St. John Fire Department
Nicholas Thiery served the citizens of St. John, Indiana "officially", as a fire fighter, between 1944 to 1972. (According to Nicholas, he had started responding to fires in St. John "unofficially" in 1939.) For 25 of those years, Mr. Thiery held the position as Fire Chief of the St. John Volunteer Fire Department. The morning of May 22, 1952, his department was called to assist the Lowell Volunteer Fire Department. March 19, 2000, I had the pleasure to sit down for several hours and speak with Nick about the fire, the wreck and fire fighting in general. Nick's recollection is transcribed below.
After my interview with Mr. Thiery, I paid a call on the St. John Volunteer Department and meet with Captain Jim Wozniewski, Public Information Officer. While there, I was introduced to current Fire Chief Fred Willman. Chief Willman and Captain Wozniewski provided me with a rare treat. Pictures and a ride around town in Engine 6, a 1945 Mack "B" Cab, 750 gallon pumper. When it was purchased it was considered state of the art. This engine toiled many hours in Lowell that day. The Department maintains it in perfect working condition. A lasting piece of the Department's heritage.
Engine Number 6. While riding around town, I could only imagine what the St. John fire fighters felt as they responded to help the Lowell Volunteer Fire Department. This engine, according to the former Chief, operated non-stop for 24-30 hours drafting 180,000 gallons of water from Cedar Creek for fire fighting.
This image was provided courtesy of the St. John Volunteer Fire Department. Thanks Jim for the ride.
May 22, 1952. Members of the St. John Fire Department fighting the fire at Commercial Avenue crossing. Courtsey Lake County Sheriff's Department.
Recollections Of Nicholas Thiery, Former Fire Chief
"I hope that I can give you some information on the crash. First, as far as the Monon is concerned, after the market crash of 29, my dad didn't have any work at all. I was working for a dollar a day, 13 hours a day and two meals. That was the only cash that was coming into our home for almost two years. Shortly after that the Postmaster, who was a really nice fellow, and he asked my dad on day if he would like to take the mail to the train. Dad didn't know what he was talking about. They use to take bags from the post office, tie them so they were tight in the middle. They had a ring on the top and a ring on the bottom. We would hook them up to an arm that stuck out and the train would pick them up. The train would never stop unless they had a passenger. So even before the wreck and fire, I had some kind of association with the Monon.
Now dates are very difficult. If you take some fireman, from say St. John, we would all agree on the fire and how we fought it. But, when it came to a date, or time we would probably all disagree. I believe it was the morning of May 22, 1952. We all have different frames of reference of when we were there. We were down there I think for two days. I have heard the stories circulating about our 1945 Mack pumper. That she ran non-stop for 30 hours and pumped over 180,000 gallons of water.
Well, we left St. John and went south on U.S. 41. Frank Miller was driving our engine and I was standing on the running board on the left side, right next to the siren. When we got to Lowell, I was pretty deaf. Matter of fact it took a couple of days for my hearing to come back. I can't remember the exact time we arrived, but the skies were just starting to lighten up. When we left St. John it was dark. Since there was no mutual aid radio frequencies back then, one of our main concerns was how do we come into town. I remember seeing some smoke coming into town, but not any huge plumes. Our main concern was to get into a position where we could do the most good. I can't even remember how we ended up on the east side of the tracks. We had to have crossed over, but I can't remember where. Since we were on the east side of the tracks, we drafted water out of the creek. When we came into Lowell there was no water left in town. Lowell had used up their water source. The whole area around Commercial Avenue and south, where the depot once sat, was on fire. When we arrived the flames were maybe twelve to fifteen inches high. Very low flame and blue in color. As soon as I saw the fire, I realized that we would not have too much of a problem. We found out later that it was alcohol.
It seemed to me that the first thing we did was rescue a fire engine. A fire engine was up by the crossing without any water. We went in, with our water supply, and got them out. It didn't take much. Just hit the fire with a little fog, somebody jump in the drivers seat and out she came. We were not in there very long. We soon moved to another location where the cars we were working on contained alcohol. They were sitting there in the crossing. We had no problems with one of the cars. The pressure relief valve, on that car, had let go and released. On the other two cars the pressure valves never went off because the cars were ruptured. So the fire was underneath and as I recall not really that hot. Now around the tank car with the relief valve open the fire was hot. Our decision was to just to let it burn off. The people around there are wondering why we didn't put that fire out. I told them that we have to get rid of this alcohol. You have to let it burn. There was nothing else that you can do. It wasn't going to do that much damage. We just kept the tank car cool and cut the flame size down. From our engine we dropped two hose lines and flowed water at 250 gallons per minute. We maintained what we called a water curtain around the tank car. A real easy fog pattern.
