Powerful images help us remember devastating fire of 1911

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- This week marks the 103rd anniversary of one of the most deadly fires Milwaukee has ever seen -- and you've probably never heard a word about it. Not many pictures remain of fires that occurred in the early 1900s -- but this case is an exception. The pictures FOX6 News has obtained capture the destruction and raw emotion of that day, over 100 years ago.

The warning bell rang just as Milwaukee firefighters would have been finishing breakfast.

The men likely rushed to their lockers and grabbed their boots and jackets.

It was March 24th, 1911, and the Middleton Manufacturing Company was burning.

"They were told that there were 50 or so women who worked on the upper floors that couldn't get out," Milwaukee Fire Battalion Chief Jim Ley said.

These firefighters didn't have protective suits or smoke masks. Their engines were horse-drawn and generated steam to pump water -- which took time.

"Just a dangerous time to be a firefighter," Ley said.

As the smoke became blinding, many women climbed down a fire escape, as firefighters raised ladders to those trapped inside.

"Amazingly enough, everybody got out," Ley said.

By then, the fire had grown to three alarms -- the highest level of the time. The fire chief ordered his men to attack the fire from the roof.

"While they were doing that, he got this feeling that this building, it doesn't feel right and he ordered everybody off the roof," Ley said.

The warning came too late.

"The entire building fell in on itself. 15 firefighters were thrown into the mix," Ley said.

Today, there`s really nothing left of the Middleton Manufacturing Company at Broadway and Michigan. You have to just imagine the thick smoke that was filling the street and the dozens of firefighters rushing to save lives -- along with thousands of onlookers. The five-story building was a complete loss but that was nothing compared to the city`s grief.

"The ones that were still alive, they would put on a wagon to go to the hospital, and the others went to the coroner," Ley said.

A dozen firefighters were injured. Four died in the collapse, and a fifth died the next day.

"They were dragged out after a long search because you have five stories of debris, collapsed onto two floors, so it took them a lot of time to dig those people out," Ley said.

Powerful pictures from that day show a crowd of firefighters reaching up to carry out their fallen brothers. One of the dead was Captain Jacob Hentz, who was carried out by his actual brother -- another captain with the department.

"There was still fire burning in that debris that they kind of had to work around," Ley said.

The stories of the deadly fire pit and dramatic goodbyes that once filled the newspaper have been forgotten over the last century -- but the Milwaukee Fire Department believes this is a moment that deserves remembering.

"It's important to remember those firefighters who died there," Ley said.

The men who died in the fire are honored every year in a Milwaukee Fire Department ceremony.

Between 1910 and 1927, Milwaukee lost 47 firefighters -- partly because of the way buildings were constructed, and partly because their equipment was so primitive.