Author(s): Mary Elizabeth Woodruff. Published on July 1, 2016.

Pier Conflagration

SS Panuco fire, 1941 — Brooklyn, New York

BY MARY ELIZABETH WOODRUFF

ON MONDAY, AUGUST 18, 1941, the freighter SS Panuco was docked alongside Pier 27 of the New York and Cuba Mail Steamship Company in Brooklyn, New York. Workers unloaded the ship’s cargo: 20 bales of sarsaparilla root, 1,500 bales of cotton, 2,664 cases of crude rubber, 1,524 bags of Candelilla wax, and 101 bags of Mexican beeswax. Also included were various quantities of henequen, ixtle, and sisal, fiber from Mexican plants used in making rope and twine. By midday, a large portion of the sisal and other fibers had been offloaded and lined both sides of the pier. Also stored on the pier, among the piles of sisal, were goods awaiting shipment, including electrical equipment, cans of paint, drums of oil, raw coffee beans, and cases of paper. The weather that day was warm and dry, not overly hot, with a light wind.

A fire was first spotted at approximately 11:45 a.m. in a large pile of sisal twine located on the shore end of the pier. By the time the fire department arrived, just a few minutes later, the fire had reached five alarms and had traveled the full length of the pier. The fire burned so quickly that men on the pier and aboard the Panuco had to jump into the water to escape the flames. Fire also quickly spread to vessels tied to the pier, as well as to nearby structures.

In the early minutes of the fire, tug boats were able to secure a line and tow the Panuco, already ablaze from bow to stern, and beach it in the mud flats a short distance from the pier. Just 25 minutes after the first sighting of the fire and the first alarm, the fire had destroyed both the pier and the cargo and had spread to Pier 26, as well as to numerous other barges and boats tied to the piers.

Eyewitnesses later stated that the fire spread very rapidly, noting that the blaze was made more spectacular by the explosions that occurred when oil drums on the pier ignited, spreading flaming oil slicks on the pier and across the surface of the water. The smoke from the fire obscured the view and greatly hindered rescue efforts. Some of the men who jumped into the water were unable to swim, while others were exhausted before help could arrive. At least 34 men were killed as a result of the fire, having been either burned or drowned.

By midafternoon, the fires on the piers and the barges had been extinguished, but it would be almost 48 hours until the Panuco could be boarded and investigated to confirm that the fire was finally out. Although the cause of the fire was never determined, the damage was quickly assessed and tallied. In addition to the lives lost, Pier 27 and the merchandise on the pier were total losses, the Panuco and 17 barges and their contents were damaged, and Pier 26 needed repair.

MARY ELIZABETH WOODRUFF is the manager of Library and Informational Resources at NFPA. Top Photograph: International News Photo