An otherwise ordinary evening was followed by tragedy and heroism in the early morning hours of April 11, 1877. The elegant Italianate style six story Southern Hotel, almost a football field in length faced Walnut St. in downtown St. Louis. At about twenty minutes after one in the morning, a fire was discovered in the basement. Notification of the fire department was delayed by upwards of ten minutes due to a lost key to the fire alarm box, allowing the fire to spread to the upper floors via vertical shafts.
The first alarm brought six engine and two truck companies for the fire which ultimately would go to three alarms and requirel the response of every piece of apparatus in the city. The first arriving ladder company, a “Skinner Escape Truck,” was led by Foreman Phelim O’Toole. O’Toole was an Irish immigrant who was hired by the St. Louis Fire Department at the age of 18, about ten years before that night.
Upon arrival, O’Toole noted fire on the upper floors and almost a dozen occupants yelling from windows. Positioning the truck was difficult due to obstructions, but when in the best position possible, they extended the ladder and O’Toole began to climb. Fully extended, Phelim found himself five feet short of the 6th floor window sill.
Accounts vary some, but by most, O’Toole had the occupants tie bed sheets together as a rope, securing their end to a bedframe, and then lower the other end from the window. He swung out on a rope from the ladder tip to the dangling bed sheets, and climbed to the upper window sill, and began to lower the victims to firefighters on the waiting ladder. Moving from window to window, he is credited with saving over a dozen people. Conditions continued to deteriorate, but the last reachable victim was removed just before the building collapsed, taking twenty one remaining occupants with it.
It was following the Southern Hotel fire that the Pompier Corps of the St. Louis Fire Department was developed. Pompier Corps
O’Toole received a $500 award from the city, which he donated to assist orphans. This was a sizable sum when compared to his monthly salary of $75.00.
The Southern Hotel was not O’Toole’s last experience at the end of a rope. A serious fire erupted in the dome of the County Courthouse. Phelim climbed the dome with an axe, rope, and hoseline. After chopping through the roof, he tied off the rope and entered through the hole. Dangling from the rope, he attacked the fire with the handline.
Shortly after, on July 6, 1880, O’Toole died in the line of duty. It was not another dramatic scene, but a “routine” cellar fire in a vacant house. He entered the building with a hand held extinguisher, and when he began to operate it, the casing exploded, pieces tearing into his chest, fatally injuring him at 32 years of age.