Fire on the Riverfront

CarolinaFireJournal - By Chris Nelson
By Chris Nelson
01/11/2012 -

On March 9, 1953, the Wilmington Fire Department faced one of its largest and costliest fires in the city’s history. The fire, which was located in a warehouse complex located on the Cape Fear River, pushed the fire department to its limits and then some. It seemed for a time that the city’s waterfront would be completely wiped out.

The fire occurred at the Wilmington Terminal and Warehouse Company, part of a large complex of seven warehouses located on the Cape Fear River. The warehouses were situated perpendicular to the river with slips between some of the buildings. Rail access was alongside each building. The following is a brief description of each warehouse and its contents at the time of the fire.

The buildings were heavy timber construction with a brick exterior.

Wilmington Terminal Nitrate Warehouse:

  • Equipped with a sprinkler system
  • Contained 25,000 tons of sodium nitrate
  • Contained 200 tons of fishmeal


A view of the fire in its early stages from the east. Note the Max Manus in the river away from the wharf. All of the warehouses to the left would eventually be fully involved. Note the fireboat Atlantic to the upper right of the fire. Photo by Hugh Morton, North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Wilmington Terminal Tobacco Storage Warehouse:

  • One and two-story building with brick firewalls, as well as metal siding in some areas.
  • Equipped with a sprinkler system
  • Contained five million pounds of tobacco
  • Contained 1000 rolls of roofing
  • Contained 275,000 100-pound empty paper bags
  • Contained 10 barrels of lubricating oil

The Seaboard Air Line Railroad Warehouse E was under repair and had no contents.

Seaboard Air Line Railroad Warehouse D:

  • Contained 45,000 100-pound bags of sugar

Seaboard Air Line Railroad Warehouses A, B, and C had various contents.:

  • “A” contained grocery supplies
  • “B” and “C” had fertilizer materials, including calcium ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulphate

Most of the warehouses were constructed in 1901 and were around 50,000 to 80,000 square feet in size.

At 0855 hours that Monday morning, an alarm was transmitted for a fire at the Wilmington Terminal Nitrate Warehouse. The initial response to the fire included Chief J.L. Croom, First Assistant Chief J.A. West, Engine Companies One and Three, and the fireboat Atlantic III. En route to the fire, heavy smoke was noticed by the responding companies. On arrival both engines laid in from the closest hydrant using 2½” supply lines. They advanced a 2½” attack line from each engine to the west end of the building. These lines were approximately 800 feet long.

Employees at the warehouse were operating a house hose line on the fire with little success. The fireboat was forced to tie-up at the extreme southwest corner of the wharf since the 425 feet Norwegian freighter Max Manus, which was unloading nitrate, was taking up most of the dock space. A 2½” line was stretched from the Atlantic to operate on the fire.

By the time these lines were in place, it was evident that the fire had full control on the western section of the building. The hose streams were having no effect whatsoever in halting the spread of the fire. Second Assistant Chief H.W. Corbett was overcome by the smoke and collapsed inside the warehouse. He was pulled to safety by a Carolina Power and Light lineman, Kimball Burriss. Seconds later that area was fully involved.

Chief Corbett refused aid and returned to his post. At 0910 hours, Chief Croom called for two more companies to respond, as well as sounding a general alarm, which recalled all off-duty firefighters. He ordered the Max Manus to be pulled away from the wharf, which allowed the Atlantic better access to the fire.

As the second alarm companies arrived additional lines were stretched to the fire. Even with these lines in operation, the crews were continuously forced backwards by the rapidly spreading fire. The fire walls did not seem to hold the fire in check, with fire spreading both overhead and under the flooring. Chief Croom ordered the lines on the south side of the Nitrate Storage Warehouse withdrawn and replaced in the Tobacco Warehouse in an attempt to halt the southward spread of the flames.

The Atlantic was forced to move due to the intense heat which ignited the stern of the fireboat. Damage to the fireboat was minor and did not hamper operations.

