing as if the firehouse itself was crying for help. To top it off the Gamewell bell is chiming away.
I ran into the firehouse electrical panel which was right at the front bay door and pulled the lever on the breaker box to kill the siren. The 2 ½ line laid from the firehouse was still lying in the bay. I told someone to get back to the engine and bring the 2 1 ½ lines and the wye to the bay. This was accomplished rather quick, but then we discovered that the engine had layed the hydrant lay away from the building and not the reverse lay. We had to then run back and get a double male. By now the Union engine had arrived and had layed into the rear of the building. Prior to the street box alerting their response, live in Randy Watts had heard the radio transmissions. He exited the bunkroom and went to the drivers quarters and attempted to arouse the driver, Pete Peterson. Upon arrival, the Union made an aggressive interior attack via the back door into the recreation room. Unfortunately, the access door to the recreation room was propped open into the watch desk/bay area of the station. If this door would have been shut, this story would not be as long. No one is to blame as this was a normal occurrence since the back room was no longer considered as private as prior to this. I remember well what happened when Engine 141’s crew started moving into the rear. Fire and hot gases were inadvertently pushed into an already shaky atmosphere in the engine bay and all hell broke loose. The freshly painted engine bay immediately ignited in what may have been a flashover. Orange and bluish flames licked out across the tin ceilings and up the open stairwell. The windows of the huge bay door that was in the open position exploded downward showering everyone in glass. Just inside the bay stood Matthew Bishop, Jim McGowan, and my 73 year old grandfather who lived across the street. The look on their faces is indescribable as they stood there watching something unimaginable. My grandfather joined the fire company in 1918 and was a driver during his hey day. About this time, the line from E140 was charged and placed into action. The fire in the engine bay was out as fast as it started as we had water in the lines from E140. Lingering fire remained in the stairwell and in the bunkroom hall. The building was now charged heavily with smoke. This evolution of events from when I awakened until now was maybe 10 minutes. During this mayhem, some of us were able to grab breathing apparatus. Mark Boyles, Harry Herb, I, and others were now making our way to the second floor. I remember standing at the top of the steps when all of a sudden Mark Boyles went flying by with a body across his back. We ran down the steps and discovered that Harry Hershey had failed to exit the building. For anyone to second guess the events here, they only should consider the mass confusion and concerns to understand how this tragedy occurred. Harry was taken to Carlisle Hospital by Roy Shearer and another member only to be pronounced dead from smoke inhalation. After the fire was over, you could see the print of his body on the floor on the bunkroom. A secondary issue here is that the company had 2 bunkrooms. Harry was in the new room and I believe everyone else was in the old room.

Unfortunately Gerald Royer passed away 2 weeks later from a health condition aggravated by the fire.
The cause of the fire was determined to be an electrical short above the false ceiling in the recreation room. A nail had been driven through a wire. This condition had existed for 4 years. There was some speculation that a trash can started it near the back also. Some wild reports by disgruntled older members that it was arson. I personally believe in the electrical theory.

The communications center came under much scrutiny after this event. It didn’t help matters that some of us worked there. The communications center erred by not sending the appropriate response upon acknowledging Engine 140’s transmission. They simply activated the house siren. Response from the other fire companies did not occur until the street box was pulled. The County did fire the operator from that night. However, the entire shift should have been fired. In those days, 2 operators worked the midnight shift side by side. It was a group effort by both of them to stand by and do nothing.

This tragedy also ignited the thrust to install fire detection and alarm systems in the firehouses across the area.

The company never went out of service. The evening of the fire the Borough brought equipment in to haul away all the destroyed interior furniture and items. The building was insured for 60 thousand dollars. The final repair ended up being 120 thousand dollars. The company carnival still happened in late July. E140 was stored in the “back building” which thankfully was constructed in 1972 to house the Fox (E240) and extra ambulances.
The company actually looked at an empty used car dealership building on E. High Street and one member independently had plans drawn up for a new firehouse to be located at Biddle Mission Park. Funds and company action caused the decision to repair the firehouse. Damage to the actual structure was not severe. The back room which was remodeled in early 1970 into a first class “Club Like” place was gutted. The driver’s apartment was mostly heavy smoke damage. The engine room was scorched and the upper most section of the ornate stairwell was fairly charred. The second floor of the firehouse was mostly heat and smoke damage. The stumbling block on the repairs came in the form of needed upgrades with regard to added enclosed stairwell, fire escape from bunkroom, and some structural upgrades for the second floor beams. There became a need to relocate the school water and sewer lines when the plans came out for the outside fireproof stairwell. The stairwell also needed to be built on School property (the playground). That created a stink with reducing the size of the playground. While building the stairwell, limestone was encountered since the stairwell was being built from the basement to the second floor. Member/Mason Mark Boyles did a yeoman job on this work. Beecher Dubbs Construction did the interior construction. Another “fun” deal was sudden desire to put a fire pole in the building. 6500 dollars later and a lot of “discussion”…it got approved and done. The back room which prior to the fire was probably the most ornate “Club Room” in Carlisle. The bar in the room was very ornate and backlit. The back room was repaired and had new “counter top and cabinets” installed. The ceasing of the “Bar” in 1973 is another story. My memory of the back room from the day I joined in July 1970 was nothing but a neat place to go to. It had Cable television and air conditioning…not a common thing then. Ample seating area provided a unique area to watch sports, eat a local bought meal (another story on the old eating spots), play pinball, or cook a full course meal in the kitchen facility that also populated the room. Steak night happen more than once on the huge old gas stove griddle. Meeting nights always ended in the back room with a meal cooked by driver Dick and my Dad. Smitty Reese from the old Beltzhoover Store down the street provided the spread in December.

The reopening of the “New” building occurred exactly 1 year from the fire. There was a ceremony and the next day there was another open house and a pumping contest in front of the fire House…pumping contests…another pile of stories. I could write a damn book. I pulled the street box (#31) in remembrance of the event on June 27, 1975.

The repaired building retained very little of what “it used to look like” inside. The inside was mostly ripped out and reconstructed completely different. There was a day room on the second floor where the Pole was positioned. Only 1 bunk room was constructed on the opposite side of the floor from the original. The new stairwell was enclosed and not visible on any floor. The engine room gained space with the removal of the old stairwell.
Stained glass and anything ornate was gone…destroyed.
I attached some newspaper pictures, current firehouse pictures, and a picture of US at the pumping contest.. I will describe each pic on their page when you click on them.

I will never forget June 27, 1974….I was only 20 years old.


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