Soon the people started coming back into the area. The crowd is worse for you that the fire. We were drafting water from the creek. I believe Lake Dale was also drafting from that creek. When Lake Dale went to pick up their hoses they found them covered in molasses. There was a carload of syrup or molasses and it covered their hose while running all the way down to the creek. It was next to impossible from them to get to get their hose out of the mess. I remember the Legion grounds covered with the molasses and canned meats. The first couple of cars, of the train, that derailed carried canned meats. I remember the meat because some of the spectators were taking the meat out. Then pretty soon the Police and Railroad detectives arrived and stopped it.
Anyway, we kept the fire controlled. I don't remember who sent for the Gary Fire Department. I have no idea. I know we didn't because there was really no need for them. But, when they arrived they must have thought we didn't know what we were doing. A fireman from their engine company decided to come in and cover the fire with foam. However, if you cover it with foam, you put out the fire but you are left with another mess. The alcohol burning in the street wasn't going any where at the time. It wasn't hurting, or threatening anything. It was contained at that point. There is no way to get rid of the alcohol, except allowing it to burn off. Some of the alcohol did get into the sewers. I never knew alcohol to have enough vapors to explode, but they did when it mixed with the sewer gas. It blew the man hole covers off and scared the heck out of people. People who were standing close to the man hole covers received quite a surprise when they popped off. We had told them to back up because we did not know if they would explode or not. But naturally they didn't listen and when they started blowing off, the people all took off. I remember two covers blowing off, but I could be mistaken. One guy, standing right next to one, left in a hurry. I watched the cover go up and when it came down that guy was nowhere to be found. I didn't see him the rest of the day. He's probably still running.
But back to the Gary fireman. He climbed up on a tank car was attempting to take the head off. There was still pressure in the car. I couldn't believe what he was doing so I yelled at him to "get off of there." He yelled something back at me but I don't remember what he said. I again told him to get off of the car. We had the fire and car under control. To be honest, I didn't know who that guy was. I didn't find out till later it was the officer from the Gary engine company. Well, he didn't want to get off. We had two hoses laid so I informed my nozzle man to put a straight stream on and knock him off the tank car. We knocked him off the car and boy did he come up mad. "What's a matter with you guys," the officer yelled. "You're suppose to be fighting the fire, not knocking me down." I walked over to him and told him, "you climb back up there and we'll knock you down again." He wasn't very happy and told me, "well we were sent here to put this fire out." To which I replied, "well, I don't know who sent for you but you are not going to put this fire out. We're just going to let it burn." They wanted to use their foam, but that would have just created an even bigger mess. After awhile we finally convinced him to back off. I'm not sure where they went, but Gary Fire Department seemed to just disappear from the scene. To my knowledge they never use their foam at all. All the newspapers said they did, but I didn't see any being used.
There was nothing burning north of Washington Street, just derailed cars and the rest of the train. The cars in the crossing, in our area, were pretty well smashed up and piled on top of one another. Some places four deep. We spent quite a bit of time there. We pumped over 83,000 gallons of water. When you pick up from a fire and go home that's the part that you never remember. You can't remember what time you left. Sometimes you don't even know what day it was. You're stuck there for two or three days. We originally sent six men down there, but we rotated people while we were there. Some would go home for a while then come back. We probably had as many as 12 different people there. Besides me, I remember Frank Miller, Bill Austgen and Howard Kileman being on the truck going down there. I think there were two more, but I'll be darned if I can remember who they were.
To be honest, in my opinions now and at the time it was not an alarming fire at any time. Oh it was big and it was nasty but as far as being worried about it, the local people were more worried than us. The only concern that we had was the contents of the tank cars. They were not marked, so we had no idea what was inside. They gave us an area to protect and that's what we did. I kind of miss the challenges that they throw at us like that. It's kind of like being in a war. People ask, well what happened over there and all you can say is, "I don't know, I wasn't over there." I can recall what we did, but as far as what the other departments did, I wouldn't even attempt to tell you.
-Nicholas Thiery...March 19, 2000-
Nicholas Thiery Photo Collection
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