A Plethora of Forgotten Men, Women, and a Few Heroes to Boot

Betty Ashe and Blanche Patnaud awoke early in the morning of October 21, 1921, coughing fom thick smoke. Starting in the building’s basement, the fire had spread upwards through the air shaft to their fifth floor walkup; grabbing their kimonos, Ashe and Patnaud attempted to make it to the rear of the building, where the fire escape promised a relatively easy escape, but flames darting from the dumb waiter shaft blocked the way.

The two girls’ fate (Betty is on the right, Blanche is on the left above) seem sealed as the rest of the building’s inhabitants scrambled for safety. Jesse Symons, on the third floor, broke open the door of his elderly neighbor, and carried her to the fire escape, where both were able to jump to safety. Mahion Huyler, age 21, threw his younger sister over his shoulder, took his mother by the arm, and guided them through the smoke filled hallways and out the front door.

On the fifth floor however, the two young women were panicked. The only hope for relief lay at their front window, and the girls climbed onto the six inch ledge in bare feet. More than 90 feet below them Policeman Patrick J. Doyle ran to the scene. He’d already discovered the fire, sprinted to the corner to raise the alarm at the police box, then hurried back, beating his stick against iron fence posts to call other policemen walking their beats to the building.

Doyle shouted at the women not to jump. “We can’t help it, we have got to jump.” shouted Ashe. Doyle ran into No. 137, and Policeman Stephen Campbell, who’d heard Doyle’s fence post alarm, ran into No. 141, both hoping to crawl out on the window ledge which supported the girls and grab them before they jumped. Doyle, assisted by neighborhood iceman Billy Johnson, got the closest. With Johnson holding his legs, Doyle was just near enough to graze Ashe’s foot. Paralyzed with fear, Ashe looked down at him, “It’s no good, we’ve got to jump.”

In what seemed the nick of time, the a New York Fire Department Truck 25 arrived, bells clanging. As smoke and flames silhouetted the women in the window, the 85 foot extension ladder was raised, and Fireman John J. Blumert scrambled up, followed by Dennis O’Keith. As Blumert reached the top of the ladder, his heart sank. By some four or five feet, the ladder was too short, and like Doyle before him, he could just barely graze the sides of Ashe’s feet with his fingers.

Blumert acted quickly. Turning backwards, on a ladder swaying some 85 feet in the air, he wrapped his legs around the ladders penultimate rung, then threw himself backwards against the building, using his body to add to the ladder’s height. Propelling himself with his hands, he moved inch by inch over to Ashe and Patnaud. Only by craning his neck in an almost impossible angle was he able to see what he was doing, and he had to rely upon O’Keith for guidance. Finally, with almost superhuman strength, he was able grasp Ashe under her arms, and hoist her over his head, and pass her down to O’Keith below.

Panicked, Patnaud jumped into Blumert’s arms before he was quite ready for her, and before O’Keith had returned from depositing Ashe below. She then promptly fainted, and suspended high in the air, Blumert held the woman over his shoulder in backbreaking strain until O’Keith could return and help him carry her down. All three reached safety, and Blumert himself collapsed the minute his feet hit the ground.

Fortunately, there were no casualties, and the buildings 30 other tenants escaped to safety through the aid of the police and firemen.

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