Cpl. Trainer stood his ground even as flames consumed the Carlisle Barracks mess hall.
The enlisted man was determined to stay at his post long enough to save the supply records kept by the quartermaster of the Medical Field Service School.
It was Wednesday, April 25, 1923, and the barracks was experiencing its largest fire since the Confederate Army put buildings to the torch during the 1863 invasion.
Built in 1892, the mess hall was one of the largest structures in use by the service school. It was a three-story frame building with dining facilities on the first floor, a supply room and bakery in the basement and a band room and 60-bed dormitory on the second floor.
“Viewed in the light of present day construction, the building was more or less a fire trap,” The Evening Sentinel reported. “It was entirely framed with apparently very light lumber, and after the flames ... got headway, it burned like a tinder box.”
Trainer was among the first to spot the flames around 11:30 a.m. He had barged into the rehearsal room just as post barber Philip Norman Bretz was having a conversation with the Carlisle Barracks band director.
“There’s a fire on the kitchen roof,” Trainer was quoted as saying before he activated the alarm. The siren went off just as the corporal was hanging up the phone receiver. The post fire department arrived on the scene less than three minutes later.
Meanwhile, Trainer made it to where the records were stored and pressed on the salvage operation until severe burns to his face and hands forced him to abandon the work. He had to jump 10 feet to safety.
Bretz and other men ran up to the kitchen roof and saw flames burning the timber near the main chimney. “One of the men seized a fire extinguisher and ran to the front of the building,” the newspaper reported.
The man then led the way up to the loft in the hope of using the extinguisher but when they opened the trapdoor, they saw a lost cause – the interior was fully engulfed. The rush of air from the trapdoor opening only stoked the flames, making a bad situation worse.
A series of mishaps followed that doomed the effort to gain ground on a fire that had already made headway. The misfortune began soon after the post fire company asked the Carlisle Fire Department to dispatch units to the fire. Human error from the chief tapper caused a communications delay.
“The Cumberland (engine) had gone but a short distance from the fire house when the jack shaft broke and it could not be moved under its own power,” The Sentinel reported. That apparatus had to be towed into position before it could throw two streams of water from a fire plug.
“The Union (engine) was at work early with several streams, but had to shut down on account of magneto trouble,” the newspaper reported. “It got to work again, but had to stop a second time from the same cause.”
Units from Good Will and Empire Hook and Ladder had better luck, but had to draw water from the LeTort Spring Run. H.F. Weber, a master plumber and pipefitter on post, said the barracks water system at the mess hall location had only limited pressure to support firefighting. And yet despite all the bad, the situation could have been even worse.
The home of Chaplain W.K. Lloyd was only 25 feet away from the mess hall. Lloyd was able to remove most of his household goods, and the roof of his home was used as a staging area for a hose team battling the main fire.
Also nearby was the post laundry and buildings that once served as a printing office and girls’ quarters when the barracks was the host site of the Carlisle Indian School. A strong northwest wind, with gusts of up to 35 mph, kept most of the sparks confined to the area around the mess hall, The Sentinel reported. As a precaution, service school officers dispatched men to the rooftops of the surrounding buildings to sound the alert in case of a fire.
The officers also arranged to have extra bread delivered from the town so that sandwiches could be made to feed all the firefighters. This required about 190 loaves, six and a half hams and a large quantity of cheese.
“It was a source of regret at the post that no coffee was served, all steam, light, water, etc., being shut off from the buildings,” The Sentinel reported. The fire burned about 300 feet of Bell telephone wire.
“The campus was strewn with burned mattresses removed from the building while the fire was still confined to the upper story and roof,” The Sentinel reported. “A big pile of fresh baked bread was placed on the grass alongside the laundry building.”
While much of the mess hall building was reduced to ruin, the bakery was largely intact, though there was a lot of water damage. “Tables, racks, etc., are very wet but otherwise in good condition. A baker said that if the place could be put in fair shape in a few days, baking could be resumed.” One of the trays still had a big batch of dough ready to make raisin bread.
It was believed the fire was caused by a structural defect around the main chimney. The fire was burning about 30 minutes before it was detected. All that was left was a mass of tangled pipes, wire, tin, charred wood and pieces of timber that had collapsed into the basement.
Though the property loss was estimated at $75,000, there was no mention of any fatalities. The soldiers assigned to the dormitory floor lost about $5,000 of personal property. Though most of that was clothing, one man lost his car, which was parked just outside the mess hall.
It took firefighters almost four hours to control the blaze. By that time, the flames had laid bare a three-story brick wall that separated the kitchen from the dining hall. Few of the current generation of soldiers knew that wall even existed. The building had several additions.
Half the band instruments were destroyed in the fire, along with large quantities of supplies including $2,000 worth of sugar. “A lot of coffee in the supply room was saved,” The Sentinel reported.
The mess hall was about 100 feet long by 75 feet wide. It was once the main dining facility for the 1,000-plus students who were enrolled at the Carlisle Indian School at any one time.
The first official action of the Army after the fire was to appoint a board of officers to recommend the next action for the War Department to consider. “No, the government never carries insurance,” post commandant Col. Percy Ashburn told a Sentinel reporter.