1912 Equitable Building Fire in New York City

William Giblin - Ilion, NY Native's Daring Rescue


Ilion, Jan 9, 1912 - Through the kindness of Editor John Crowley of Little Falls, word reached the office of John A. Giblin early this morning, telling of the fire in the Equitable Building, at 120 Broadway, in which are the offices of the Mercantile Safe and Deposit Company of which Mr. Giblin's brother, William, is president, and also telling of the escape from death of Mr. Giblin.

William Giblin saved from Equitable Building Fire 1912 NYC
William Giblin saved
from Equitable Building Fire

Later these reports were supplemented by reports from the Utica newspaper offices and by telephone from New York, which were more reassuring of Mr. Giblin's safety. Early this afternoon a telegram was received from President Giblin, in which he stated he was at the Hudson Street Hospital and suffering from exposure. President Giblin is one of Ilion's young men who has made good in financial circles in New York City rapidly, rising from an obscure position with the company to its head, within a very few years, and that his life was saved is something his Ilion friends have to be thankful for. He is a brother of John A., Michael and Miss Katherine Giblin of this village, Frank T. of Utica and Mrs. J.J. Raleigh of Syracuse, and Miss Gertrude Giblin of Tarrytown. His mother, Mrs. M. Giblin, lives on West Street, this village.



Former Utica and Ilion Man Underwent Terrifying Experience


Fireman James Dunn Disobeyed Orders and Saved President of Mercantile Deposit and Another from Death

      New York, January 10, 1912 --- William Giblin, president of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, who underwent such a terrifying experience in the Equitable Building fire yesterday morning and whose rescue was one of the most marvelous pieces of work ever accomplished by firemen, was reported in good condition at the Hudson Street Hospital this morning.

      The only danger to be feared is pneumonia. However, no symptoms had been discovered, and as Mr. Giblin is a vigourous young man, it is hoped that he may escape.


Equitable Building 1912 NYC
Equitable Assurance Building 1912 NYC


Waved White Handkerchief

      The rescue of Mr. Giblin was dramatic. The patient, who had looked at death in the treasure vault, now realizes the whole extent of his luck. Further details of the discovery of the imprisoned men, the work to save them and the incidents following the rescue became known today.



Former Ilion Man, Imprisoned in a Vault of the Burning Equitable, Had Narrow Escape from Death---Rescuer Was Ordered to Leave

      January 10, 1912 --- One of the most thrilling incidents of the great fire in New York, which destroyed the Equitable Building yesterday, was the rescue of William Giblin, president of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, which had its offices and vaults in the north end of the ground floor. Mr. Giblin is the brother of Frank T. Giblin of 58 Rutger Street, Utica, and John Giblin of Ilion, where he lived until about ten years ago. He has other relatives and friends in Utica and Ilion.

      Mr. Giblin was notified of the fire by a clerk in the Breslin Hotel, says the Times, and arrived on the scene in a taxicab at 6:30 a.m. Despite the objections of the police he made his way to the Cedar street entrance of the burning building. There is a heavy steel door at the entrance which locked with a spring lock. Mr. Giblin unlocked this door and forgot to take the key out of the keyhole. A watchman whose name Mr. Giblin did not even know, accompanied him, and the door swung shut on the two and locked itself.

      It was dark on the ground floor, and Mr. Giblin and the watchman groped their way to the front of the building. No one missed them, apparently, for Cedar street at that time in the morning was so dark that forms could be distinguished only vaguely, and the dangling, shining keys in the blackened steel door were forgotten or not even seen. There was little fire on the ground floor, but of smoke there was a great deal, and Mr. Giblin and his aide reached the Broadway windows with difficulty.

Prisoner in a Vault

      Within fifteen minutes after Mr. Giblin had entered the building ....the ground floor was a mass of flames. Giblin, however, did not see for he had stepped into the big vault big enough to conceal a company of men, and the door was keeping both flames and smoke from him. He was busily engaged looking for the papers which he had come to save. It was only when he had obtained what he wanted that he opened the door of the vault to retrace his steps. A rush of smoke almost overcame him instantly. He pulled the door behind him and realized that he was a prisoner. He glanced about for the watchman but did not see him. He knew then that his life too, was only a matter of time, and he waited for that time.

