On October 20, 1873 the former National Hall, on Market Street above 12th Street, held its inaugural performance in the newly renovated and renamed Olympic Theatre.  A newly written drama performed that evening entitled “Past, Present and Future” could not have anticipated the real-life drama that was to occur at the theatre less than three months later.

On Thursday, January 29, 1874 at 2:42 AM, an alarm was sounded on Box 78 for a fire at the Olympic Theatre.  The first responding companies found a large fire in the three-story brick theatre that was threatening structures to the west, including St. John’s Catholic Church on South 13th Street.  Firefighters fought the fire from the street and manned nearby roofs to protect adjacent structures. As the fire intensified, a second alarm was pulled at 3:03 AM.

As the efforts progressed, Engine 4’s hosemen from the first alarm, were on the roof of the building to the west of the Olympic Theatre, and the hosemen from Engine 3, from the second alarm, were on the roof of the building to their west.  Fearful of a collapse as the walls of the three-story Olympic were higher than their positions, they were examined and thought to be 9” thick.  At a later inquest, it was determined they were only 6” thick.  Shortly later the walls collapsed and entirely crushed Engine 4’s building and crushed half the roof, where Engine 3 was located.  Spectators in the streets below, as well as the firefighters, were horrified.

Rescue efforts began immediately.  Hoseman Charles O’Neill of Engine 4, age 29, was found dead in the rubble.  Hoseman George W. Devitt of Engine 3, age 25, was found gravely injured, taken home, and died shortly thereafter.

Also injured from Engine 4 were Foreman Hugh McClintock, (McClintock was gravely injured on March 4, 1876, when he fell from a roof. He died three months later on June 21, 1876) and Hosemen Elwood Hennicks, James P. Love, and Daniel O’Neill.

The fire completely destroyed the Olympic Theatre and plunged the Department and the city into mourning.  While the funerals of the firemen were attended by their respective engine companies, Hoseman George Devitt’s funeral was also attended by the members of the former volunteer Weccacoe Fire Company No. 19.  It seems that under the volunteer fire department, Engine 3’s station and steam fire engine were operated by the Weccacoe Fire Company and Hoseman Devitt’s family members had been active volunteer firemen at the same station.

As a newly formed Fire Department, there were questions as to how to pay for medical and funeral expenses.  On February 2, 1874, a benefit for the killed and injured was has held at Fox’s New American Theatre that raised almost $2,000.  With an additional $600 from St. John’s Church, $200 from the Insurance Company of North America, and other small donations, almost $3,000 was raised for the firemen.

Tragically, in its over 150 years, the Philadelphia Fire Department has had numerous multiple fire death incidents, the largest being the Friedlander Fire, where thirteen firemen were killed on January 20, 1910.  The following words in the 1874 Annual Report of the Fire Commissioners to the Select and Common Councils of the City of Philadelphia expressed the sentiments of a grateful City upon the death of any firefighter: “We mourn them as firemen, as fellow-citizens, as friends and brothers. In their relations to the public as firemen, they displayed a loyalty that was ready to sacrifice their lives, if need be, in the faithful discharge of their responsible duties.”

–Robert Shea