Late last December among the mail dropped off at the Central Fire Station, Fire Chief Edward “Skip” Pitta found an unusual holiday greeting addressed to him.
The sender had underlined “Christmas Memories” on the front, a simple message wishing holiday cheer was printed on the inside. It was simply signed “Theresa Quigley,” but at the top of the inside of the card was written “Omaha Fire Victim, 1942.”
Pitta was intrigued. He had never received any correspondence from Ms. Quigley before this card — 70 years after the animal fat-fueled blaze that gutted the Omaha Packing Company on January 6, 1943 nearly took her life.
Attempts by this blogger to contact Ms. Quigley were unsuccessful. However, the card compelled me to conduct some research into the fire in question. Here is the story:
What they did not know was the fat dripping from hams smoking in the fourth floor smokehouse had ignited sawdust on the floor. It didn’t take long for them to figure it out.
Thick smoke quickly filled the factory. The smoke was so thick, workers were unable to reach the stairways, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because had they reached the bottom of the narrow stairs they would have found cardboard boxes stacked eight feet high, blocking their exit.
Several workers leapt from windows. Six women crowded in one window and clamored over each other to get on the ladder of the aerial truck. One woman, Dorothy Quigley, 19, of Billerica fell through the rungs, but was able to hold on until a net was placed below her.
Firefighters John Moran and John Gillis were on their day off, but came to the scene and rescued people without their proper equipment; they left soaked to the bone.
“The last woman taken from the window had collapsed inside but was conscious as fireman proceeded down the ladder with her,” The Sun reported. “Her scream echoed horribly through the street. Her clothing was ablaze and the flames licked hungrily across her shoulders, legs and head. The flames surged so rapidly that firemen were forced to stop part of the way down the ladder and beat them out.”
A man dove head fist out of a third floor window, with his clothes on fire. He sustained a broken leg, serious burns and internal injuries.
Sixteen-year-old Theresa Quigley (she of the Christmas card), had her clothing burned from her chest and shoulders. Her hair was burned to the scalp in spots; her shoulders were ribboned with blisters.
The injured included:
Mrs. Stasia Szewczyk, 48, 90 Lakeview Ave. serious burns to arms, face and body
Walter Paulaukas, 579 Lawrence St., fracture of right leg
Mrs. Alfred Joly, 32, 116 Salem Street, shock, burns to both eyes
Louis Spehl, 62, 260 Appleton St., elbow burns
Henry Baumann, 39, 78 Washington St., smoke inhalation
Viola Kozla, 45, 152 Lakeview Ave. burns on right arm
Frank Yttaro, 52, 116 Salem St., burns on both hands and face
Anthony Czekianski, 64, 113 Jewett St., burns on chest, back, shoulders, shock
Alvina Gorczyca, 19, 39 Union Street, smoke inhalation
Lea Millard, 33, 17 Ward St., severe burns on right arms, chest and legs
Theresa Quigley, 16, 12 Laurel Ave., Billerica, shock and body burns
Dorothy Quigley, 19, 12 Laurel Ave., Billerica, shock and body burns
Barbara Olszanski, 47, 132 Lakeview Ave., shock and facial burns.
The Omaha Packing Company brought in Dr. Charles Lund, who had treated many injured by the Coconut Grove fire in Boston, to oversee the treatment of the most seriously burned.
Dorothy Quigley was released from St. John’s Hospital on January 19.
A demolition permit was issued for the top two floors of the building on April 16; it cost $2,200 to demolish the structure.
On April 30, Theresa Quigley and Barbara Olszewski were allowed to get up from their hospital beds for the first time. For three of the four months they were in the hospital, their bodies were entirely wrapped in bandages.
On June 13, Theresa Quigley was released from the hospital.