      The rumor spread outside that a well dressed man who had entered the building had perished in the flames. Some said that his name was Giblin, but the busy fire fighters soon forgot this incident, for there were other things which kept them alert every moment.

Reporter Discovers Signal

The story of the rescue as told by the Sun follows:

      At 7:30 am, a white pocket handkerchief which was being waved by President William Giblin of the Mercantile Safe Deposit Company, between the iron bars of the gate of the Broadway entrance to the deposit company's offices in the sunken ground floor two steps down from the Broadway sidewalk, attracted the attention of a reporter, who was standing with the Rev. Father McGean, a chaplain of the Fire Department, across the street from the burning building.

      "There's somebody alive over there in the basement floor, father," the reporter said. Father McGean had heard no cries from the basement floor, but he had been hearing groans from floors above. He and Chief Kenlon ran across through the smoke and spray together. The stone lintels over doorways were crashing to the street all around the grill work opening. Already the dark opening was beginning to be framed with a thick picture frame of ice. And for a background was a dull glare as the fire ate outward toward where the president of the companhy crouched against the locked grating beside Watchman William Campion, who was dead, and Watchman William Sheehan, whose right arm was pinned against the dead man by the fallen ceiling timbers that had killed Campion.

Three Men Sawed at the Steel Bars

      Fireman James Dunn of Engine 6 disobeyed orders and saved President Giblin and Sheehan. When Father McGean had heard Mr. Giblin's confession and had been pulled away from the grill by Acting Chief Devanny, a watchman named Peck came up with two hacksaws which he had found at 115 Broadway. Peck started in with one of the saws on the bars of the door and dropped the other. President Giblin reached through the bars and got hold of the saw and started to try to help Peck cut the inch and one-half bars. Mr. Giblin worked for ten minutes or until the falling water had so chilled his hands that he had to drop the saw. Peck's saw broke.

      There was a wait of fifteen minutes while no one came near the iron door where the dead man stood frozen to the bars and the president of the company and Watchman Sheehan called on God for help. Then Fireman Jim Dunn of Engine 6 jumped up to the grating. Jim Dunn had a saw and started in to cut the bars.

      Somebody, a superior officer at any rate, ran up to Dunn through the falling spary and ordered Dunn to get away from the building, where new big chunks of stone were smashing down more frequently.

      "These two fellows are alive!" yelled Dunn to his chief. "I'm going to saw them out."

      "Stay, then, you fool," cried the chief and got out of range of the falling stones.

Jim Dunn Finished the Job

      For a long time then----Sheehan says it seemed about an hour, but it probably was much less---Jim Dunn sawed away. While he was working Commissioner Johnson personally directed that a stream be sent in through the grating to keep back the fire, which was creeping streetward toward where Giblin and Sheehan stood, now too cold and weak to help. The stream struck Giblin and for an instant pressed him back forcibly against the debris that held him close to the door. And during the rest of the time the fireman was sawing the bars the stiff spray alternately was hitting Dunn and Giblin and coating them with ice.

      Dunn got through a bar and found that even when it was pried to one side, the imprisoned men could not be pulled out to the sidewalk. He patiently started at another. And after an hour and a quarter of steady sawing got two bars cut through. Then he left the grill and for another ten or fifteen minutes Giblin and Sheehan waited for him to come back.

The Living Out, the Dead Left

      Dunn had left them only to get a crowbar to pry the cut bars aside. He stretched the bars to either side and reached in and got out first Mr. Giblin and then Sheehan. Campion evidently was dead and was left standing there. All forenoon and until dusk, through the spray two white blurs might be seen where his hands stuck outward through the bars.

      Dunn, Father McGean and Commisioner Johnson carried Giblin and Sheehan across the street to the boiler room of the Trinity Building where Dr. Thatcher Worthern and Dr. Garrett of the Hudson street Hospital and Dr. Girdansky of Gouverneur Hospital had established a relief station. In the hot boiler room the two men were stripped, rubbed down and drank a stimulant. The clothes of Giblin had to be cut to get them off because of the coating of ice. Fire Commissioner Johnson worked his own arms to break the coating of ice on his own coat sleeves, drew off his coat and then pulled of his sweater and drew it over the head of Mr. Giblin.