Shortly after lines were set up in the Tobacco Warehouse the sodium nitrate began exploding in a series of minor blasts. Two hoselines on the south side of the warehouse had to be abandoned because of the spreading fire. Walls on the north side began crumbling and lines on that side had to be withdrawn. By this time, the entire west end of the Tobacco Warehouse was engulfed in flames and rapidly spreading eastward. The Atlantic was then moved to the west end of Warehouse E and attempted to prevent that building from catching fire by directing its monitors for exposure protection. A portable master stream was set up on the east end of the same building for the same purpose.

The pumper supplying the master stream was connected to a private hydrant but the supply was insufficient for the operation. While this pumper was being disconnected, another pumper was being connected to a city hydrant about 100 feet away to operate the master stream. Before this operation could be completed the first major explosion occurred at 1032 hrs, blowing out a section of the north and south walls of the Nitrate Warehouse. The explosion scattered large pieces of timber, bricks, and hot molten sodium nitrate over a wide area. About 15 men received burns and injuries in this explosion.

Firefighting operations had to be abandoned in this area. Approximately 10 minutes after this explosion, as firefighters were attempting to move apparatus and equipment further to the south, a second and worse explosion rocked the area. This explosion scattered more debris over the entire complex setting fires at least 1200 feet away. A civilian who was helping pull hose was severely burned. He died of his injuries the following Saturday. One pumper was on fire and two others were damaged while all the hoselines that were in operation were destroyed. All apparatus was finally moved to the vicinity of Warehouse C.

Another view of the fire from the west. The fire had been burning approximately 30-45 minutes. The Atlantic is in the lower left.

Photo by Hugh Morton, North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

The Atlantic once again was forced to move because the wharf it was tied to caught on fire.

This last devastating explosion ignited Warehouses D and E. They became a raging inferno almost instantly. As a result of the explosion smaller fires were burning in all of the other warehouses. Also on fire were sheds in the railroad yard, railcars, as well as brush and crossties. Twenty additional firefighters were either burned or injured during this explosion, most of a minor nature.

At this point a call for mutual aid was put out for assistance. A description of the second explosion by Chief Croom paints the picture.

“The first sign of anything out of the ordinary was the ground trembling, followed by a low rumbling. Then an atomic-like cloud of white smoke erupted from the building, boiling skyward at least 100 feet, exploding and scattering molten Nitrate of Soda, timbers, etc. Almost instantly after the white smoke erupted from the building, a loud explosion occurred, followed by an intense white flame that enveloped the ground area for at least 100 feet northeastward from the building. The force of the explosion knocked persons to the ground who were standing at least 500 feet from the building, and the heat wave which followed seared the exposed skin of anyone within 250 feet.”

The Wilmington Morning Star described the falling sodium nitrate as “flaming globs raining down.”

With all hose lines out of action, most of which were destroyed, pumpers being relocated and over a third of his firefighters burned or injured, Chief Croom had a disheartening situation before him. A stiff northeasterly wind was pushing the fire at a steady rate toward Warehouse C, which was loaded with fertilizer materials. A loading slip was all that separated Warehouse C and D. He ordered the Atlantic into the slip to protect Warehouse C. Streams were placed on both buildings in an attempt to halt the fire spread. New hoselines were put into operation by firefighters, many of whom were suffering from injuries but had refused to give up the fight. This strategy proved successful and the fire spread was halted.

“Without our fireboat, it would have been impossible to have halted the spread of fire as the flames were well out of reach of land-based streams and too much credit cannot be given to the faithful men who stuck out the hell in that area,” said Chief Croom.

About this time, two additional fireboats from the U.S. Navy’s nearby lay-up basin arrived and joined in the fight. This combined effort finally made the fire manageable around noon. The fire itself was contained after about 24 hours. A steady rain three days later helped finally extinguish the smoldering debris.

An investigation into the cause of the fire began almost immediately. Along with the fire department, investigators from the Coast Guard as well as the FBI conducted their own investigations. Investigators narrowed the source of the fire down to two possible causes.

