Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Water Tank Take-Off: April 22, 1901

Empty Now . . . The Brewster Water Tank in July of 2013 (chicago.cbslocal.com)
You may remember back in the middle of July when the water tank at the top of the Brewster became airborne on Diversey Parkway, langing in the parking lot below the building.  In the resulting tidal wave a man and woman getting into their car were injured. 

With well over a hundred of these big tubs still hanging around the city, accidents continue to happen.  Just a couple of months ago, an 18,000 gallon water tank ruptured at the top of a five-story office building at 409 West Huron Street, sending office workers out into the cold at 2:00 In the afternoon and closing streets.

Today it’s easy to attribute the problems to the age of the structures, which were originally intended to provide fire protection, quickly and efficiently.  But on this date, April 22, in 1901 a brand new tank took off, falling through every floor of the five-story Galbraith building on Madison Street.  Fortunately, it was a Sunday, and, for the most part, the building was empty.

The tank had been finished about a month earlier and had a capacity of 1,500 gallons.  Fully loaded the thing weighed five tons.  You can imagine what would happen if you lifted an armored car above the roof of the building you owned and then dropped it.  That gives you some idea of the mean-spirited descent of this bad boy.

The final inspection by the fire department was due on that Sunday, April 22.  The fire department showed up . . . but it was not to inspect the tank that lay in ruins in the basement of the building.

Poor Richard O’Brien . . . waiting for customers on a Sunday at his shoe-polishing stand in the Madison Street entrance of the building.  “He had just dismissed a patron when the falling mass of timber, bricks, machinery, and steel caught him in its descent and buried him in the basement.”  [Chicago Tribune, April 22, 1901]  Rescue workers found the poor guy in the basement, a piece of glass driven into his scalp, “pinned beneath the debris so tightly that he could not move.”

And poor Mrs. Nathan Slotkin, attending to the needs of the birds and animals in her husband’s pet store.  She was knocked down behind the counter of the store when a heavy showcase feel on top of that same counter, protecting her from the falling debris.  Of the animals in Mr. Slotikin’s shop only two crows survived.  It figures.

The second through the sixth floors of the building all contained firms that manufactured clothing.  If the tank had fallen on any other day than Sunday, we might very well be talking about the Madison Street Water Tank Tragedy of 1901 today.

Dr. Arnold P. Gilmore, the building’s agent and also a part owner, stated that there was some flaw in the erection of the tank.  “The sprinkling apparatus was put up three weeks ago by the Manufacturers’ Sprinkler Company of New York, and the third and final payment was to have been made tomorrow.  Immediately after my inspection of the wreck I telegraphed an order that the payment be withheld.”

Clearly, Dr. Gilmore had his priorities in order.

Harry Solomon, who somehow managed to escape his office, said, “The thing was over before we could realize our peril.  A deluge of water and wreckage poured on us as we stood gazing into the great gap that had been cut through the floor not three feet from where we stood . . . I thought there was not hope for us, but we rushed to the fire-escape to avoid going down with the floors.  We clung there until the arrival of the Fire department, not daring to reenter the place until the men assured us it was safe.”

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