Jan. 30, 1888
A fire erupted in the Hospital for Ruptured and Crippled Children, at the Northeast corner of Lexington and 42nd Street. Patients Louise Feligh, Mary Greeley, and a third little girl had spotted the fire in a first floor bathroom at 6:30 pm. They alerted Dr. Eli E. Josselyn, the resident surgeon, and Nurse Ella Dougherty. Remaining calm, Dr. Josselyn and the other staff members swiftly began carrying the 163 pajama-clad children into the frigid night. All of the children, ages five to eighteen, were crippled, and only a few could hobble on their own.
Nearby, Patrolman John Cavanagh, of the Grand Central Squad had seen the fire and ran over to the signal box at Fourth (now Park) Avenue and 42nd Street. The box’s keyhole was frozen over, and it was a few minutes before he was able to force his key in and turn the alarm. He then raced back to the hospital, and aided by fellow Patrolman John Cronin, climbed over the eight-foot iron gate.
By now the flames were shooting up to the top floor. More policemen, plus firefighters from Hook and Ladder Company No. 2 and the Grand Central Station Reserve squad, and several neighborhood men aided the hospital staff. They grabbed three children at a time, tearing outside. The children were frightened but calm. Two children in particular were heroic. Alice Ramsey, eighteen, who had only one arm, still managed to carry several children across the street. Max Schwartz, ten, who had hip disease and was a proficient violinist, saved his friend John Burke, six, a bedridden deaf mute. Despite Max’s bulky hip brace, he used his arms and teeth to drag John out of their room. Even when his brace broke, he kept going. He crawled to the top of the stairs, where a policeman found them. Within fifteen minutes, nearly everyone was safe.
The sole fatality was the cook, Mary Donnelly, 45, who suffocated from the smoke. She was asleep in her attic room when the fire began. In the commotion, everyone else believed that she had already gotten out. Captain Suttler and the men from Hook and Ladder Company No. 2 stumbled over her body as they searched the smoke-filled attic. They carried her outside.
With no time to put on shoes, everyone was barefoot on the icy street. Worried neighbors threw open their doors to the shivering children and hospital staff. Mrs. William M. Donaldson, a widow living at 404 Lexington Avenue, took in eleven little ones. Mrs. Henry Baxter, of 408 Lexington, took in five. Another five stayed with William Kasten, at 139 East 42nd Street. The remaining 142 children, plus the staff, were taken in by The Vanderbilt Hotel (now a Grand Hyatt), at 109 East 42nd Street at Grand Central Terminal. The proprietor Matthew Clune and his employees made extra sure that the little children were tucked into the plush beds.
Dr. Virgil P. Gibney, the Surgeon-in-Chief, and Dr. Wright, from the Children’s Hospital, had examined everyone, and declared that other than fright and exposure, and excluding their already existing deformities, the patients were in good health.
Little Max Schwartz was asked about dragging his friend John Burke to safety. They were curled up in bed with five other boys. Tugging the blankets up to his chest, Max said in a thick accent, “Johnny’s lame, too, an’ I says that it’s his life or mine an’ I ain’t gonna leave him. I grabs th’ collar of his nightshirt in my teeth an’ crawled. My brace broke an’ my leg hurt pretty bad, then I gots him on my back an’ crawled ‘til we sees a peeler [policeman] an’ the peeler he took us down.”
Excited by the events of the night and the fancy surroundings, the children spent half the night chattering. The nurses had a hard time getting them to settle down. Eventually, the children fell asleep. The nurses quietly patrolled the hallways, checking on each little occupant.
Firemen put out the blaze after an hour. The Hospital for Ruptured and Crippled Children belonged to The New York Society for the Relief of the Ruptured and Crippled. It was incorporated in 1863. Many prominent citizens are in the Board of Managers, and William H. Osborn is President. The Hospital sustained $7,000 worth of damage. The cause of the fire has not been discovered yet.
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