St. Louis – The fire began in a waste-paper shredding machine. It flashed quickly through old clothing, furniture and other goods stacked inside the Goodwill Industries building at 713 Howard Street.
By 9:00 am on March 20, 1943, blinding smoke churned from the five-story, 80 year old warehouse near Broadway, north of downtown. Because it was Saturday, only three of Goodwill’s 100 employees were inside. They escaped easily.
Fire Chief Joseph W. Morgan directed the arriving units, quickly ringing the fire with pumpers. A bystander approached Morgan and said he thought the front wall was wobbling. Morgan rushed up the iron fire escape, shouting from window to window for his firefighters to retreat.
All got away except the three on the roof. As Morgan stepped along on the second-floor escape platform, the wall collapsed into a jumble of brick, heavy timber and billowing mortar dust.
Rescuers dug into the pile and quickly uncovered the Chief, who suffered a severe head injury. They raced him to City Hospital south of downtown, but he couldn’t be saved.
Seven firefighters were injured, including the three on the roof. Headquarters spread the sad word to firehouses over the ticker-tape alarm system-six dots punched three times in succession.
Morgan was, and is, the only St. Louis fire Chief to be killed in action since the department was established in 1857. (Captain Thomas Targee, the department’s foremost hero, led a volunteer company when he died during the Great Fire of 1849.)
Morgan was 52, the married father of three, and lived at 4317 Wallace Street near the Bevo Mill. But for a two-year stint in the Army during World War I, Morgan had been a firefighter since 1913.
Mayor William Dee Becker, who appointed Morgan Chief in 1941, went to the scene and called his last act “characteristic”.
“He always led his men and could be found in the hottest and most dangerous spots at any fire,” Becker said.
Morgan had risen steadily through the ranks – except 1933, when a new mayor, Bernard F. Dickmann, demoted him to captain in a massive patronage reshuffling of city government. Becker, a Republican who unseated Dickmann in April 1944, made Morgan chief four months later.
Morgan expanded the fire academy, calling it his “baby’, and created a public fire prevention program.
More than 400 firefighters lined Lindell Boulevard as his casket was borne to the Scottish Rite Cathedral for a Masonic service. Morgan was buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
His widow, Marie Morgan, received $1,250 from fire benevolent associations and a $35 monthly pension. Four months later, Mayor Becker would die in the crash of a military glider during an exhibition at Lambert Field.
Courtesy of Nine Network of Public Media