September 4, 2022

By Arthur H. Gunther III

On this Labor Day of late sleeping, barbecues, beach trips and general laziness for many but the same-old, same-old for those who are not “honored” but must toil, a memory trip back 123 years ago recalls a man, Hugh Bonner, who created an example of the best of any who do “labor.”

Bonner, the ever-demanding New York City fire commissioner who docked two subordinates’ pay for being a few minutes’ late, established standards and a sense of responsibility in the FDNY.

An immigrant who survived the notorious Five Points hellhole in Manhattan to become the first Irish-born chief of department and whose fire prevention writings, still in the Library of Congress, include “Tenement House Fire Escapes in New York and Brooklyn,” Bonner demanded and got excellence in meeting fire safety standards. His modus operandi was to prevent fires, not just fight them. Firefighting was an ever-growing science, and he preached it by example.

He and fellow immigrant John Bresnan were firefighter heroes, each having saved lives on several occasions, according to the excellent work, “So Others Might Live, A History of New York’s Bravest” (Terry Golway, Basic Books 2002). They were inventors and perfectors of equipment still in use today, such as the sliding pole, water tower and the life-saving net. Bonner formed the first true training school for firefighters.

These two never missed a major blaze, directing individually at the scene and setting an example for the ranks. Most of all, they emphasized the necessity of establishing a more scientific firefighting force, the need for building design changes and the use of ever-more sophisticated fire response apparatus and on-site water supply, such as standpipes.

Day after day, and more accurately night after night, Bonner would review what happened at a fire scene so as to learn from the experience. He noted how light and air shafts in tenements served as treacherous flues in terrible blazes and pushed legislation to require changes in design.

On March 17, 1899, St. Patrick’s Day, a very holy one for an Irishman, he and fellow firefighters left the line of march after a blaze began at the seven-story Hotel Windsor. The Fifth Avenue scene quickly became one of great disaster as guests jumped from windows, though some used safety ropes, a requirement pushed by the likes of Chief Bonner. He took “personal command of the fire at an early stage,” as Golway puts it, Bonner noting later, “There was not a fire-proof thing in the place, and absolutely nothing to check the spread of flames all over the building once they gained a certain amount of headway.” The chief blamed outdated construction and was quick to incorporate that message in his dealings with the city and Albany.

Bonner, as chief of department, as fire academy leader, as fire commissioner, would fight a never-ending battle with politicians and profit-oriented developers to secure better fire safety in buildings. His political fight would cost him his job as department chief, with President Theodore Roosevelt sending him to Manila to set up that city’s fire department.

When Bonner returned to become the sixth NYC fire commissioner in 1908, he had a clear agenda in mind: fire safety, no ifs, ands or buts. That in these 100 years since there have been tragic fires caused by poor building design and shoddy construction; that the great FDNY itself has not always kept to standards insisted upon by such pioneers as Bonner and Bresnan; that the best equipment (radios, ropes, GPS locators) has been denied the Bravest cannot be tied to Bonner’s legacy.

If he were alive today, Bonner would personally look out for his men. He would know what dangers any building presented, since he made a habit of watching their construction. And there is no way a standpipe would have been severed, as happened in the Deutsche Bank fire that claimed two firefighter’s lives in 2007 as the 9/11–damaged building was being torn down.

Bonner held to personal, on-the-job responsibility to the end, succumbing to pneumonia, “the result of exposure at his post, while devising new methods and establishing new standards of efficiency demanded by the city’s increasing fire hazards,” as a March 14, 1908, New York Times editorial put it.

Chief/Commissioner Bonner demanded accountability and learned from experience, perfecting the art of firefighting so that both civilians and the Bravest even today are less likely to be slaughtered by irresponsibility and neglect. That makes the man one to be well respected on this Labor Day 2008.

The writer, a retired newspaperman, is a descendant of Hugh Bonner.

This essay is adapted from an earlier version.