Thursday, 5 June 2014

Binghamton Clothing Company fire of 1913 was Broome's deadliest disaster

It was a bright, sunny summer day in Binghamton. On July 22, 1913, the workers of the Binghamton Clothing Company on Wall Street were hard at work. The 100 employees of Reed Freeman’s firm were busy making men’s overalls in the four-story brick building.

Freeman was a respectable business owner who lived nearby on Pine Street and treated his employees fairly well. He had practiced fire drills and kept a log of all employees and customers comings and goings. Although the building did not have any fire escapes and workers relied on a single wooden staircase located in the middle of the building, it was considered safe by the standards at the time.

No one thought that it was unsafe, especially since it was only about a block away from the central fire station on Chenango Street. And on that particular day, there was a fireman’s convention in town — what could be safer?

On that afternoon, in the basement of the building near the staircase a pile of clothing remnants somehow caught fire. It has never been determined whether it was employee arson or an accident, but flames quickly spread to the staircase. The open air acted as a catalyst and pulled the fire upwards toward the floors where workers — mainly immigrant women, toiled away at their jobs.

The smell of smoke and flames were quickly discovered, and the alarm was sent out to evacuate. Some of the women hesitated since they often worked without their heavy, woolen skirts and were afraid of embarrassment. Others went back for purses and coats, only to be trapped by the fire, which engulfed the building in less than 10 minutes.

To add to the misery, the wooden staircase was now in flames, trapping many on the third and fourth floors. Two workers, Sidney Dimmock and floor supervisor Nellie Connor, stayed behind to get as many workers out as possible. Connor yelled for the women to get out. Dimmock went back in to get Connor as the flames took control of the structure. Neither got out.

Many others trapped were either lost in the flames or leapt to their deaths from the upper stories through the windows. Reed Freeman kept trying to get workers out while his wife stayed in the office and placed two frantic telephone calls to the fire department for help. At the last minute before becoming trapped herself, she grabbed the log book and ran out the front door.

As the fire department arrived and tried valiantly to quell the inferno, the building collapsed on itself — less than 15 minutes after the fire was discovered. The flames singed the post office building next door, and fears of the block going up in flames were very real.

When the smoldering ruins were cool enough, the arduous task of looking for victims began. In the next couple of weeks, several injured victims died, and eventually the death toll reached 32 people. It was and continues to be Broome County’s worst disaster in terms of human loss.

Although it was known who died, 18 of the bodies of the victims were burned beyond recognition. A mass burial for those victims was held at the Stone Opera House on Chenango Street, and the coffins were transported on a flatbed trolley car to Spring Forest Cemetery to be buried in a mass circular burial on top of small knoll. A granite marker listing those victims sits in the circle of marker stones.

Today, the site of the building has a marker denoting its location. The Binghamton Fire Department maintains the gravesite of the victims. The families of Nellie and Sidney can proudly know that their relatives gave their lives to protect others. The state held a factory fire investigation that resulted in the addition of sprinkler systems and fire escapes to all future factories. From this horrendous disaster, we should always remember those that we lost and how the safety of those around us should always be foremost.

Thursday 05 June 2014


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