The Camden Fire

1975 to 1979


To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Camden Fire Department, a very limited edition history was published in 1994. The fire fighters of Camden have served the city well, often with less than adequate staffing and equipment, and have compiled an admirable record not only during the years covered in the abovementioned book, but in the years since. I doubt that anywhere in the United States have so few done so much for so many with so little.

That being said, I believe that the story of the fire fighters in Camden deserves being told to a much wider audience that the original limited edition book could ever hope to reach, so it will presented here and on other web-pages within the website.

The years 1864-18731874-1885, 1912-1928, 1929-1950, 1980-1990 are presented on other webpages.

For profiles of individual fire fighters of years gone by, go to the Camden Fire Department Uniformed Personnel Index or to the Interesting People of Camden web-page.

Please contact me with any comments, questions, or corrections.... and I'm always happy to add further information about the people and event described here. Books have limited space. This website has unlimited space!

This page was first set up in December of 2008. Newspaper accounts and further information will be added in hopefully the near future.

Phil Cohen

From Camden Fire Department 1869-1994

By 1975 the state of the Department’s apparatus fleet had improved considerably. The Motor Shop under the direction of Chief Joseph Wolfinger had occupied its new maintenance facility at Eleventh Street and Wright Avenue, center city. A team of four skilled Fire Mechanics were now dedicated to performing over 95% of the repair work and 100% of all preventative maintenance. The Department had six pieces of new apparatus on order and had also taken delivery of a new Maxim cab forward, 100' tractor and tiller aerial ladder. This rig would be the last red apparatus in the Department for many years to come following a trend to lime yellow. Also during 1975 and long before large diameter hose became popular among so many other jurisdictions, Camden adopted five inch, single jacketed line with Storz couplings in one hundred foot lengths for all engine companies. 1975 would incur sixteen civilian fire deaths; one line of duty fire fighter death; seventy-three line of duty injuries; and seventeen Greater Alarms.


Motor vehicle accidents involving fire apparatus, particularly while responding to alarms has always been one of many hazards inherent to the job. Collisions occurring between fire apparatus although infrequent, are especially terrifying and routinely result in devastating property damage and death. The cause of these mishaps can be attributed to a variety of reasons, but the circumstances under which they most often occur are two apparatus that intersect each other's path, usually while en route to the same alarm. Over the years the Camden Fire Department has certainly been no exception to these tragic mishaps.

The worst of such accidents occurred on a quiet Sunday afternoon, August 16, 1975, at Sixth and Pine Streets, South Camden. Shortly after 4 P.M., the dispatcher transmitted a Box for a reported vacant building at Sixth and Royden Streets. Engine Company 1 responding first due, got a late start from quarters. Their normal response route would carry them east on Pine Street across Broadway, and to the intersection of Sixth Street where they would swing left and proceed north on Sixth to Royden Street. Engine Company 8 responding second due from their firehouse on Kaighns Avenue, would have a straight and unobstructed run, out Sixth Street same twelve blocks to the fire. One's and Eight's used these response routes thousands of times while responding together, to reach many neighborhoods adjoining these thorofares. Usually by the time Engine 8 reached the intersection of Sixth and Pine Streets, One's was already long passed and well ahead of them several blacks. Rarely did these units cross each other's path on the way.

On that Sunday afternoon as Engine Company 1 crossed Broadway at Pine, Engine 8 already well underway, was roaring past Sixth and Spruce Streets rapidly approaching Pine from the south. The last thing that Engine Company 8 expected to see upon entering the intersection of Pine Street, was the blur of another apparatus turning left into its path. Bath apparatus were identical rigs, 1967 American LaFrance pumpers. The left front cab of Engine 8's pumper impacted along the side of One's apparatus forcing the rigs together in a pincer motion. The force of the impact caused both apparatus to bounce off each other and continue onward. Engine 8 mounted the sidewalk, apparatus running over a civilian while crashing through the front of an occupied grocery store, collapsing the front of the building. The inertia of the collision carried Engine 1 northward along Sixth Street far nearly half a block, hitting several parked cars before coming to a rest.

