Weakened by the cold, hampered by frozen hydrants, firefighters waded into the inferno that had been a five-story leather factory, hoping to save comrades crushed by crumpled machinery and fallen brick walls.
But their lantern-lit rescue quickly gave way to the painful repetition of recovery.
One by one they bore the charred remains of the dead on stretchers: 13 firefighters and one police officer - first responders to the Dec. 21, 1910, blaze at Friedlander Leather Remnant Co. on Bodine Street in North Philadelphia.
A century after the deadliest public-safety-worker disaster in the city's history, the Fire and Police Departments keep the memories of these dead - and other public servants who paid the ultimate price - alive.
"This is the eighth time I have spoken at a plaque commemoration this year," Bill Gault, president of Philadelphia Fire Fighters Local 22, said Wednesday as he unveiled sidewalk memorials to the factory-fire victims at a wind-whipped, near-freezing dedication. The ceremony at the Piazza at Schmidts, near the site of the tragedy, included 30 descendants of the dead among 100 attendees.
"How do we face these days? How do we simply not break down and cry over such terrible losses?" he asked. "We carry on because loss of life isn't the whole story. It isn't the end of any of these stories."
Among the dead was Gustav Wittig, 52. The mustachioed father of 10 was a supervising foreman with Engine Company 15. In those days, barely 50 years after the Civil War, firefighting equipment was drawn by horses.
Jim Wittig, 57, of Deptford, a retired postal employee, is Wittig's great-grandson.
"He was killed even before my father was born," said Wittig, who heard "handed-down stories" of his ancestor's exploits but did not really know much about him.
"Until I went to the dedication," he said, "I wasn't aware of how close a fraternity these firefighters are. When I saw how determined they were to put on such a great affair, it kind of touched me. I was out there freezing. The colder it got, the more I started thinking about what these firefighters went through 100 years ago. Then I didn't feel so cold."
The fire was fed by bales of leather scraps kept in the factory basement. A preliminary investigation ruled out "spontaneous combustion" as the cause, which was not immediately determined. A man police questioned was treated as a suspect. A fire official who helped organize the event said there were no records on whether the fire had been arson.
When the walls of the factory collapsed, its roof caved in, killing several men instantly and fatally trapping others. Besides the dead, 33 firefighters and four police officers were seriously injured.
Amid the fiery bedlam was one amazing story of survival.
William Glazer, a hoseman with a pumping company, was pinned at the legs by a blackened girder and covered to the neck in a ton of debris. On-scene surgeons cited in contemporary newspaper accounts credited Patrolman Edward Clark with saving Glazer's life by covering his head with a blanket that protected him from the heat and toxic fumes.
"Hardly had a great cloud of dust cleared away, and fresh rescuing parties attacked the ruins again than a score of firemen and policemen redoubled their efforts to drag Glazer forth from his awful position," The Inquirer reported in its Dec. 23, 1910, issue, which sold for a penny.
To treat his pain, doctors passed him "Jamaica ginger, whisky, and strychnine." Glazer lost consciousness several times. Priests administered the Last Rites.
But the blanket, fashioned as a hood, provided a relatively clean pocket of air to breathe for 14 hours until rescuers pulled him free.
The tragedy left widows and orphans, whose support from pension funds was $20 a month, plus $6 for each child younger than 14. A memorial service to raise money for them was held at the Academy of Music. More than $10,000 was collected in the first days after the fire.
Joe Jansen, a retired New Jersey utilities manager, lives in Florida now. His great-grandfather Thomas Entwhistle, an assistant foreman with Engine Company 21, was 39 when he lost his life in the leather-factory blaze. Jansen attended Wednesday's ceremony with his mother, Dolores, 86, of Northeast Philadelphia.
It turned out to be more emotional than he had expected.
"The care from all the firemen that we met, the interest in maintaining a memorial for the men whose lives were lost, all the little details they took care of to make sure that we were taken care of . . . it just amazed me," he said. "There were a couple of times I got a little choked up. I was afraid to get too choked up or I would have had a frozen face."