Fire Department Journal

The White Elephant. Was it a Jinx?

By William Noonan
Fire Fighter

 

How many of you thought that Boston's apparatus was always red? Back in 1941 the city purchased a 1941 American La France 125' metal aerial with five aerial sections that was painted white. There are several rumors White_Elephant_1as to why it was white; all of it is speculation. Some say it was built for Denver Colorado; they had white rigs. Others say it was white to be different. What ever the reason, Boston bought it and assigned it to Ladder Company 8 in Fort Hill Square. It went into service on September 11, 1941.

This was a new type of apparatus for the city. It had a closed cab, metal aerial, and could operate two ladder pipes at different heights simultaneously. The truck cost $24,000, which was not an inexpensive purchase in 1941.

The narrow streets and parked cars made this piece of apparatus very difficult to drive in the City. All other apparatus had open cabs, except for the 1930 Federals of Rescue Company's 1 and 3. Inside the cab the visibility was bad, looking through the narrow windshields firefighters equated the rig to being inside an army tank. Its overall length was 53 feet, 7 inches, which was 10 feet shorter than the contemporary 85 foot wooden aerial as advertised in the trade journals.

With the aerial fully extended it could operate two ladder pipes, 600 GPM at 125' and 1100 GPM at 65'. It was equipped with a 240 horsepower V-12. It was issued to Department #207.

A short time after this rig entered service the aerial ladder jammed and buckled while on a drill. The aerial was secured with ropes to the adjacent building and eventually cut from the chassis. A representative from the factory in Elmira, NY flew to Boston to supervise its removal. The cost of the repairs was covered under a guarantee from American LaFrance. Rumor has it they tried to re-tract the aerial with the pawls still locked. This was the start of the "jinx."

On November 15, 1942, Ladder Company 8 responded to a five alarm fire at Luongo’s Restaurant. 12-16 White_Elephant_2Maverick Square, East Boston. Ladder Company 8 was assigned second due on the second alarm and took a position on Henry Street. The fire progressed to 3 alarms. At about 0420 hours a wall suddenly collapsed and buried part of the new ladder truck. After the collapse, the 4th, and 5th alarms were sounded. Six firefighters were killed and many injured. Some firefighters blamed the new ladder as the cause of the collapse. They claimed that it was too heavy and its weight against the building brought about the collapse. The building involved was the scene of several previous fires over the years and in all probability the aerial's position had no effect on the collapse. However, this incident served to add to the "jinx" theory. The fire started in a Frio-lator.

One of the firefighters that was injured at the collapse was Captain John V. Stapleton of Engine 26, who later became Chief of Department, and the father of Fire Commissioner Leo Stapleton. He was on injured leave for almost a year.

This was the first metal aerial in Boston and these firefighters were used to wooden, spring raised aerials. A few believed the wooden aerials would last forever and the metal ones were just a fad that would pass. Somewhere around this time, this rig acquired its nickname, White Elephant.

The deaths, of the six firefighters were quickly overshadowed by the Coconut Grove fire two weeks later in which 492 people were killed. Everyone in the area either knew someone or were related to someone who had been killed at the Coconut Grove fire. The same group worked both fires.

White_Elephant_3After the East Boston fire, Ladder 8 needed extensive repairs and it was rebuilt by American La France. It was returned to service as a 100 ft aerial (one of its five sections was removed) and repainted red. It was in service at Ladder Company 8 from March 2 - June 26, 1944. It was then assigned to Ladder Company 19 in South Boston and their 1930 American LaFrance 85' wooden aerial was assigned to Ladder Company 8.

It should be stressed that many of Boston's firefighters at the time thought that the aerial was jinxed and were actually afraid of it. Some even refused to ride on it. A firefighter who was assigned Engine Company 2 related that when Ladder Company 19 had the aerial up, some would tell him not to go over the stick, as the building would collapse. Members of Ladder Company 19 were not happy about having the White Elephant assigned to them. The nickname stuck even after it was repainted red.

The apparatus did have some valid problems that may have created some of the myth surrounding its "jinx". The apparatus jackknifed on several occasions and was retrofitted with a trolley brake to better control the tiller section. Brake problems persisted and it was this condition that brought about its end.

On December 3, 1947, while road testing the apparatus with a representative of the brake manufacturer on White_Elephant_4board, the truck overturned along the Strandway in South Boston. Firefighter Joseph Sullivan of Ladder Company 19 was killed.

Just before the end, the apparatus was "pulling to the left". Ladder Company 19 stopped and Mr. Marivin of the brake company made some adjustments. It was just after they resumed speed, when the truck neared a corner that the accident occurred.

The brakes may have locked causing the truck to overturn. The chauffeur was Ladderman Joe Babb; Arthur Spacone was the tillerman. Ladderman Spacone was thrown 30 feet, which saved his life. A fund was started for Sullivan's family by Ben Ellis, a well-known fire appliance dealer and Boston Fire Department "spark."  He left a wife and two children. Cruel fate was not done with Ladderman Spacone. On Christmas Eve, 1959, Arthur Spacone was killed while responded to a false alarm. He fell off the rear step of Engine Company 2. He left a wife and nine children.

* Appreciation is extended to District Fire Chief John Vahey, retired, for first hand information regarding this apparatus.