The Officer and driver of Engine Company 8 were trapped in the cab of the apparatus, pinned beneath the collapsed canopy of the pumper's roof. 

It took more than twenty minutes to extricate both members. The Captain suffered two broken ankles and a dislocated shoulder. The driver and both members riding in the rear jump seats suffered a variety of injuries including lacerations, serious contusions and sprains. A fire fighter riding in the jump seat of Engine 1 and on the side of impact, was momentarily compressed between the apparatus and suffered severe internal injury. The remainder of One's crew sustained a variety of non-life threatening injuries. Miraculously there were no fire fighter deaths in this grinding collision. Additional units were summoned to the accident, entered a scene of carnage which same fighters described as "looking like a war zone". Glass, debris, apparatus and broken equipment were scattered about the landscape for nearly a block in every direction.

The lone fatality involved the poor civilian bystander who was whisked off the sidewalk and crushed between the apparatus and the building. The pumpers were totaled and one fire fighter was permanently disabled, never returning to the job. Both apparatus would be replaced by 1975 Maxim engine-forward pumpers without crew seating and were procured on short notice as stock models. Their design was quite unusual for city service in that members were required to ride the backstep. These rigs were also the units in the Department to herald the adoption of the lime-yellow color, a departure from over 100 years of red fire apparatus. 

More can be read about this incident at the following web-page:

Camden Fire Department: A Catastrophic Meeting

Among numerous second alarms, the principal incident for 1975 occurred shortly before 10 A.M. on May 27th when a phone alarm was received for a fire at the Railway Express warehouse, Sixth and Everett Streets, South Camden. The property, a 17,000 square foot commercial building was occupied by a chemical firm and the adjoining Bantivoglio Waste Paper Company. Arriving units found heavy smoke venting from a corner of the building and transmitted the second alarm. Large bales of waste paper stock piled to the ceiling, created punishing smoke conditions and arduous fire duty for many hours. A third alarm assignment was required to control the blaze.

On February 17, 1975, at 4:30 A.M., a tenement fire near Haddon and Newton Avenues, South Camden, killed nine persons and injured two others. This tragic blaze started in a first floor stairway and raced upward. Engine Company 7 arriving first due, found all three floors pushing heavy smoke with several occupants on the rear fire escape. A second alarm was transmitted within moments of arrival and a primary search uncovered numerous victims 
throughout the building.

On June 5, 1975, during the aftermath of a third alarm, Engine Company 9 was cleaning hose and restoring equipment at their quarters in East Camden. While stretching line at the rear of the apparatus, Fire Fighter Carmen Iannelli collapsed and succumbed to a massive coronary. Fire Fighter Iannelli would be the twenty-third line of duty death in the Department. Tragically, both Fire Fighter Iannelli’s father, Frank Ianelli, and brother Leonard Ianelli had also previously made the Supreme Sacrifice in the line of duty protecting life and property in the City of Camden.

As a municipal agency, the Fire Department has always remained responsible for a myriad of other emergency services unrelated to fire suppression. Its mission entails all forms of rescue services involving the extrication victims from physical entrapment; the ancillary support of other emergency services including Police and EMS; and its response to the scene of hazardous material incidents. On August 12th the Box was transmitted for the old New York Shipyard on lower Broadway near Morgan Street, South Camden. A pressurized tank truck unloading liquid oxygen ruptured a safety valve causing some very tense moments. Hundreds were evacuated from the area as fire fighters worked for over two hours to stabilize the incident.

On September 2, 1975, Engine Company 9 was special called to the City of Trenton on an unusual mutual aid response. A major breakdown at the city’s water works left the entire City of Trenton with virtually no water. Engine 9 responded to Lawrenceville Township on the outskirts of the city and joined hundreds of fire companies from throughout New Jersey in what was described as the longest water relay in history involving hundreds of thousands of feet of hose.

