Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Oct. 16, 2009

Five minutes after ten

The front-page newspaper photo in the Manhattan Mercury was of a local firefighter showing kindergarten students his helmet. He was one of many firefighters across the country who visited elementary schools to teach students fire safety as part of National Fire Prevention Week. The date the photo appeared in the paper was significant - Oct. 8.

Two of the most devastating fires in U.S. history began at about 9 p.m. Oct, 8, 1871, and continued throughout the next day. Most people learned from their history books about the Great Chicago Fire. It killed some 200-300 people and left 90,000 people homeless.

But not so many know about the fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, which started the same night. It burned 16 towns, killed between 1,200 and 2,400 people and scorched 1.2 million acres.

When husband Art and I were in Wisconsin last month, we stopped to see the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery. A modern memorial made of wooden "flames" stood near the entrance.

A mass grave holds the "ashes, bones and bodies" of some 350 people who perished in the fire. About 75 lost their lives in the Peshtigo Company's boarding house on the east side of the river. The marker reads: " . . . They were so completely consumed by the fire that one could not tell man from woman or child from adult. All, however, in the mass grave were not ashes. Many of the dead were found bearing no trace of burns, and those unidentified bodies are also buried here."

It was sobering to think of the lives lost and property destroyed. But the personal stories on the markers were what brought the devastation home to me.

One story was of an older brother and his two young siblings.

"Their nineteen-year-old brother took these two Mellen children to the river. He walked into the icy water up to his neck with a child on each arm. The fierce heat compelled him to keep wetting their heads under water. This continued for nearly four hours until the flames subsided and when the older brother brought the children to shore, it was found that both had died of hypothermia."

Another was of families becoming separated in the conflagration.

"Terrance Kelly, his wife and four children lived in the Upper Sugar Bush. When the fire came with its terrible wind and smoke the family became separated, voices could not be heard above the roar of the fire. Mr. Kelly had a child in his arms, as did Mrs. Kelly, the other two children clung to each other. In their search for safety each group lost track of the others. The next day Mr. Kelly and child were found dead nearly a mile from his farm, the mother and another child were safe., the other children a boy, seven, and a girl, five, were found sleeping in each other's arms near the farm. The house, barn and all the out buildings had burned to the ground."

Yet another was of one family that remained intact.

"When the church bell sounded the fire alarm, Henry Merkatoris went out to the edge of town with the other men to try to stop the fire. Mrs. Merkatoris waited until the fire came into the city and when Henry failed to return she gathered her five children and crossed the bridge to the East Side. They all went into the river and clung to some logs until the fire subsided. In the morning all were fearful that Mr. Merkatoris had perished in the fire, but soon the family spotted Henry coming through the smoke and ashes. He had survived!"

The Chicago and Peshtigo fires changed the way that firefighters and public officials thought about fire safety. President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation in 1920. Two years later, National Fire Prevention Week, the Sunday through Saturday period in which Oct. 9 falls, was established and is now our longest-running public health and safety observance.

The goal of Fire Prevention Week is to try to prevent the fate that befell Peshtigo's McDonald and McGregor families.

"On the night of the fire Mr. McDonald took his wife and nine children to the company boarding house on the East Side of the river and told them not to leave, thinking the river would act as a firebreak. In the course of the fire the boarding house and all its occupants were reduced to ashes, making recognition impossible. The same is true of the McGregors, although Dan McGregor's watch was found and the hands indicated five minutes after ten . . ."

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