From Chicago to Lititz Trying to prevent history from repeating itself

By on October 9, 2013


TOM ARNOLD Record Express Correspondent

, Staff Writer

Photo from the Sketch Mearig Collectionâ?©The Wabank House used to be the gem of downtown Lititz, until it was destroyed by fire in 1873.

Rumor has it that on Oct. 8, 1871, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern, and the ensuing fire ended up burning half of Chicago.

The "Great Chicago Fire" resulted in fire departments across the United States dedicating the month of October as Fire Prevention Month.

Although Lititz cannot rival Chicago for its misfortune, local history too has been marred by at least two devastating fires.

On July 21, 1873, the Wabank House – a beautiful four-story resort surrounded on all sides by porches and crowned with a massive cupola, a popular destination of summer vacationers at the time – was destroyed by fire.

A far more disastrous blaze broke out April 10, 1890 in John H. Stauffer’s four-story brick cigar factory on Juniper Alley, off of South Broad Street. The destruction that followed rivaled that infamous fire in Chicago, relatively speaking, in that nearly half of Lititz risked destruction as the flames leapt from building to building.

The list of businesses affected and/or threatened by that fire reads like a veritable "who’s who" of the time: John Kissinger’s bretzel bakery; A.R. Bomberger’s hardware; A.M. Kreider, tinsmith; Walter H. Buch, tailor and clothier; the Lititz Record building; several livestock stables; and line of frame dwellings known as Miller’s Row.

The fire spread rapidly, and only the heroic and timely efforts of Lititz residents prevented great loss of buildings, property and lives. While hundreds were at work handling water, a hundred or more helped remove goods from the surrounding stores.

The origin of our borough’s largest recorded fire remains a mystery. Four years later, Lititz Fire Co. No. 1 was formed, and prevention has been a crucial part of fire fighting ever since.

This year, the newly-formed Warwick Emergency Services Commission – which consists of fire companies and ambulance crews in Lititz, Rothsville, Brunnerville and Brickerville – wants to visit your kitchen.

"Each year the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) has a theme," said Sam Young Jr., Rothsville chief. "This year’s theme is to prevent kitchen fires."

Local fire departments will be available to educate the public with handouts and guidance to help prevent kitchen fires, as well as other types of fires that can strike homes and businesses.

Both Young and Chief Ron Oettel of the Lititz Fire Company have said manpower is a challenge in their education efforts.

Says Oettel, "Being a volunteer department, it is difficult to get members to come out during the day to go to schools. I feel we have some of the best departments in the county and some of the more dedicated firefighters, but it’s still hard when they have to work and end up taking a vacation day or miss time at work to do the prevention work. If they could they would, but it’s a matter of money."

Young added, "What we do is provide all the schools with literature and videos, and then the schools have an assembly, show the film and then give handouts."

Most of the schools have a carnival in the spring, and if weather and scheduling permit, the fire departments bring a smoke trailer to show students and adults just what it’s like to experience a fire (without the tragedy that follows).

Oettel, Lititz’s chief since 1995, has seen his share of fire devastation, and like all other firefighters he hopes to never have to fight one again.

"Every time I go to a fire I hear the same thing… ‘I never thought it would happen to me.’ That’s why it is so important to be prepared, and that is what fire prevention is helping us do," he stressed.

Another valuable tool in fire safety is smoke detectors.

Statistics show that people have a better chance of escaping a fire when they have properly placed working smoke detectors in the home.

That’s why local firefighters promote the Amanda Schoenberger Memorial Smoke Detector Program, named after a 7-year-old girl who, along with her parents, lost her life in a Christmas fire 10 years ago.

The Warwick Township home, located at 714 Furnace Hills Pike, caught fire in the early hours of Christmas morning 2003 when decorative lights ignited branches of the family’s Christmas tree. All three died of smoke inhalation and likely were dead before the first firefighters arrived, officials said.

The only smoke detector in the home was not working.

"We found it on the steps of the second floor going up to the attic. It was laying there, and there was no battery in it," Oettel said, when asked to comment at the time.

The memorial program helps ensure homes are equipped with functioning smoke detectors.

"Donations are taken, and we go out and buy the detectors and then we will actually go and properly install the detectors to make sure they are where they need to be and are working," said Oettel.

Topics covered during Fire Prevention Month include smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, E.D.I.T.H (Exit Drills In The Home) and (this year) kitchen fires.

The Warwick Emergency Services Commission (WESC) serves over 33,000 people, and runs an average of 800 fire calls per year.

Both chiefs want citizens to understand that the fire service is here for more than just putting out fires. They want to play a proactive role in preventing them from ever happening. Education is the key to achieving that goal.

To contact the Lititz Fire Co., call 626-2486 or visit their website at Social media buffs can like the Lititz Fire Co. on Facebook. The Rothsville Fire Co. can be visited at or by phone at 627-7805. The Brickerville Fire Co. is online at and can be reached at 627-6711. Readers can call the Brunnerville Fire Co. at 626-7270 or visit them on Facebook by searching "bvillefire22."

Information regarding Lititz’s historical fires was obtained from research compiled by R. Ronald Reedy in the publication "250th Anniversary of the Naming of Lititz 1756-2006."

Finally, to set the record straight, it was not Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that started the fire, but the combination of a dry, hot summer and a fire started in a barn by some men who were drinking. The fire got out of hand and the rest is history.

Tom Arnold is a retired Assistant Fire Marshal with the Lancaster Bureau of Fire. With over 20 years in the fire service, he retired in 2004.

October is Fire Prevention Month

December marks the 10th anniversary of Lititz Christmas tragedy


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