During 1976 the Department took delivery of four new pumpers as the first leg of a fleet replacement order. These units were 1976 Pierce, 1000 GPM cab-forward pumpers with Hendrickson Chassis. New apparatus were assigned to Engine Companies 3, 6, 10, and 11. In the following year the Department would receive two more 1977 Pierce/Hendrickson apparatus; a 54' Squirt with articulating tower, and an 85' Snorkel assigned to Engine Company 7 and Ladder Company 1 respectively. All of these units were of lime-yellow color as Camden joined a growing national trend. 

The popularity in lime-yellow was based on a premise that the color had superior visibility, particularly under conditions of darkness and therefore enhanced safety. While many departments embraced this new color without substance, others adopted lime-yellow on a trial basis to study the effects. The debate would rage on for over two decades. The color was purported debate would rage on for over two decades. The color was purported to improve both visibility and safety. While some departments reported a decrease in the number of apparatus mishaps, others cited an actual increase m the number of apparatus accidents following adoption of the yellow color. While the advantages of increased night visibility was heralded among a host of experts, other sources purported lime-yellow to be less visible under conditions of bright sunlight and even at night under the illumination of
certain types of lighting. Still other sources cited increased maintenance demands with lime-yellow paint that was less prevalent among darker colors including red. In any event, within twenty years Virtually every major city in America would abandon lime-yellow and revert to red fire apparatus. Camden would be no exception.

Engine Company 11 always the Pride of Cramer Hill, well demonstrates the pride of a nation on the occasion of the Bicentennial, Spring 1976. 

Company quarters at North 27th Street and Hayes Avenue, Cramer Hill.

Of twenty Greater Alarms for 1976, two incidents would reach or exceed a third alarm level. On January 31st, a smoky blaze in a four-story factory occurred at Magnolia Avenue and Pine Street, South Camden. This fire in sub-freezing temperatures would keep units busy for several hours as members toiled in extreme cold and under heavy smoke conditions.

The second major incident occurred on a beautiful Sunday morning of June 6, 1976 at Mt. Ephraim Avenue and Fairview Street, South Camden. This incident would be one of the largest fires to occur during the decade of the seventies and was equivalent to a tenth alarm assignment before it was brought under control some eight hours later.

The former Camden Forge complex comprised of huge commercial buildings. 

Fire building was four stories high, one-hundred feet wide and one-thousand feet 

Photo taken shortly after the arrival of First Alarm units. Six alarms plus numerous Special Calls for mutual aid were required to control this fire at Mt. Ephraim Avenue and 
Fairview Street, 
South Camden 
on June 6, 1976 

A picture perfect day, the June sky over South Camden was a cloudless, gaudy blue with bright sunshine and temperatures near 70 degrees. Shortly before 10 A.M. , the dispatcher received a phone alarm reporting smoke in the Harris Terminal complex on Mt. Ephraim Avenue near Burma Road, a nickname given to Fairview Street by local residents. Harris Terminal occupied nearly thirty acres on the site of the former Camden Forge. The complex comprised a series of huge industrial buildings that were converted to warehouse space. Engine Company 10 arriving first due reported a four story brick and corrugated metal building. 100 x 1000 with heavy smoke venting from the roof area near the center of the structure. When Ladder Company 2 forced entry to large overhead doors at the east end of the warehouse, units found a heavy body of fire showing toward the far end of the building. As hoselines were being advanced toward the seat of the blaze, the fire blossomed with frightening intensity and raced across the open expanse of the huge structure.

