Fire Chief Croker
The inspirational words of Edward F. Croker -- chief of the Fire Department of New York from 1899 to 1911 -- which he shared with the families of fallen firefighters in 1910, were resurrected for tributes to firefighters lost in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. "Firefighting is a hazardous occupation," Croker observed. "It is dangerous on the face of it, tackling a burning building. The risks are plain . . . consequently, when a man becomes a fireman, his act of bravery has already been accomplished. Everything else is his daily duty."
Chief Croker died on this day in 1951 in Lindenhurst, Long Island, New York at the age of 85.
Edward Croker was the nephew of Boss Croker, the head of New York City's Tammany Hall. When young Edward decided he wanted to leave his job as a brakeman for the New York Central Railroad to become a fireman in 1884, Boss Croker (then the New York fire commissioner) personally escorted his nephew to the station to apply, and after just 47 days on the job, Edward was promoted to assistant foreman.
Although Fireman Croker's blood connections may have given him his start, he was determined to make his colleagues forget that he had them -- always venturing the deepest into danger and dedicating himself to the study of firefighting science, construction techniques and fireproofing. In 1899, at the age of 33, Croker was named acting chief of the Fire Department of New York and, over the objection of the Civil Service Commission (which probably still associated him with his grafting uncle), he was named permanent chief shortly thereafter.
As chief, Croker did his best to modernize his department, donating the first motorized chief's car (a 1901 Locomobile dubbed "the Black Ghost" in press accounts of Croker's exploits) and attempting to streamline communications between firemen during emergencies. By the time he became chief, he hated politics -- which made it all the more difficult for him to cope with what he saw as the greatest fire danger to New York City at the time -- poor building standards, dressed up to look like fireproofing initiatives. The fire at the Parker Building, in which 3 firemen died in a 20-story collapse of a structure deemed to be fireproof under the codes, demonstrated the issues: there were many buildings whose exteriors were made from non-flammable brick, but too many of them were high-rises with timber interiors and poor fire exits, and the fire department's ladders generally could only safely reach the 7th floor. Croker launched a campaign against these dangers, but was squelched by the Manhattan landlords.
His worst fears would be borne out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in March 1911, an 18-minute rag bin fire on the 9th floor of the Asch Building which led to the deaths of 145 people -- most of them young immigrant seamstresses -- due to timber interiors, locked fire exits and escapes (left that way by sweatshop managers to prevent theft), overcrowding and a general disregard for safety regulations. Croker was bitter in his testimony to officials, dissenting from evidence presented by the City fire marshal that the doors of the factory were not locked by declaring that his men had to chop their way through the doors to get in and noting that many New York factory owners "would rather take a chance on the loss of life than spend five or ten dollars to prevent it."
Shortly after the fire, suspecting that he could do little to advance his cause within the politicized tangle of government red tape, Croker turned in his badge and founded the Croker National Fire Prevention Engineering Company, a fireproofing and fire safety consulting and manufacturing firm. In the aftermath of the fire, the New York legislature enacted some fire safety reforms and, under the leadership of Rose Schneiderman, Manhattan seamstresses organized through the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and demanded safer working conditions. Meanwhile, Croker built his company into one of the leading fire prevention companies in the U.S. until it was absorbed by Fire-End Products in 1959.