The following article is reprinted from www.bellport.com.
Written by James F. Casey, it appeared in the June, 1963 issue of Fire Engineering magazine.
The photos, as noted, were taken by Bill Cummings and World Wide photos.
It is based upon a personal interview with Chief Robert Terwilliger, Bellport Volunteer Fire Department,
with the assistance of Suffolk County Fire Coordinator Lloyd Case.
Hidden Fire which spread undetected through a hanging ceiling at Bellport
High School, Long Island, N.Y., on March 8, 1963
finally burst out as a fierce blaze which consumed most of the older section of the school and sent 47 rescued students to hospitals.
The near-disaster occurred shortly before 2:00 p.m. on a Friday, with more than 900 students in class.
Bellport High School consists of a recently erected, modern, two-story concrete and steel building and an
older brick and joist section erected in 1929 - both connected by an enclosed walkway.
The older section was divided into three parts: A one-story that was connected in
an "L" shape to a one-story auditorium that in return butted into a two-story school.
A hallway serviced the side and rear of the auditorium and gym, and a center hallway
serviced classrooms on both sides of each floor in the school area, with stairways on the north and south ends.
Ceilings in the gym and auditorium were hung by bow-string roof trusses that left a large, open,
connected area over both rooms. Cause and exact location has not been determined,
but it was in this hidden area that the fire apparently started.
First to discover the fire was a group of girls walking through the unoccupied auditorium who saw flame curling along the ceiling.
Fleeing, they ran through the adjacent corridor where they found the school's principal, Thomas Feeny,
who sounded the interior alarm and notified the Bellport volunteers by phone.
On hearing the alarm, Paul Laterza, custodian, in the cellar beneath the auditorium at the time,
ran upstairs and closed the roll-down fire door which separated the old building from the new at the walkway.
Students in the new building began a quiet and orderly evacuation of their classes that came off without incident;
but for the ones in the older section it was a different story.
According to spectators, within seconds the gym and auditorium were a roaring mass of flame and dense black smoke threatened the classrooms.
Fortunately, a stout brick wall prevented the fire from going directly into the school building.
However, smoke and heat were so intense that the combination pushed through the auditorium doors and mushroomed throughout the building.
In addition, flame, eating under the floor of the auditorium communicated to two utility
and vent shafts in the hall and then upward to the cockloft over the second floor.
Fire attacked older section of Bellport, L. I., school,
routed 900 students in session and sent 47 of them
plus a teacher and two fire fighters to local hospitals.
Damage was estimated at $500,000. New wing at lower left suffered no loss.
Despite severe conditions, students and instructors on the
first floor and
those who took the north stairs on the second floor made it safely to the street.
Unhappily, a group of some 50 students who started down the south stairs either panicked or found fire conditions too much.
Halfway down the double-run stair the leading ones hesitated, stopped and then dashed back up, ignoring the urgings of the teachers.
The teachers, Joseph Roberge and Richard Hall, managed to lead some of them into a corner classroom
which was relatively free of heat and smoke, there to await the arrival of the fire fighters.
But about 20 others, seeing daylight at the end of the hall, headed for this supposed zone of safety.
Fire destroyed gym and auditorium and
caused heavy damage to classrooms and
roof in center of second floor.
Smoke and heat meanwhile had banked down toward floor level.
Some children collapsed and the panic was on as they pressed toward the fresh air coming through the window.
A few jumped but the others held back, with those in the rear collapsing one by one.
Such were the conditions that greeted Bellport volunteers as they rolled in.
Chute Improvised With Ladders
"We were lucky - lucky in a lot of ways," said Chief Robert Terwilliger.
"To begin with, we got a big response of men considering the time of day.
And the very first piece of apparatus that rolled in was a city service truck loaded with ladders."
Two ladders went up in a flash to the window in the hallway, and others up against the side of the classroom,
including extension ladders and painters' ladders rushed to the scene by quick-thinking neighbors.
Chief Terwilliger was one of the first up the ladders to the hall window and saw to his horror
"a bunch of kids piled up on the floor with arms and legs sticking out like a pile of cordwood."
He and another fireman literally pulled the window out of its frame - sash, glass and all - creating
a clear opening for rescue, and started passing the kids down.
Mutual Aid Tells
With the problem of rescue out of the way, Chief Terwilliger now turned his
attention and efforts to the fire.
In the neighborhood when the alarm was turned in, he had immediately called for the mutual aid disaster plan to be put in effect.
It brought a heavy response from the Brookhaven Town Ambulance Association, plus fire fighting units from the following towns:
Patchogue, an aerial; Brookhaven, two pumpers; Hageman, one pumper; Yaphank, one pumper; and Medford.
While these units were getting into action - organizing relays, laying lines for ladder pipes,
and stretching hand lines - the chief realized that the magnitude of the fire plus the severe exposure of the new school required additional help.
A request then went to Lloyd Case, Suffolk County coordinator, at the control center in Yaphank, asking for more companies.
As a result, five more departments responded to the scene, including an elevating platform from Westhampton Beach, and five others rolled on covering assignments.
First lines were stretched to cover the exposed walkway and the new school,
and additional lines were then placed over and around the perimeter of the fire.
Some time after the rescues were made the bow-string ceiling trusses in the gym and auditorium collapsed,
materially assisting both in ventilating and enabling the fire fighters to get at the flames.
A more stubborn problem was the fire in the cockloft and classrooms on the second floor.
This area was untenable and had to be fought with outside lines and when a section of the roof partially collapsed
it placed a many layered shield of roofing tar between hose streams and fire.
To solve the problem Chief Terwilliger brought in a bucket crane that dug into the debris,
deposited it on the street and eventually permitted hosemen to get in on the floor.
When this was accomplished the fire was for all practical purposes under control.
The search for hidden sparks went on into the night and through the next day, when the last units took up, leaving watch lines behind.
Several lessons can be drawn from this fire:
First is the importance of mutual aid.
A well-organized and efficiently operated mutual aid plan can bring apparatus and men
quickly to the scene of a major fire in numbers which do justice to a large city.
Second is the importance of the school teacher in safety and fire prevention programs.
The courage and quick thinking of the teachers of Bellport High probably saved many lives
and it would be well for fire chiefs everywhere to establish liaison not only with school officials
but with teachers within schools as a form of mutual aid.
Third, training pays off not only sharpening the standard skills required of a fire fighter
but in sharpening his senses for improvising in an unexpected situation such as the Bellport men did with the chute.
Last, but by no means least, hidden or remote areas in public buildings, particularly schools,
should be protected by sprinklers or fire-detecting devices.
Had such devices been available at Bellport,
it is possible that 47 children, a teacher and two firemen might not have been hospitalized
and a fine school facility not been destroyed.