Ladder Company 3
on the Fourth Alarm
Mt. Ephraim Avenue and 
Fairview Street, 
South Camden 
on June 6, 1976 

Second, third and fourth alarms were transmitted in rapid succession as flames engulfed the entire building and began to threaten adjoining  structures. Immediately adjacent to the fire building was another warehouse of similar size. This exposure. if involved. would result in a conflagration of unimaginable proportions. Numerous special calls for mutual aid above the fourth alarm were made to develop multiple master and elevated streams. necessary for containing the blaze. The fire building contained dozens of huge rolls of processed paper stock each weighing more than two tons: and hundreds of stacks of construction grade vinyl siding. A column of black billowing smoke looming hundreds of feet into the sky could be seen for many miles. Poisonous hydrogen chloride fumes given off by the burning polyvinyl chloride content in the siding. permeated the terminal complex. Several apparatus. including
mutual aid units. had there chrome bright work oxidized by the noxious fumes as bumpers, bells and chromed handles turned various shades of an ugly metallic green. More than 250 residents of a nearby mobile home park were evacuated as the fire burned for more than three days.

During 1977 the Department would sustain thirty-seven Greater Alarms; fifteen civilian fire deaths and 107 line of duty injuries. In May, the old fire alarm central office on the eighth floor of City Hall was disbanded and the Department’s fire communications services were relocated to a new regional central office for the entire county. The Camden County Fire Communications Center was located in the Borough of Lindenwold, a municipality some
fifteen miles beyond the city limits and occupying an area near the geographical center of Camden County. As the first regional fire communications service in the State of New Jersey, the Camden County Central Office when organized in 1973, had greatly improved fire and EMS services throughout the county. In matters of the City, the benefits to the Department were significant in terms of enhanced mutual aid services; Field Communications
services, and technical support services not heretofore realized.

On May 30, 1977, a verbal alarm at the quarters of Engine Company 1 reported fire showing in a large commercial building near Third and Pine Streets, just one block west of the firehouse. The warehouse extending a full city block from Pine to Line Streets between Third and Fourth, was heavily involved on arrival. Second, third and fourth alarms were transmitted in quick succession as fire extended throughout the building. Late at night on July
13th, another verbal alarm at Fire Headquarters reported a vacant factory at Front and Federal Streets, center city. Engine Company 2 arrived to find heavy fire showing from the vacant three and four-story Boscul coffee factory. Numerous structural collapses occurred in the course of this third alarm. Boscul, established in 1831 was one of the city’s original industries.

Among numerous second alarms throughout the year, the month of November was 
especially busy with six Greater Alarms. On November 7, 1977 at 3 A.M., Engine Company 7 arrived at a heavily involved warehouse at Mt. Ephraim Avenue and Mt. Vernon Street, South Camden. This incident went for three alarms on a cold, windy night. On November 16th, two second alarms in South Camden for row dwellings along Fifth Street at Division and Berkley Streets occurred during the morning and evening hours. On November 22nd, a smoky second alarm in a vacant commercial building near 23rd and Federal Streets, East Camden, injured several members. Several hours later in the early morning of November 23rd, a hot, vicious fire in an occupied a boarding home at 29th and Mitchell Streets, claimed the lives of five elderly persons, some nearly ninety years old. Engine Company 9 rolled up 
Mitchell Street to find blow torch conditions, as fire roared outward from several windows in the two and one-half story frame. A second alarm was transmitted on arrival.

Senior citizens boarding house, North 29th and Mitchell Streets, East Camden on November 23, 1977. A Second Alarm with five deaths to elderly occupants. Chief of Department Edward Michalak is seen exiting front of building.

A second alarm for a vacant factory at Front and Erie Streets, North Camden, closed out the month of November. On December 5th, another second alarm at the same location burned out the remaining ruins. The following morning of December 6th at 10 A.M., a third alarm on Fairview Street around the corner from Engine Company 10 heavily damaged a trucking warehouse. On December 21st, two more second alarms would round off the year - one on Kaighns Avenue near Broadway for stores with apartments above; and the other for an apartment building on Westfield Avenue above 28th Street, East Camden.

In 1978, the Department occupied the new Fire Administration Building. Erected on Third Street directly opposite the converted factory that served as the former headquarters, the new facility would be the fourth and latest building to serve as Fire Headquarters since the inception of the paid department. This building would also be the first new fire station erected in the City of Camden since 1919. In addition to the units of the 1st Battalion, the new facility would also serve as administrative offices for the Department including the Chief; Deputy Chiefs; Training Academy; Fire Marshal and Staff Services.