The first possible cause was spontaneous combustion of the stored fishmeal. Fishmeal will generate heat due to the oxidative process. Historically it was known that ships sank at sea due to fires caused by spontaneous combustion of the fishmeal they were transporting. Today antioxidants added to fishmeal prevent such catastrophes. Investigators thought possibly the stored piles smoldered underneath for quite some time until it vented itself to the open air.

Another cause may have been electrical. On the morning of the fire it was noted that the lights in the vicinity of the fire were flickering. An electrician was sent to the warehouse and was on scene when the fire was discovered, but he had not located the trouble.

As for the rapid fire spread, it was learned that employees fought the fire with house hose streams for around 10 minutes before the fire department was telephoned. Another factor that contributed was the failure of the Nitrate and Tobacco Storage Warehouse’s sprinkler systems. Only one water gong was heard sounding during the fire, and it was sporadic. A few heads were noticed operating, but had no effect on the fire. One possible problem was the operation of several of the private hydrants on site, which may have left insufficient water to supply the sprinkler system.

The fire department had four of its six engine companies operating at the fire. Mutual aid companies included pumpers from Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, Winter Park VFD, and a trailer pump from the Coast Guard. Two engine companies made the 60 mile journey from Camp Lejuene to be on standby. Over 100 firefighters were on scene, as well as personnel from the Coast Guard Port Security and Cutter Mendota. News of the fire traveled across the nation, and rumors were rampant that the city was in danger of a disaster similar to the 1948 Texas City fire.

Chief Croom noted that the reaction of the Sodium Nitrate was unlike anything he had seen before. The violent explosions did not compare to previous fires he had encountered involving the chemical. During the fire, it changed to a lava-like state that poured out of the building and spread outward up to 100 feet away, reaching depths of six inches or more. He noted that the reaction of Sodium Nitrate under extreme fire conditions is unpredictable. The stories of individual heroism and unselfish devotion to duty alone would be worthy of discussion.

Final dollar loss was estimated to be around $30 million. Almost seven million gallons of water were pumped at the fire, with an additional two and a half million gallons from the fireboats. One of the unexpected consequences of the fire was a massive swarm of bees that descended on what was left of Warehouse D where the sugar was stored. It was reported that millions of the insects were attracted to the tons of syrupy residue.

The damaged warehouses were never rebuilt. The remaining warehouses continued in use until fire struck again. Fire broke out in Warehouse B on the evening of September 23, 1995. Stored inside was 2500 tons of Urea. The fire was in an advanced state on arrival. An exterior attack was mounted, with efforts made to prevent the spread of fire to Warehouses A and C.

Once again, the fireboat was a major player in fighting the fire, with the Atlantic V pumping over a million gallons. Warehouse B was a total loss, with Warehouse A and C suffering some fire damage. During the investigation another fire was found in the electrical room of Warehouse C. It was quickly extinguished.

The investigators scored a lucky break being able to actually witness the second fire. It was determined that the fire in Warehouse B was caused by the same deteriorating conditions in the electrical circuitry as in Warehouse C. This deterioration was created by products that were stored in the buildings. Warehouses A and C were eventually demolished a few years later.

Chris Nelson has over 29 years experience in the fire service. He is currently serving as Battalion Chief of Training for the Wilmington Fire Department. He is also associated with Wilmington Fire Historical Society. He may be reached at [email protected].
Comments & Ratings

  3/13/2012 6:43:04 AM
Cory Alderman 

EMT-Intermediate/ERT-Emergency Rescue Technician 
Very interesting to learn the history of our state and of specifically the Wilmington area. God Bless All the FireFighters/EMTs/Military that North Carolina has...we should all be proud that they try their best to protect us like they do, day in and day out!
  2/6/2012 11:19:38 AM
Edwina Batson 

Retired Dispatcher w/WPD and NHCSD 
That was interesting to read...I like local history, back-back in thr ole days...
I was just a toddler !

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