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Federal Transient Bureau Fire

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Fire at the Federal Transient Bureau

On the morning of March 24, 1934, at approximately 4:45 am, the cook preparing breakfast at Lynchburg, Virginia’s Federal Transient Bureau spilled grease on a stove burner as he was cooking sausage and gravy.  The stovetop flare was extinguished but not before it sparked a blaze that climbed the abandoned elevator shaft that had been converted into the kitchen.  The fire quickly spread to the second floor and the roof, ultimately killing at least 19 men and injuring at least 70 others.

Transient Bureaus were a form of federal aid instituted in the New Deal, by President Theodore Roosevelt, to help communities inundated with men traveling the country when rumors of work surfaced.  Operated by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the bureaus were designed to relieve pressure on local relief agencies.  Lynchburg’s shelter was one of eight in the state of Virginia.

Opened on December 18, 1933 in a 2-story building at the corner of 12th and Church Streets, in downtown Lynchburg, it fed and sheltered men during the Great Depression.  The building was originally built as retail space but was retrofitted to provide shelter to 100 men, separated by race.  On the morning of March 24, 1934 it sheltered 190 men, 83 white and 190 black.

The cook attempted to extinguish the fire plus woke the night superintendent to unlock the storage closet containing more fire extinguishers.  The superintendent began yelling “fire” in the over-crowded sleeping areas in an attempt to wake the sleeping men.  The windows of the building had been covered with wood and cardboard to provide privacy.  The barriers were meant to be removable but many were stuck, providing a deadly barrier when the stairs became too clogged with men, smoke and flames.  The building did not have any fire escapes.

A patrol officer called the fire department about 5:05 am.  It took the Fifth Street Fire Station less than 2 minutes to reach the scene.  It was difficult for the fire engines to be positioned near the burning building due to the number of injured men who were filling the streets and sidewalks as they lay bloodied and broken or were continuing to jump from the windows.  Two men were found dead on the sidewalk.

The city’s ambulances carried as many as five people per trip to Lynchburg Hospital and Virginia Baptist Hospital.  Mail and bakery trucks were forced into service as additional ambulances.  The scene at the hospital was described as “that of a field hospital in a combat zone after a severe battle.”

Seven of the men are buried in Old City Cemetery.  The Transient Bureau’s records were salvaged from the fire, but many of the telegrams sent to the families came back unclaimed.  It seemed the transients had lied about their family or home address out of embarrassment.

The Federal Transient Bureau fire remains to this day as the deadliest fire for a single blaze in Lynchburg’s history.  After the fire the federal government mandated several changes in the operation of homeless shelters.

Fire extinguishers were mandated in sleeping areas of all Transient Bureaus across the country.  The minimum space between cots or bunks was regulated.  A minimum of two unobstructed and lighted exits from each sleeping area were required.  The night watchman or superintendent was to patrol the premises every 30 minutes and had to be trained in fire prevention and suppression.  The city of Lynchburg mandated that fire escapes were required on all shelters at least two stories tall.

The fire became one of the catalysts prompting the formation of the all-volunteer Lynchburg Life Saving and First Aid Crew.  The Lynchburg Life Saving and First Aid Crew operated in tandem with the Lynchburg Fire Department until 2012.  The LLSC now teaches those in the community CPR and life saving techniques.

On Saturday, March 24, 2018-the 84th anniversary of the disaster-a historical marker was dedicated at the corner of 12th and Church Streets.  The marker recounts the tragedy and its effect on the Lynchburg community.


Some information contained in this blog is attributed to The News and Advance, March 24,2018.