New Fire Administration Building, erected in 1978.

During the nineteen-seventies another unusual trend emerged in the urban fire service, as a growing number of cities adopted a concept known as consolidated fire stations. This method of fire company deployment involved a radical departure from the time honored system of neighborhood firehouses.

For well over one-hundred years, the most efficient form of fire protection was based on the strategic placement of fire companies throughout a geographical jurisdiction. The greater the dispersion of fire companies, the more efficient the level of fire services to the community. This premise was based wholly upon the critical factor of response time.

The amount of time elapsed from when an alarm is received, to how quickly the first fire company arrives, can routinely mean the difference between a small fire involving one room, and a serious fire extending to one or more floors. As fire behavior would dictate, all fires beyond their incipient stage grow at an exponential rate to double in size and intensity, 
approximately once every twenty seconds.

The phenomenon known as flashover, is most often responsible for the rapid spread of fire throughout a building. A one room fire upon reaching the flashover stage, will rapidly extend with frightening speed to involve multiple rooms or floors of a building, depending upon the physical construction and a number of variables including the presence or absence of vertical openings such as stairways. The only measure that will effectively interrupt the 
process of flashover, is the timely placement of hoselines. Getting water on the fire as quickly as possible will often mean the difference between moderate property damage and total destruction, not to mention loss of life as the paramount concern.

The proponents of consolidation would conveniently forget these cardinal precepts. Instead, they would advance a variety of abstract notions concerning intangible administrative benefits; or management advantages by having multiple fire units of the same type located within regional facilities. In the City of Camden, some municipal officials embraced an opinion that older neighborhood firehouses were situated based upon the demands of a bygone era. That the speed and reliability of horse drawn apparatus was far surpassed by modern, motorized equipment, and that contemporary fire companies could respond to alarms much faster than their predecessors thereby obviating the need for local fire stations. What these proponents failed to consider was the fact that under conditions of inclement weather, particularly during snow or ice, the response of modern fire apparatus remains extremely slow and in fact, no faster than the horse drawn apparatus of a hundred years ago.

In any event, Camden’ s new headquarters facility would consolidate quarters among a total of three engines, one ladder, the rescue and the First Battalion. This consolidation would eliminate two neighborhood firehouses which served as individual quarters for Engine Company 1 in South Camden and Engine Company 6 in North Camden. First due response times for these units under normal conditions nearly doubled in length following consolidation. For Engine Company 6 to the far regions of many North Camden neighborhoods and especially under hazardous road conditions, first due response times more than tripled the previous rate.

In one major American city, the concept of consolidation was taken to the extreme with as many as four engines, two ladders, two chiefs and an array of special units quartered under one roof at a facility termed the super station. Apparatus bays fronted on two different streets, while the huge firehouse held personnel facilities for some forty members.

The lessons learned from such exercises in political expediency, were both expensive and compelling. The consolidation of two or more units of the same type (engines or ladders) at any common location proved a wanton waste of resources. Retrenchment was inevitable. By the end of the decade, virtually every major city which had embraced consolidation was in the process, or had already dismantled their central facilities. The “super station” with ten
apparatus bays and quarters for as many units, was reduced to a single engine, ladder and chief. Remaining units were dispersed throughout the field for reasons of operational efficiency. The proposition of consolidation, like the color of lime-yellow fire apparatus, would prove little more than an interim distraction in the evolvement of the modern fire service. Indeed, later Fire Administrations in the City of Camden would again advance the time honored system of decentralized fire services based on neighborhood firehouses.

