Buildings

ARSON FOUND IN COSTLY FIRE IN DRAKE HOTEL

July 18, 1963

Suspicious of Blaze in Knickerbocker

(Chicago Tribune) - Fire department investigators said yesterday the $500,000 fire in the Drake Hotel early in the day was deliberately set and that an arsonist may also have touched off a $20,000 blaze in the Knickerbocker Hotel minutes later.

The fires at the Drake, 140 E. Walton Street, and the Knickerbocker, 163 E. Walton Street, roused 1,550 guests in the two hotels and forced many of them to flee in night clothes.  Both hotels were packed with guests, many attending the National Housewares Manufacturers Association convention in McCormick Place.

Set with Matches.

Capt. Walter Braun of the fire department’s arson squad said his squad spent the entire day checking out both fires.

“We are certain the Drake fire was set, and we believe it was set simply with matches,” Braun said.  “We don’t know yet how the Knickerbocker fire started, but we suspect arson because of the proximity of the two hotels and the time element.”

As firemen were battling the blaze in the Knickerbocker, a fire was found burning in the Walton Room of the Drake Hotel across the Street.  The Walton Room is a meeting room adjacent to the ballroom on the mezzanine level.

The fire produced dense, acrid smoke which poured through the mezzanine floor of the Drake and funneled upward through the 10-story, 600-room structure where 900 guests were staying.  Many dressed hurriedly and came down elevators and stairs to escape the smoke.

A dozen firemen and several guests were overcome by smoke.  They were given oxygen on the street.  None required hospitalization.

2 Fires in Room.

Braun said that two separate fires were set in the Walton Room, one on the east wall and the other on the west wall.  He said it would have been impossible for the two fires to start simultaneously on opposite walls in such a large room.  Draperies along the east wall had been ignited, Braun said, and the arson squad believes the arsonist set fire to a small table along the west wall.

Members of the arson squad began an immediate investigation of all persons associated or employed with the hotel who recently were discharged.  A list of recent hotel guests and customers also was being studied to learn if there was a record of anyone having been evicted or asked not to return.

Spokesmen for both hotels said they have experienced no labor troubles in recent years, and that neither hotel had received any threatening letters or telephone calls which might provide clues for the investigators.

The Knickerbocker fire began in a storage room between the ballroom and the kitchen, a location similar to the place in which the Drake Hotel fire began.  The kitchen in the Knickerbocker had been closed and the areas where both fires started were deserted at the time.

Among the guests at the Knickerbocker who were disturbed by the fire was former King Peter of Yugoslavia, who has been visiting in Chicago.  A smoke ejector was used to help clear the hotel of smoke.

Fire Commissioner, Robert Quinn, said 125 firemen and 23 pieces of equipment were used to battle the blazes.  He estimated the Knickerbocker damage at $20,000.

Edwin L. Brashears, Jr., president of the Drake, said the Walton Room carpeting, alone, was worth $25,000 and estimated total damages, including the cost of cleaning and the business losses, at $500,000.

Among items ruined in the fire were silk and velvet tapestries, doors, chairs and expensive ornate mirrors.

 

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