One Hot Day: How We Lost the Andersons

The sun had not yet risen in the city and already it was getting hot, not that it had ever really cooled off in the night. Two days before, on Tuesday, a new record was set for the hottest day ever recorded, only for it to be broken the very next day, which was yesterday. In fact, it was reported that the morning temperature rose from 87 to 90 degrees in only fifteen minutes. The heat was wreaking havoc, not just in Philadelphia, but up and down the Atlantic coast and as far west as Kansas. People were dying, found dead in their beds or drowned in the Delaware River, trying to find some relief from the heat.

Just over the river, in New Jersey, thousands of workers, both men and women, were walking off the job at the shipbuilding yards, the gas company, the cotton mill. In Harrisburg yesterday, the hottest day ever recorded there too, they had to stop operations at the munitions plants, which was probably not helpful to the war effort. So, in a way, the heat was even affecting the war, even though it was being fought on another continent, an ocean away. Like the heat, it was hard to not feel affected by the war. Every day thousands of fresh, young American soldiers were landing in France. Every new press of the newspaper brought more lists of the names of local men who were dead, missing or wounded. Last summer, all men between 21 and 31 had to register for the draft and yesterday they announced that all men between 18 and 45 would have to register as well, next month. Yes, it was looking like it was going to be another hot day.

David Green, the night foreman at the Western Ice Company was nearing the end of his shift. It wasn't quite six o'clock and there were a couple dozen workmen with wagons outside of the warehouse ready to load up the ice for delivery that day. But, somewhere in the warehouse, some crossed wires had unknowingly ignited a fire and David, instead of going home at the end of another shift as usual, found himself in the engine room of the ice plant sounding the fire alarm. The workmen fled with their wagons and the Cardington fire department arrived, only to find a raging fire, far beyond their control alone.

At the station, they got a call to respond to a fire at the Western Ice Company at 63rd and Spruce in Upper Darby Township, outside the city. John, who was twenty-nine, was a hoseman with Engine 54. He had been a fireman for five years already, graduating from the Fireman Training School four years ago, soon after they had started the school in the back of the Engine 23 station. His average score from the school was higher than any other fireman in the city. Last summer he had registered for the draft, but he was on duty here, at the fire station, and not in France because he had a wife, Teresa, a tall woman with dark hair and steely blue eyes, and their three children, Teresa, six, John, three, and Jimmy, five months.

He met Teresa when he had been working as a conductor on a trolley car collecting fares from passengers. One day she happened to walk onto his car. Teresa was the youngest of four girls born to Irish immigrants. Her father, Patrick, had been a schoolteacher back in Ireland but had found his Irish-ness proved him unqualified to teach in America. John was an Anderson, a family with deep Protestant roots and distrust towards the Irish, and he had to work hard to convince Patrick that he was serious about marrying his daughter. So, he converted to Catholicism. This did not go over very well with his family. In fact it went over so badly, that they, his father and his older brother and sister, weren't really speaking to him. On the dismal, bright side of things, at least he didn't have to worry about how this would have affected his grandmother who was already dead, nearly two decades before, or his mother, gone when he was just a boy.

Engine 54 arrived at the burning warehouse along Cobbs Creek around seven o'clock. By then, the sun was up. Another Philadelphia company arrived, as well as the engines from Millbourne, East Landsdowne and Upper Darby, there was no doubt this was a big fire. By the time they arrived, the fire was severely out of control and shot flames high into the sky. This attracted spectators, nearing a thousand and counting, to gather and watch the efforts. The warehouse was in a hollow and sparks of fire would ignite brush in the surrounding area, making things more difficult, more dangerous.

John, who had been awarded for his firemen's efficiency by the city on several occasions, climbed up a ladder on the northern wall of the building, where the fire was fiercest. Without warning, the wall suddenly collapsed and the other firemen in the immediate area fled, but John fell, along with the wall, and was buried under its flaming timber and debris. The other firemen were unable to get to him. A hose burst, which drenched some of the spectators and they continued to fight the fire. Around eight o'clock in the morning, they finally extinguished the flames and began digging in the ruins for their fallen comrade. An hour later, they finally found him. Unfortunately for John and his wife and his three small kids and all the grandkids and great-grandkids yet to come, he was dead. And buried with him, under the rubble, was everything known to them about the Andersons. Lost.


August 8, 1918. Below, a scene of the firemen, looking for John Anderson.


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