This week in history: Union Stock Yard fire kills 21 firefighters

On Dec. 22, 1910, a terrible fire broke out at the Union Stockyards on the South Side and burned for over a day. This Chicago Daily News photograph shows a group of firefighters crowded below the spot where Fire Chief Jim Horan’s body was found on Dec. 23. Twenty-one firemen were crushed to death under a falling wall at a fire in Nelson Morris and Company’s meat storage house. | Chicago Daily News

Until Sept. 11, 2001, the fire caused the deadliest building collapse in U.S. history, but the collapse remains the deadliest in Chicago history. As reported in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:
Everyone remembers the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but the blaze that left over 300 dead and thousands homeless was not the last disaster to scorch the city — not by a long shot.
On Dec. 22, 1910, a fire broke out at the Morris and Co. meatpacking plant at the Union Stockyards, burning out of control despite the efforts of many heroic firefighters. During the fight, a wall collapsed on 21 men, killing all of them. The event began the single largest killing of firefighters in the line of duty until Sept. 11, 2001.
The fire would rage until the following day. The Chicago Daily News’ afternoon coverage on Dec. 22 showed a harrowing scene that offered no end in sight.
That afternoon, a fire at Warehouse 6 “broke out afresh at 2:30 p.m. and another desperate rally on the part of the fighters of the flames was necessitated to keep it confined,” the paper reported. Thick, black smoke billowed out from the warehouse, preventing responders from spraying the fire directly. The paper said it took minutes for the flames to spread from basement to roof.

The walls of the three-story structure fell in, the report said, which allowed the fire to engulf the warehouse. “Assistant Chief Seyferlich directed the many companies of firemen playing streams of water into the blazing structure to retreat back toward the railroad tracks, fearing that the walls of this structure would fall with loss of life if the firemen were stationed near it.”
To stop the fire’s spread to Warehouse 5, Seyferlich sent firefighters into the building to spray the walls connecting the two warehouses, the paper said. The heat radiating off the interior walls was “so intense that the interior of No. 5 was like a furnace.”
The deadly wall collapse occurred earlier in the day, but one reporter stood at the scene when Daniel J. Horan, an undertaker and brother of Chief Jim Horan, arrived.
“When he stopped near the pile the brother of the chief broke down and wept aloud. He was so overcome with grief he did not speak. He stood staring at the pile of a few moments and then turned and made his way back through the crowd.”
There’s a lot more to this tragic story. Catch Saturday’s edition of “This week in history” — part of our Afternoon Edition newsletter — for more.

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