'The bridge was Moving'

Journal Staff Writer

It was 2:08 o'clock on a sunny afternoon when the first clouds of ugly, black smoke began pouring from the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge.

And it was not until eight hours later that the efforts of 125 firemen were able to contain a fire that started by slowly working across the span.

It may not have been the biggest fire we've ever had in the city," said Fire Capt. Thomas Ringwood. But it was the most difficult."

Falling embers and burned out railroad ties fell from the bridge during the afternoon touching off a fire at Andy & Steve's Restaurant, Dutchess Avenue, and numerous grass fires.

Train traffic along the Penn Central tracks was slowed. Crowds formed along both banks of the river to watch.

No injuries were reported.

Fire officials said the fire was caused by a freight train that passed over the bridge at 12:42 o'clock.

'Probably A Spark'

"It was probably the hot box or a spark that did it," said Ringwood. "At 1:17 we had a small fire on the tracks at Washington Street that was put out quickly. Then our department's van cruised along underneath the bridge down to Dutchess Avenue looking for anything else they didn't spot anything."

Just after 2 p.m. Mrs. Barbara Dubraski, 9 Dutchess Ave., saw some smoke on the bridge.

"It was just some smoke, just a little," she said. "Then it started to spread and my neighbor called in a fire alarm."

Capt. Ringwood was home, having worked the overnight shift.

"I was listening to fire radio as the men went to the fire," he said. "I heard them talking about having trouble getting water going into the water pipe-line up there on the tracks. I knew we were in for trouble."

Ringwood said that pipe was broken in two or three areas. The system is designed for fire fighting. In case of fire, hoses link the city water system to the pipe and there is available water on the bridge.

There wasn't available water on the bridge Wednesday.

"Penn Central had informed us it wasn't operating right," said Ringwood. "They were to have made repairs. But that was in mid-March. "

Ringwood went out on the bridge and took over the end of the operation from Capt. Robert Vaughn.

'All I Could See…'

"All I could see was fire and smoke," he said. "The thick black smoke was caused by a surfacing material they coated the wood ties and timber to prevent rotting."

The immediate problem was to get water up to the bridge where the fire was moving toward the city side.

Trucks were set up on Dutchess Avenue, a rope lowered, and a two and half inch fire hose hoisted up 250 feet, by hand. The switches were thrown and the system worked.

"Your average water pressure is about 125 pounds," said Capt. Jack Nugent. "We had 320 pounds of pressure to get it up there."

Before that water could be sent up to the bridge, Capt. Ringwood saw the tavern catch fire from chunks of burning debris. There was a delay while firemen on the ground extinguished that fire.

Police had been called out on traffic control. The arterial was closed down and the streets in the area underneath the bridge were roped off.

While Ringwood and his squad of eight men on the bridge waited for water they created a fire break by tearing up planks.

"We had to stop that fire from spreading over those homes," said Ringwood. "But to tear up those ties. didn't leave us much to walk on. It was kind of breezy up there too."

Then the wind shifted and the fire moved toward the river, spreading 50 feet in 15 minutes.

When the fire fighting should have become easier it became dangerously more difficult. The fire was moving out over the Central Hudson facility on Water Street.

'Really Worried'

"I looked down and saw what we were faced with," said Ringwood. "We had three 115,000-volt lines, three 69,000-volt lines and then, under that, four 30,000 gallon propane gas storage tanks. To put it mildly, we were really worried the whole thing would go."

Capt. Tom Armstrong was in charge of the men who went to the Central Hudson facility.

"They had cooling devices in the, gas tanks and they were doing the job," he said. "Central Hudson was great. They cooperated in every way. They cut power on those higher powered lines. We had men on the tanks with hoses as a back up. We brought two ladder tanks under, the bridge and fed them with pumpers so we had two streams of water going up. Some of the guys were walking around the tanks putting out grass fires from embers."

Highland firemen had the first good luck of the day. The bridge pipeline on their end worked and they had water going on the fire. The spread was slowed.

"They came all the way across to us," said Ringwood of the Ulster County firemen. "It was a long way out. One of my men walked up to one of theirs and said 'Welcome to Poughkeepsie.'"

Mrs. Dubraski finally got through to her husband at work and he hurried home.

"It must have been so frustrating for those firemen not being able to get at it right away," she said standing in front of her house, her face smeared with smoke and spent embers. "I put out two or three little fires in the back here. I felt better when I sent my son up the hill away from this."

Firemen were getting the upper hand on the bridge fire but conditions up top were getting extremely hazardous.

'Bridge Was Moving'

"We got to the point where I told the men I wouldn't order them to go out any further," said Ringwood. "The bridge was moving a little when it swayed about eight feet and we just sort of stopped and looked at each other thinking it might come down any minute."

But the firemen kept going out. A rescue worker from LaGrange walked up to Ringwood out on the bridge and, volunteered his services saying he had had climbing experience.

"It was a helluva job all around," said Ringwood. "It was guys taking risks and doing their job and then some. There was some luck involved too. But the training and experience came together. If there hadn't been water in the Highland side of the bridge pipeline it might still be burning. If there had been more wind or if this had been a hot day in August those tanks might have gone."

When it was over the three chiefs, with a total of 93 years of fire fighting experience, sat around Ringwood's kitchen table. The air was that of thankfulness a tragedy had been averted and the good sense of having done the job.

"One thing I thought of out there," said Jack Nugent, "was how, in the past, no matter how bad a fire was Tom would always say 'we've never had a fire get across the river on us.' It would always stop at the river no matter how bad it got. That almost changed Wednesday. Whoever thought we'd get a fire up there."

Ringwood said, "Was it Chicken Little who said the sky is falling?"

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