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Fallen firefighters remembered at 60th anniversary of Tru-Fit tragedy

Shirley Hanley was just 4 years old when her father was one of six firefighters to perish in a blaze Feb. 16, 1955, at an East Baltimore Street clothier, but her memories remain fresh 60 years later.

"I can still see my grandparents and mother sitting in the kitchen with devastation on their faces, waiting to hear about my dad. And I remember being told Daddy wasn't coming home," said Hanley on Sunday at the 60th anniversary of a fire tragedy regarded as one of the worst in the city's history.

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The nine-alarm blaze at the Tru-Fit Clothing Company at 507-509 E. Baltimore St. claimed the lives of Hanley's father, Joseph Hanley Jr., Rudolph Machovec, Francis O'Brien, Richard Melzer, William Barnes and Anthony Reinsfelder.

Their fire hats and the fire engine were on display during the ceremony Sunday at the Thomas J. Burke Fire Station, about seven blocks from the fire site. The event was moved from the actual site of the blaze due to frigid temperatures.

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According to newspaper accounts, the fire began around 9 p.m. and engulfed the three-story structure with heat so intense that it shattered windows. The fire was considered under control around 10:45 p.m. Firefighters then entered the building, but about five minutes later the rear roof of the building and back wall collapsed, trapping a dozen firefighters.

The blaze also left nearly two dozen firefighters injured. News reports said that John T. O'Malley, secretary of the board of fire commissioners, called the tragedy "the worst catastrophe in the fire department's history." Ceremonial funerals for all six were held with mourners that included officials from fire departments of New York, Washington and Philadelphia.

"It had a profound impact on the city, and I read that the mayor started a fund for the families of the firefighters and the need for a chaplain service were two things that were the outgrowth of this," said former Baltimore City Fire Commissioner Stuart Nathan during remarks at the anniversary service.

News reports said that save for "modest" life insurance policies and funeral expenses, the firefighters were without long-term insurance. As a result, nearly $170,000 was raised from donations. The city subsequently launched a permanent relief fund for families of firefighters and police officers killed in the line of duty.

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"But I guess what's most important of all," Nathan said, "was a commitment never to forget that this happened, the sacrifice those men made and the impact it had on their families even going into today."

Shirley Hanley said she is grateful that the city commemorates the tragedy. She said that Sunday's ceremony, the first since the 50th anniversary, comes on the heels of another loss, her mother's death in December.

"She used to talk about Daddy being strict on us, my sister and I," Shirley Hanley said. "He was tall, very slender. I remember the summer before he was killed we went down to [Ocean City], and I remember standing at the waves, holding his hand and looking up at him."

Rick Melzer, 62, whose father also perished in the tragedy, went on to become a firefighter himself, serving for 25 years before retiring in 1999. He scarcely recalls much, he said, except "people coming to the house."

"He was only 28 years old at the time," Melzer said of his father. "He was still considered a rookie. He was a good guy, and he liked having a good time with the guys."

Melzer said that he never intended following in his father's footsteps, but grew up spending time around fire houses. He said he decided on the profession as early as high school.

"I guess it's in the blood," he said. "It's in the blood."

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