Oscar Joseph Brown

by Hank Przybylowicz


Oscar Joseph Brown was born in New Jersey on October 21, 1879. Both parents, Samuel and Jennie, were from Northern Ireland, with Samuel coming to the U.S. in 1845, and Jennie in 1844.

As an adult, he stood 5 feet 11 inches tall, and weighed about 165 pounds. He had blue eyes, dark brown hair, and a ruddy complexion.

In 1900, he was living with his parents and siblings in a rented flat, in a frame tenement, at 67 Newton Street, between 12th and 13th Avenues. Living there with him was: Samuel, 62, father, born 1838; Jennie, 60, mother, born 1840; Samuel, 30, brother, born 1869; John, 22, brother, born 1877; May Bell, 21, sister, born 1878, and Kate, 17, sister, born 1882. His parents had been married 39 years at that point. Jennie gave birth to nine children, eight of whom were still living. Samuel Sr. was a hatter, Samuel Jr. was a policeman, John was a plumber, and Oscar was a hardware salesman.

In 1909, he married Jane P. He was 30 and she was 27 Jane, as well as her parents, was born in New Jersey.

In 1910, Oscar was living with his wife, Jane, 28, and his son, Robert, 10 months, in a rented flat, in a frame tenement, at 9 South 6th Street, between Central and 11th Avenues. Oscar was listed as a fireman with the City of Newark, but his wife was not employed.

According to 1917 military draft records, he resided at 321 South 12th Street, opposite 13th Avenue, and was a fireman with Truck 1, on Mulberry Street. His nearest relative was listed as Jane P. Brown.

In 1920, he was still living in the frame dwelling at 321 South 12th Street, with his wife and son, was still a city fireman.

In 1930, Oscar, his wife, Jane, and his son, Robert, were living in their own wood-frame home at 39 Pine Grove Terrace, between South Orange Avenue and Grove Terrace, in Vailsburg, and they had a radio set. The house was valued at $11,000, equal to $133,000 today. Oscar was a Captain with the Newark Fire Department, Jane was a housewife, and Robert was employed as a telephone clerk.

According to 1942 military draft records, Oscar was still living at 39 Pine Grove Terrace, with Jane as his nearest relative, and was a captain in Truck 12, at the Palm Street firehouse. His phone number was Essex 2-5794.

While Oscar was registered in both military drafts, he never served in the military.

We can safely assume that Oscar joined the Newark Fire Department some time prior to 1908 and was still on the job some 34 years later, in 1942, and still possibly in 1944.

On the morning of November 26, 1910, Oscar was on duty as a fireman in Engine 4’s quarters, then located at 223-25 High Street, between Orange Street and Boyden Place. Directly across the street sat a four-story brick, multi-occupancy factory, which housed two paper box companies, a machine shop, two electric lamp firms, and a ladies undergarment manufacturer, located on the top floor.

Shortly after 9 in the morning, a flash fire broke out on the third floor in one of the electric lamp concerns. Due to a poor past fire record, the employees chose to fight the fire themselves rather then alert the firefighters across the street. When it was evident the buckets of sand were having little effect on the flames, one of the female employees ran across to the firehouse and reported the fire.

Captain Van Volkenburg, of Engine 4, ran across the street, quickly followed by Firefighter Oscar J. Brown, toting a hand extinguisher. In this short time, the flames quickly spread via the oil-soaked floors and flammable stock, and the third floor became a mass of flames. Not being able to get past the third floor, Captain Van Volkenburg smashed out a window, and yelled to the firefighters across the street, “Pull the box!” At 09:26 hours, the alarm went out from Box 4, located at Engine 4’s firehouse.

Not being able to fight the flames, Van Volkenburg and Brown turned their efforts toward rescuing as many of the female employees as they could, helping them to windows, the stairs, and the building’s single, improper fire escape. What they did not know, however, was that 116 girls, an errand boy, and a forewoman were trapped by the rapidly spreading flames on the floor above them.

As other firefighters arrived on the scene, they were greeted by a horrible sight. Flames and heavy black smoke were belching from every window on the third and fourth floors, and the single fire escape was fully crammed with panic-stricken girls trying to flee the flames. But, the most tragic sight was watching trapped women start to jump from the fourth floor windows. Life nets were quickly put into operation, saving several girls who jumped, while others were saved by hastily raised ladders. Captain Van Volkenburg and Firefighter Brown had run through the bottom three floors of the building evacuating women as they went, and both had to be rescued from the third floor by way of a fire ladder.

At the end of the day, six girls and the errand boy burned to death on the top floor, while many others were critically injured in falls or by jumping from the flaming building. The final toll was 26 dead, 19 of whom had jumped or fallen from the building.

While it was the most tragic fire in the city’s history, Newark’s firefighters faced their own darkness when charges of cowardice were leveled against them. An attorney, who was a spectator at the fire, had charged that the fireman just stood there and did nothing. They didn’t know how to raise ladders and their life nets were old and useless.

Such charges had never been leveled against Newark’s Bravest ever before. Everyone was appalled, to say the least. The charges were brought to bear and a Coroner’s Inquest was evoked to fully investigate the tragedy.

Blame was shuffled, fingers were pointed, and in the end, no one was ever really held accountable for the tragedy that visited Newark that day. Archaic laws protected the people that owned and occupied the building and had control over it. They hid behind these laws, claiming 26 people died as a result of an “accident.” However, 26 people died that day because they worked in a building that was dangerous and not safe for human beings to work in.

As far as the charges of cowardice went, several eyewitnesses testified to the fact that the attorney who leveled the charges was highly intoxicated at the scene, and interfered several times with firefighting efforts.

As far as the ladder charge, it was not firefighters attempting to raise the ladder in question, but rather well-intentioned men from a nearby silver plating factory, and a meat-storage house, who did not know how to properly raise the 50-foot ladder they took from a ladder truck. In reference to his charges against the nets, he was referring to one of the life nets that had been broken when three girls jumped from a fourth floor window holding hands. Even though the firefighters holding the net knew what was coming, they held steady and bore the full force of the three bodies impacting the net. They were all knocked to the ground and the net was broken.

All charges of cowardice were dropped and the department was exonerated of all charges regarding any ill-handling of the blaze. As a matter of fact, it was the testimony of several eyewitnesses that if it wasn’t for the heroic efforts of the firefighters, the death toll would’ve been much higher. It was related about how the firefighters from Engine 4 tried to use mattresses to catch the girls jumping from fourth floor windows until truck companies arrived with nets.

It was the one and only time in the history of the NFD that charges of cowardice darkened their reputation.

So, Oscar was a hero that day, but he would’ve just said he was just doin’ his job.


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