DC firefighters honor 5 members who died over a century ago

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May 18, 1896 saw the deadliest fire in history for the DC Fire Department, and 126 years later, the city’s fire department honored the brave men who died during rescue attempts.

Box 139 was painted black to commemorate the five firefighters killed in 1896. (WTOP/Luke Lukert)

OMCP/Luke Lukert

The five firefighters were honored by current members of their companies. (WTOP/Luke Lucert)

OMCP/Luke Lukert

Box 139 was painted black to commemorate the five firefighters killed in 1896. (WTOP/Luke Lukert)

OMCP/Luke Lukert

May 18, 1896 saw the deadliest fire in history for the DC Fire Department, and 126 years later, the city’s fire department honored the brave men who died during rescue attempts.

A red and black firebox – number 139 – stands on the corner of 9th Street and Pennsylvania Ave in the northwest.

“Just before 8:10 p.m., the fire alarm from Firebox 139 was received” more than a century ago, Deputy Chief Anthony Kelleher said Wednesday.

Five members of the department were killed by collapsing walls and floors in what was known as the Commission House fire: Assistant Foreman George Kettler, Private Joseph Mulhall, Assistant Foreman George Giles and Private Daniel Conway.

A total of 22 structures suffered damage or total destruction that day.



Members of DC Engine Companies 8, 9 and Truck Company No. 2, the companies where these firefighters served, attended the dedication of the In-Service Death Memorial (LODD) box.

“So call boxes in the 1800s and almost throughout the 1960s used telegraphs to send alarms to fire alarm headquarters,” Kelleher said.

With modern technology, they are a reminder of the past, and “over the past two decades, to honor our fallen in the line of duty, the members who made the ultimate sacrifice for our city and our service, we have dedicated whoever was closest to the incident…to honor them,” Kelleher said.

The usual red box is “painted black to signify a fatal fire has occurred there,” Kelleher said.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of fire and emergency services in the district, and the department is using the anniversary as a way to remember the past.

“’We never forget.’ You hear it all the time in the department, because that’s what we don’t want to do — forget about anyone who sacrificed our lives and our service for the city,” Kelleher said.

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