Two Fairmount fireman died in the smoke of a windswept fire that destroyed the North Wales School on the evening of March 8th, 1956. John and Horace Hoffman were pronounced dead at the North Penn Hospital after desperate efforts to revive them had failed.
The fire was discovered at 5:30 PM by the school janitor, just minutes before he was scheduled to leave for the day. The flames were first noticed near the fuse boxes in the lower level, but it was later determined that the blaze had its origin in a small supply room. The janitor immediately called the North Penn Fire Company. At first it seemed as though the fire could be contained in one room. Suddenly, as in the Lansdale School fire, the fire began racing through the air ducts in the ceiling. It soared rapidly from the east to the west wing and as the windows cracked, the wind whipped the flames through the roof. Further calls went out when it became obvious that this was a very dangerous fire.
Along with the Fairmount of Lansdale, other companies included Center Square, West Point and Ambler. Also responding was the Goodwill Services, the Montgomery County Second Alarmers, the Salvation Army and the Lansdale VMSC. About 200 firemen from the five companies battled the flames for more than four hours. The streets and pavement surrounding the burning building were turned to sheets of ice by the bitter wind and freezing temperature.
The flames were visible for miles around and thousands of spectators gathered at the scene. All the loss was confined to the section of the building that had been erected in 1927. The flames did not penetrate the fire-wall that separates it from the seven-room addition that was built in 1954. The fire police from several companies patrolled the grounds keeping the crowds under control and clearing traffic for the emergency vehicle.
The thick cloud of smoke that were responsible for the two deaths also caused several other firemen to become ill. All were treated at the scene by the rescue teams that were on hand. Firemen described the fire as an almost exact duplicate of the blaze that destroyed the Lansdale Junior High School on December 26, 1946. The flames worked their way through the air ducts of the heating and ventilating system in the walls and then mushroomed out in the space between the roof and the classroom ceilings, spreading quickly through the whole building.
The building was in the shape of a “T” and the fire started in the middle of the main section and moved toward the east end. It swept through each classroom quickly, throwing flames into the air as it broke through the ceiling of each classroom. The administration building was in the center of the building and was the first to be lost; only a few records were saved. Several pianos were among the special equipment that was lost. The property loss exceeded $250,000.
Firemen poured water into the burning building from all angles, and as it cascaded down the steps and on to the sidewalk it formed an extremely dangerous sheet of ice. Smoke was at its thickest at the rear of the building where the Fairmount Company was working. The North Penn Company was already working at the front of the school when Fairmount arrived. Other companies were posted at the front and points along the sides as they arrived at the scene.
The fire was beyond its peak when the tragic deaths were discovered. The Hoffman brothers had been manning a hose in a corridor at the rear of the building. As the smoke cleared and the fire died down in the front of the building, North Penn firemen were entering one of the gutted classrooms and found the two brothers huddled together on the floor at the base of a wall. Friends in the company said that the two brothers were inseparable and were always together at fires. The Fairmount Fire Company Ambulance rushed them to the hospital, but it was too late to save them. The other casualties of the fire were minor, firemen collapsing from inhaling smoke, or simply becoming ill and being helped to one of the first aid stations. Several became ill from the smoke while they were on ladders directing the hose lines into the fire. They had to be carried down slippery ladders by their companions, a dangerous task at best.
A special meeting was held on Sunday, March 11th, 1956 at 12:30 PM with President Taylor and 58 members in attendance. The meeting opened with everyone standing in a moment of silence for the two fallen firemen, John and Horace Hoffman.
President Taylor stated that the meeting was called to discuss the arrangements for the viewing and services of the two firemen who died in the action at North Wales Elementary School fire on Thursday, March 8th 1956, and to discuss the accident to see if such a tragedy could be avoided in the future.
The widows of the deceased members requested the following men to act as pall-bearers: William Forbes, Charles Rittenhouse, Charles McCoy, Thomas Gallo, Glen Porter, Charles Kaelin, LeRoy Rittenhouse, Cornelius Waldspurger, Raymond Schwager, Bruce Hemmerle, Clarence Derstein and Royden Madtes.
The chief then stated that he would like to get all the facts Leading up to this tragedy, when the men were last seen alive, and if anyone had seen them enter the section of the building in which they were found. Raymond Hilpot would now take any statements in shorthand and request that only man speak at a time. After each member told what they knew of the matter, the men were requested to keep these discussions private and not spread gossip in town.
There were meetings scheduled with the West Point and North Wales companies to see if any of their members had any facts to share on this matter. Also the North Penn Reporter was handling a campaign to establish a fund to be known as “The Hoffman Fund” and that all contributions should be sent to the Report office.
At this point in this history I wanted to write some sort of tribute to the Hoffman brothers, but all my attempts failed miserably. Perhaps too many years have passed to give justice to the pain felt by the community that Thursday evening, March 8, 1956. The best indication of the feelings of the community that day was penned by the sports writer of the North Penn Reporter, Edgar Williams, who wrote in his column:
“I didn’t know either John or Horace Hoffman. I wish I had known them. They were brave men. “A guy who earns his living writing about sports gets pretty loose with words sometimes. ‘Courageous’ and ‘valiant’ are terms frequently applied to athletes. There is an awful realization now that such words should be reserved for men like John and Horace Hoffman.
“Human nature being what it is , I suppose most of us, regardless of where we live in the area, haven taken our volunteer firemen pretty much for granted. To us they have represented a sort of public utility, available when and if we need it. Only occasionally have we though of our volunteer fire companies in terms of people – our friends and neighbors.”
From “A History of The Fairmount Fire Company 1889 – 1989 by Robert W. Quinn