      Mr. Giblin at the Hudson street hospital was found to be suffering only from exposure and will be able to go home soon unless a heavy cold or pneumonia results.

      Sheehan suffered a broken right arm, the arm that had been pinned against Campion, which was set after he had recovered somewhat from his exposure and shock.

      A dispatch from New York today stated that Mr. Giblin was much improved this morning and left the hospital for his home.



Streams of Water Still Playing Upon the Smouldering Timbers of Wrecked Equitable Building.


All the Safes, Holding Paper Worth Half a Billion Dollars or More, Are Believed to Be Intact
Body of Battalion Chief Walsh Not Yet Recovered

      New York, January 10, 1912 --- Half a billion dollars or more in securities lie on the glowing ruins of the Equitable Building to-day guarded by 140 policemen and detectives.

      The bulk of the Gould, Harriman, Ryan and Belmont estates and the vast securities of the Equitable Life Assurance Society are locked in the massive steel vaults, buried beneath tons of debris.

      With streams still playing upon the smoulderng ruins, laborers are fighting their way to the vaults to ascertain their condition.

      All the vaults are believed to be intact.

      A superficial examination made today indicated that the vaults of the Mercantile Safe Deposit were intact.

      The ruins still hold the body of Battalion Chief William Walsh, two watchmen employed by the company are also missing and are believed to have perished in the fire, in which six lives were lost.

      Because $50,000,000 to $75,000,000 in collateral of Wall street loans are locked in the vaults, the governing committee of the Stock Exchange announced today another postponement of one day in deliveries.

      The records of the Harriman Railroad lines, showing the names and addresses.....


      A white, hot furnace still glowed fiercely in the cellars of the ruined Equitable Building at daybreak to-day, resisting all the efforts of the firemen to drown out the flames. Chief Kenton doubted whether the fire would be completely extinguished before night.

      The blaze is now confined, however, to the heaped up ruins in the cellars, for above the first story nothing is left save the granite walls, bearded with great encrustrations of gleaming ice.

      Pilasters and ornaments bear coatings of ice, which in some places is two feet thick, while the surface of Broadway and the other streets surrounding the ruins are sheathed with ice to a depth of from one to two feet.

      All night long, under the glare of three powerful search lights from the Singer Tower, ice-covered firemen poured in streams from twenty nozzles.

      Until the flames are completely extinguished little effort can be made to reach the vaults where securities and papers valued at $1,500,000,000 are stored.

Rigid Police Line Maintained

      A rigid police line is maintained on all sides of the burned building and the cordon covers so wide an area that the thousands of sightseers, who flocked to the scene are unable to obtain more than a glimpse of the structure.

      In addition to the established lid maintained by the police, 100 policemen and 40 detectives are assigned to the task of preventing the theft of any money or securities still in the building.

      There were no additions to the list of casualties during the early morning hours to-day. The official police blotter gives six dead, two missing and twenty-three injured.

      One of the dead is still unidentified, and the body of William J. Walsh battalion chief of the fire department, has not yet been recovered.

      The body of William Campion, captain of the watchmen for the Mercantile Safe Depsoit Company, was visible at daybreak through the iron grating at the entrance of the compnay's door.

      The other three dead are Joseph Conti, Sazzio and Massena Fratta, all employees of the restaurant where the blaze started.

      The missing men are two watchmen employed by the safe deposit company.

Tenants in New Quarters

      Most of the 137 tenants of the burned building were established in new headquarters in neary-by skyscrapers to-day. The Equitable Life executives found themselves amply provided for on three floors of the City Investing Building, a block away. ....

No Definite Action at Once

      A statement by E. E. Rittenhouse, conservation commissioner for the Equitable, says that no definite action will be taken for a few days.

      "As a matter of fact," he says, "there has been some talk of late to the effect that a life insurance company ought not to have a big building. Anyhow, no definite decision has yet been made."

      In the present condition of the real estate market in the Wall street section it may prove that the interests of the policyholders would be best served by selling the present site and erecting another building on a less expensive frontage.