Also during 1978 and following a fourteen year tenure, Chief of Department Edward V. Michalak retired from service. Chief Theodore L. Primas was appointed as his successor. Chief Primas would assume responsibility for the Department during some very difficult times. A declining municipal tax base ravaged by deteriorating neighborhoods and a perennial fiscal shortfall, produced the worst possible conditions under which to manage municipal services. With nearly fifty percent of the City’s population receiving some form of social service assistance or entitlement, Camden harbored one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Over half of the City’s municipal operating budget was subsidized by various forms of State and Federal aid.

Such were the conditions under which the new Fire Administration would assume command of the Department. Upon his appointment as Chief of Department, Theodore Primas held over thirty years of distinguished service in the Uniformed Force. While his
appointment as the first black member to attain the rank of Chief was certainly a milestone in the history of the Department, his individual achievements as a member were equally remarkable. Career fire fighters have always been enormously resourceful people, who by nature, also bring to the job a diversity of personal talents and skills. Licensed electricians and plumbers; master carpenters; skilled computer specialists; certified welders; marine and
aviation pilots; are among the myriad of professional capabilities that fire fighters have achieved. Chief Theodore L. Primas was a career Fire Officer who was also a practicing member of the New Jersey Bar. As an attorney, his professional judgment and skills certainly benefited the Department during several Fire Administrations. His tenure as Chief of Department would be remembered, as a man in the right place at the right time. His lasting
contribution would be no small achievement in having guided the Department through some very difficult periods.

Principal Greater Alarms for 1978 would occur at vacant commercial buildings and industrial sites. On April 1st a tough, smoky third alarm for a block long junk yard at Sixth and Chestnut Streets, South Camden, could be seen for miles. On April 2lst, another third alarm for vacant stores and apartments near Third Street and Kaighns Avenue kept units busy for several hours. On June 8th, a vacant warehouse at Second Street and Jefferson Avenue, South Camden, took two hours to control and resulted in several injuries to members. Shortly after 1 A.M. on August 13th, three alarms for a rapidly spreading fire in a vacant factory at Third and Elm Streets, North Camden, lit up the night sky. Hot and humid weather conditions severely punished fire fighters.

1979 would close out the decade of the raging seventies as a period of unprecedented civil disorder; of hundreds of fire fighter injuries; of scores of civilian fire deaths, and a drastically different City. In 1979 the Department would incur just one major incident among nineteen Greater Alarms.

On January 29th shortly after 8 P.M., a third alarm for a row of large three-story dwellings near Sixth and Berkley Streets, blanketed the South Camden area with heavy, acrid smoke. Sub-freezing temperatures and heavy icing from master streams hampered units for hours. Several injuries resulting from frostbite and hypothermia took a toll upon weary fire fighters.

During 1979 the Department would face for the first time in its history, the traumatic prospect of fire fighter layoffs. Between 1969 and 1979 the City grew increasingly dependent upon State and Federal aid to balance its municipal budget, amid an ever shrinking tax base. Fiscal shortfalls over several recurring years culminated in a fiscal crises in 1979. Rumors abounded that the City was on the brink of insolvency and might default on its payroll
obligations. The problem was one of interim cash flow, rather than long term solvency. Among a number of creative fiscal measures to stave off impending bankruptcy, the City required some adjustments in its labor contracts. 

A failure to avert this latest budget shortfall would result in the layoff of twenty fire fighters and thirty police. In doing so, Camden would join the list of hundreds of other fire departments across the United States to produce unemployed fire fighters. Indeed, some of the largest cities in the country and several throughout New Jersey, had laid off large numbers of fire fighters during the 197os. Following several days of tense discussions and fiscal maneuvering, the fire fighter layoffs were averted. During its 125 year history, Camden would remain one of the few cities to have never incurred the layoff of a single fire fighter. Also during 1979, the Department would exceed eight thousand alarms for the year amid a record number of malicious false alarms.

On a Fall day in 1979, the Fire Administration dispatched Captain John DeFrancisco to the residence of Fire Fighter Richard Sorensen to deliver a gold retirement badge. The former member of Engine Company 1 had been severely injured in the line of duty resulting in his retirement from the Department.