This article was published May 5, 1984
Philadelphia firefighter Joe Schukis couldn't believe what he heard on the 11 o'clock news Thursday night.
In the very same newscast that contained the videotapes of the Center City blaze in which he had been injured that afternoon came the announcement that his fire company - Engine Company 4 at 1528 Sansom St. - would be disbanded after 113 years.
"There had been rumors, but nothing definite," Schukis said yesterday afternoon, when he stopped by the station where he has worked for the last 13 years. "I found out about it by catching the 11 o'clock news, and I don't exactly appreciate being informed that way. You spend a lot of time here doing your job, trying to do the best job you can."
The news release from the city representative's office announcing Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond's decision came out Thursday while the nine-alarm fire raced through the Harrison Court building at 10th and Filbert Streets and damaged 17 other Center City structures.
Engine 4, which has primary responsibility for the swath of Center City between Vine and Pine Streets and between 12th and Broad Streets, was the third company to respond; Engine Company 20 at 10th and Cherry Streets arrived first. Even so, two of the four firefighters reported injured in the blaze came from Engine 4. All four were treated at Hahnemann University Hospital and released.
The firefighters of Engine 4 were among 250 amassed to fight the blaze - some from firehouses as far away as Academy and Comly Roads in Northeast Philadelphia and the 4400 block of Main Street in Manayunk.
Capt. Robert Drennen, department spokesman, said yesterday that because many firehouses had been left vacant by the draw of manpower and equipment, 60 off-duty firefighters had been called in and placed, by prearranged plan, at 14 strategically located firehouses thoughout the city, to staff 11 reserve pumpers and three reserve ladder companies.
Schukis said he and fellow platoon member Dennis Amato had been inside the Winston Building, which neighbors the Harrison Court building, when heat caused the windows to explode. Amato was cut by flying glass, and Schukis inhaled the hot smoke that poured in.
Engine 4, which is tucked into a row of shops and restaurants just east of 16th Street, has operated continuously since 1871 and has been in its current spot since 1898. It has survived other attempts to close it, including one in 1980 that was defeated when merchants mounted a petition drive urging the city to keep the firehouse.
The fire commissioner contends that as a result of three other fire stations that have been built or relocated during the last three decades, Engine 4's territory has been whittled to the smallest in the city. He said that only 43 percent of the 1,560 runs that the company made during 1983 had been in its own district.
In his statement, Richmond said also that because the station was located in the midst of a maze of congested, one-way streets, it was actually easier for three neighboring companies to reach portions of Engine 4's district.
Richmond and John McMenamin, president of Local 22 of the firefighters association, agree that each fire company should be staffed by a minimum of one officer and four firefighters. By closing the station, Richmond said, the city would be able to reassign firefighters so that more companies met those standards. He said the city could probably raise $250,000 by selling the station.
But McMenamin contended that closing Engine 4 and transferring its 18 firefighters to four rotating platoons would not solve the staffing shortage.
"To have this station for 100 years, then turn around and say it's not needed is a lot of bull," he said. "We need the manpower, but we need additional firefighters. This just leaves an area unprotected."
Early yesterday afternoon, members of Engine 4's Delta platoon were sitting on a red bench in front of the station's gleaming red pumper.
Though Lt. Charles Barish, who was recently assigned to the company, said he thought that the station should be closed, the firefighters on his shift disagreed. They pointed out that according to the Fire Department's own newsletter, their company ranked 26th in the number of fire runs by the 66 engine companies in the city.
A few doors away at Sherman Bros. Men's Shoes, Edwin and Herbert Sherman were shaking their heads as they read a copy of the fire commissioner's announcement.
"This concerns us," said Herbert Sherman. "There are so many restaurants on this street, and restaurants are subject to flash fires."
Edwin Sherman, who is active in an informal alliance of Sansom Street-area businessmen, helped organize the petition drive four years ago to save the station. "It's time to get the wheels rolling again," he said.