      Fire officials believe that early estimates of the loss from the fire will be largely discounted. They believe that practically all of the securities and papers of real value are safe in the vaults. As for the building iteslf, although it cost millions to construct, yet its loss has actually added to the value of the most valuable block in New York.


History of the New York Fire Department
1906 to 1915

"Battalion Chief William J. Walsh was killed when the floors of the Equitable Building collapsed. He led a group of fourteen firemen up a ladder to the fourth floor to search for victims that were trapped. Several men had already jumped from the upper floors. Once the fourth floor was searched the men started for the third floor. The fire was licking the fourth floor, as there was also a rumbling sound as of crashing floors overhead. Chief Walsh’s eye caught something on the floor, to make him loitered a second while his men were on the way down. He told his men “Go ahead Boys, I can take care of myself”. There was a crash, followed by many other crashes and seething and whipping flames, which made the fourth floor a furnace within a few minutes.

Fireman William Walsh - Equitable Building Fire 1912 NYC

Walsh was last seen half way down on stairs between the fourth and third floors. Whether he tripped and fell or whether a part of the upper floor overhead fell on him will perhaps never be known. The other fourteen men escaped from a third floor window. He was married and had a daughter. The Equitable Building fire was an $18 million dollar loss and six killed. Firemen with hacksaws, cut for two hours trying to free workers behind iron bars. Because of this, a heavy rescue company would be organized with special tools in 1915. In addition, it was first time Brooklyn Companies responded into Manhattan to help put a fire out. (Source: New York Times Jan. 10, 1912, LODD 165)" -


Related Links

100 Years Ago – The Equitable Building Fire - new link

The Equitable Building - new link

Consumed in Fire, Cloaked in Ice, Equitable’s Headquarters Fell 100 Years Ago - new link

Equitable building : destroyed by fire January 9th, 1912 The Internet Archive - 18 page document with fantastic photographs of this historic file is downloadable in different formats - new link

Kathleen Hill - the author of the novel Who Occupies This House

Fans of Kathleen Hill on Facebook - added Oct 18, 2011

Giblin Family Obituaries Herkimer County NY Genealogy - added Oct 18, 2011

THE WILLIAM GIBLIN RESCUE NARRATIVE - google docs - added Oct 14, 2011

John A. Giblin Obituary - Brother of William Giblin

William Giblim Family Graves

Heroes of Ground Zero. FDNY A History

FDNY - Fire Department New York City Unofficial home page

NY Times - MEDALS FOR DARING AT EQUITABLE FIRE pdf file - Conspicuous among them is Seneca Larke, the only Indian in the Fire Department, who distinguished himself by his bravery in rescuing William Giblin, President of the Mercantile Savings Deposit Company, from the burning Equitable Building on the morning of Jan. 9, 1912.

Firemen Seneca Larke & the Equitable Fire - Source firehistory.org added April 11, 2013

Wall Street Architecture

120 Broadway - Historic Buildings In The World Trade Center Vicinity

The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States 1902-1989

The Birth of the Skyscraper

Google Books - The Insurance Press, Volume 4 - Jan 17, 1912

Reproduced by Aileen Carney Sweeney,

Source of information Newspaper Articles located in the Ilion Public Library Historical Room

Mary Elizabeth (McDonough) Giblin, of Ilion NY, was the mother of William Giblin. Her name appeared on the hand-written Eleanor Brennan Family Tree - Ilion, NY 1981.

William Giblin (1869-1944) married Kathleen Carmody Giblin (1875-1923). Their daughter was Kathleen Giblin Balet (1907-1994).

His parents, Michael J. Giblin [Dec 28, 1825 - April 15, 1893] and Mary Elizabeth (McDonough) Giblin [Feb 2, 1834 - Oct 30, 1918], West Street, Ilion, NY had 11 children: Mary, Gertrude, Kate (aka Catherine), John A., Frank T., William, Michael,George J., Ellen, Genevieve, and Richard.

Kathleen Giblin Balet's daughter, Kathleen Hill, is the author of the novel Who Occupies This House.

Created and maintained by Aileen Carney Sweeney - Class of 1974

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original post - March 1, 2004
modified post - October 6, 2017

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