The names are painted, printed, etched in bronze.
By each one, a date: 1878 ... 1893 ... 1903 … 1916 ... Some of the names share years, others months and days. These are the 57 Omaha firefighters who have died in the line of duty. The list can be found in several places around the city — above a door in the Firefighters Union Hall, near a bronze statue at Lewis & Clark Landing, in reference books at the Omaha Public Library.
In every version, two dates stand out above the rest: Feb. 8 and 9, 1933. Five names share the first, two more the second.
This year marks the 85th anniversary of the Millard Hotel fire, a blazing inferno on a frigid night that claimed the lives of seven Omaha firemen and injured almost three dozen others. It was the deadliest event for firefighters in the city’s history. Still, every hotel guest and employee was evacuated safely.
Memorial Day began as a way to commemorate the sacrifices of those who died serving in the military. But in recent years, especially since the horrors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made the risks of their jobs all too apparent, the day has grown to include remembrances of first responders.
And remembering matters to Omaha firefighters.
Before every meeting of the Omaha Professional Firefighters Association, members discuss all the line-of-duty firefighter deaths that have occurred in the past month in the U.S. and Canada, said Trevor Towey, treasurer of the fire union. And every year during the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the union marches with flags, each one displaying the name of an Omaha firefighter who died in the line of duty.
The point, Towey said, is to constantly impress upon the working firefighters that safety is never a guarantee, and training and vigilance are essential.
“Firefighters today, just as they were back then, are still in a dangerous situation, putting their lives at risk,” said Stan Shearer, founder of the Omaha Firefighters Historical Society. That, Shearer said, is why it’s important to learn from stories from the past.
Stories like this one.
The Millard Hotel, located on the northeast corner of 13th and Douglas Streets in the spot now occupied by the Holland Performing Arts Center, opened in 1882. For years, it was a glitzy social hot spot, attracting celebrity guests. Its owners considered it state-of-the-art, and a sign atop the five-story building boasted that the hotel was “fireproof.”
But by 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, the hotel had begun to lose some of its luster. Its mortgage had been foreclosed upon, and several rooms had been shuttered due to lack of demand.
On the night of Feb. 8, 1933, about 10 p.m. guests staying on the fourth floor began to notice flames licking out of windows on floors below. Minutes later, the hotel’s lights went dark. By 10:04 p.m., the first alarms were called in to Omaha fire stations, according to World-Herald archives.
The first firefighters to arrive mounted ladders and worked to rescue guests and employees trapped on the upper floors. By 10:25 p.m., according to an engineer’s account later published by The World-Herald, all the guests had been safely evacuated.
By then, the blaze had almost completely overtaken the north side of the building and was beginning to break through the roof. Fire Chief Patrick Cogan ordered his men to attack the fire from ladders placed directly against the north wall of the building.
Firemen climbed the ladders and directed jets of water through upper-story windows. Any water that missed froze immediately, coating surfaces and forming dangerous slicks in the streets and alleys below. The temperature that night plunged to minus 15 degrees, and many firemen later suffered frostbite from the spray.
But the night’s first real tragedy happened quickly and without warning.
About 11 p.m., parts of the roof and upper floors collapsed, possibly due to an explosion in the hotel’s paint shop, and the outer north wall blew outward. Firemen on ladders and in the alley were crushed by a searing hot blast of bricks and debris.
Five men died instantly. They were Capt. Edward Schmidt, Capt. Thomas Shandy and Firefighters John Brandt, John Cogan (no relation to the chief) and Franklin Kane.
Others rushed to help the survivors, dodging falling debris. In the chaos, fire protection engineer William Rathburn, who later submitted a report about the response to the fire, observed: “I don’t believe I have ever seen such heroism as the men displayed in rushing into that alley. There was a section of the wall above them that was fairly swinging. I think every man who went in there must have known he was very close to death.”
The firemen continued battling the flames, and, by the early morning hours of Feb. 9, the fire looked to be contained.
Though Chief Cogan warned him to stay out of the building, Fire Inspector Clarence Urban recruited a group of men to help him examine the hotel’s main sprinkler valve. About 3 a.m., one of these men, Louis Morocco, suggested his partner, Steve Howard, grab himself some hot coffee across the street.
Howard, as he recalled decades later, handed his safety belt to Morocco and climbed out of the building through an exterior window. Almost immediately, he heard a deafening crash and was thrown across the street.
Heavy ice that had accumulated on top of the structure caused the roof to collapse, which thundered down on the weakened upper floors and caused them to collapse as well. Tons of bricks and ice crushed the firemen inside. Urban and Morocco were killed. Others were trapped.
One man, Walter Hoye, was pulled out an hour later with facial burns and a broken knee. It took him 96 days to recover. Chief Cogan’s brother, Capt. George Cogan, waited six hours as rescuers dug through the debris. Toward the end of the ordeal, with Cogan fearing he would die, a priest from St. Philomena Catholic Church joined him. The following day, The World-Herald reported that Cogan’s chances of survival looked promising.
In the aftermath of the disaster, with the ruins of the hotel still smoldering, Omaha began asking questions.
Though the exact cause of the fire was never discovered, suspicion fell almost immediately on the building’s owner, Harry Weiner, who had recently taken out an insurance policy on the deteriorating property. Later that year, Weiner was tried for murder and arson; a jury failed to reach a verdict.
Rathburn, the engineer who had praised the firemen’s bravery in rescuing those trapped under the collapsed wall, eventually released a report critical of Chief Cogan’s leadership during the fire. But a later investigation convened by the Omaha City Council concluded that the department had acted appropriately in combating the blaze.
The disaster did lead to lasting reforms, with officials investing new resources in fire prevention.
But firefighting has always been dangerous work, and there would be more tragedies in the decades to follow.
In 1965, two firefighters were killed responding to a fire at the Swanson Office Building at 8401 Dodge St. The men, Sam Douchey and Loren Desler, were overcome by smoke. An investigation later revealed that their air masks had no low-air warning device. Months later, fire officials ordered that all masks be filled regularly.
Now, there’s a new Sam Douchey with the Omaha Fire Department. Douchey’s grandson, also named Sam, has been with the department for almost six years. Stories like his grandpa’s, he said, are sobering reminders of the stakes involved in what he does.
But each one, he said, presents an opportunity for lasting change — a way to make things safer for the next generation of firefighters.
“You’ve gotta remember where you come from and remember who came before you and what you can learn from them,” he said. “It’s important to remember that so we come home to our families at the end of the day.”