Downtown plaque pays tribute to 2 dead in the 1943 fire
LeighAnn Hess-Wychock remembers her grandfather through her father’s stories.
She said she learned from her father that her grandfather, Cletus Hess, was a hard worker, a great guy and “a fun dad”.
Hess-Wychock’s father Thomas Hess was 11 when his father, a firefighter from Erie, was killed when a wall collapsed on him while fighting a commercial building fire in downtown of the city in the early morning of December 11, 1943.
“For years I have heard about the fire. My dad always talked about it, ”Hess-Wychock said.
She said her father always said there should be some sort of plaque placed at the scene of the fire, the old Isaac Baker & Son clothing store on the northeast corner of Seventh and State Streets, in the honor of Cletus Hess and his fellow firefighter Erie George. Scully, who was also killed in the collapse.
The wish did not come in time for Thomas Hess to see it. He passed away in April 2020 at the age of 87.
Obituary:Thomas E. Hess, 1932-2020
But it came.
A project led by the former Erie County Public Safety Director led to the recent installation of a plaque on a building that now stands at the site of the fire. The building it hangs on served as the new home for the Isaac Baker & Son clothing store after the fire and is now part of the Federal Courthouse complex.
Erie Fire Chief Joe Walko said a ceremony will take place in the future to officially dedicate the plaque and recognize the two firefighters who gave their lives serving the Erie community.
“It’s long overdue,” Walko said. “When you come to work, you never expect not to be able to come home. It’s good to remember the people who pass by serving the city.”
Cletus Hess and George Scully joined other members of Erie Fire’s No. 2 Co., stationed at 1115 Parade St., in the race to Seventh and State Streets after a fire was first reported in the Isaac Baker & Son building on December 11. 1943. The first alarm sounded at 12:53 am and was followed by a second alarm 16 minutes later.
The two men had worked for less than seven years. Hess, 36, who lived on East 33rd Street and was married with four children, was appointed Erie’s firefighter on March 19, 1937. Scully, 38, who was married and had two brothers on the fire department of Erie and another brother who was a police officer of Erie, was appointed to the department on March 3, 1937.
One of Scully’s brothers, Lawrence Scully, was Erie’s fire chief. He arrived at the Isaac Baker building to find on the third floor of the four-story building “a roaring mass of flames,” according to an Erie Dispatch Herald article from the day of the fire.
Command of the blaze and the 70 firefighters from six companies fighting it was given to Deputy Fire Chief Edward Flanagan. Lawrence Scully not only had to fight the Isaac Baker fire, but also another fire that was reported around the same time as the Isaac Baker fire, several blocks south of State Street.
This fire started at Fisher Brothers Dry Goods at 1026 State St. and severely damaged the building and the nearby Anson’s women’s clothing store at 1022 State St. Firefighters, including members of the Volunteer Services of the region, were called in to fight the blaze. A member of the West Ridge Hose Co. was injured in the fight against the blaze and others were overwhelmed by gas fumes and smoke at the scene, according to the Dispatch Herald report.
Back at the Isaac Baker site, the fire first spotted on the third floor of the building had spread to the fourth floor and roof. The flames were fanned by “snow-laden gales from the northeast”, and firefighters working to contain them were “hampered by ice and sleet in extreme cold,” according to the Dispatch report. Herald.
At around 2:15 a.m., the north wall of the building collapsed in an alley separating the building from the federal courthouse.
No. 2 Co. firefighter John J. O’Connor, who has been reported as the only eyewitness to the collapse, said he was on the roof of the building when he noticed the north wall was swaying. O’Connor said he spotted four firefighters in the alley below and yelled at them to run, as the wall was collapsing, according to the Dispatch Herald report.
O’Connor said the alley firefighters “didn’t stand a chance,” the newspaper reported.
Hess and Scully were buried under the rubble.
Scully was carrying a pipe down the alley when the collapse occurred. The pipe was found resting on his leg, according to an Erie Daily Times report two days after the fire.
The other two firefighters who were in the alley were injured in the collapse. They have been identified in reports as Captain Albert Englert and Firefighter John Coughlin.
Fire Chief Lawrence Scully, in response to the deaths of his brother and Hess, was quoted by the Dispatch Herald as saying, “It’s all in the game. We have a job to do.
Just over an hour after the collapse of the north wall, the south wall of the Isaac Baker building collapsed, destroying one of Erie’s newest fire department equipment, an aerial ladder 85-footer stationed at No. 1 Co. which was commissioned in 1937, reports the Dispatch Herald.
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“Nearly Million Loss in Baker & Fisher Fire,” read the headline of the Dispatch Herald article that appeared hours after the State Street fires.
Erie Police Chief George J. Christoph and a Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal from Butler took charge of the fire investigations, with city police detectives tasked with to investigate the possible causes of the fire.
Christoph, in an interview with the Dispatch Herald, spoke about the likelihood that the Isaac Baker fire was intentionally started. If someone had broken into the building, he said, it would have set off the store’s alarm.
The Erie Daily Times reported on December 13, 1943, two days after the fires, that Christoph was convinced the Isaac Baker fire was “natural” in origin. It is not believed that the cause of either fire has ever been determined.
Firefighters and citizens paid tribute to the two Erie firefighters who died during the funeral that took place on December 14 for Hess and December 15 for Scully. Their fellow firefighters formed honorary escorts and served as porters.
Isaac Baker & Son, an 1850s Erie business located on Seventh and State Streets since 1910, reopened less than two weeks after the fire at another location in downtown Erie. A new building was constructed at the site of the fire and the company moved there in 1947.
Honor their service
In September 1991, a memorial was dedicated in Perry Square in honor of firefighters from Erie and all of Erie County who died in the line of duty. Hess and Scully were among the names inscribed on the memorial.
Thirty years later, their names adorn a plaque at the site of the fire of December 11, 1943. It honors them for their “courageous efforts and their ultimate sacrifice”, which demonstrated “a dedication to duty, to their fellow firefighters and to the inhabitants of the city of Erie ”.
“Their memories will forever be etched in the hearts of brave men and women who follow in their footsteps,” the plaque reads.
Erie Fire Chief Joe Walko credits the efforts of Joe Weindorf, retired Erie Police Officer and District Judge and former Erie County Public Safety Director, for leading the effort to get a plaque honoring Hess and Scully installed in Seventh and State streets.
Walko said Weindorf, the city fire administration and the city firefighters union spent a few years making the plaque possible by raising money and working to get the necessary approvals to hang it on a building. federal.
Several years ago, at a fallen firefighter golf tournament, city firefighters presented Cletus Hess’ son Thomas Hess with a signed firefighter’s helmet and a proclamation acknowledging his father and the sacrifices made by the family of Cletus Hess, according to a post on the Erie Fire Department Facebook page.
Recognition is now extended to surviving members of the Hess family and the Scully family, thanks to the plaque now displayed on Seventh and State streets.
“It’s a very big honor,” said Cletus Hess’ granddaughter, LeighAnn Hess-Wychock.