The Beachcomber: Manpower, and Fighting Fire With Grit

Memories of Battling Baldwin Blaze, Losing the Lucy Evelyn

Barnegat Light — Some of the most dramatic fires on Long Beach Island of the past 60 years are real memories to two Barnegat Light Volunteer Fire Company members recently honored for their longevity of service.

Frank Mikuletzky, 78, was 17 when he joined the fire company. By the time he was in his 20s, he was chief. On the 1960 autumn night in Beach Haven when the Baldwin Hotel collapsed in flames, he with his colleagues had battled the fire using equipment and training far less than what backs volunteer firefighters today.

This year marks 61 years of active service for Mikuletzky, who was fire chief from 1969 to 1978, and again in 1997.

Warren Fox, 88, fire chief from 1979 to 1986, joined the fire company 50 years ago. He was a former police officer and a third-generation fireman in Franklin Lakes.

There were more fires in his northern New Jersey town than occurred here in quiet Barnegat Light, yet his first big fire response on LBI was a memorable one: the loss of the iconic three-masted Lucy Evelyn schooner in 1972. The 1917-vintage boat had been bought by Nat Ewer and restored to hold a gift shop at 9th Street in Beach Haven on the current site of Schooner’s Wharf.

Upstairs in the firehouse one recent Sunday, the two men sat down with The Beachcomber to share the details for posterity.

Where it starts for Mikuletzky is as a capable boy hanging around the firehouse with friends whose dads were also firemen. Chief Emil Tum Suden taught them how to operate the trucks when they reached 16.

“Everything was manual. On one truck, it took two people unless you had long arms,” remembered Mikuletzky, himself over six feet tall, “because you had to be able to push the clutch in, and pull levers outside, and then go in and shift it. We tried all different things, and then learned how to do things officially.”

“The rule was, to be in the fire company you had to be 17 and have a driver’s license. Now it’s a different situation, 16 and 17 you’re junior members, and that’s state rules.”

In 1958 he got really involved again when he moved back to Barnegat Light full-time after working inland when he got married.

“It was a whole different situation back then,” he described. “Things were really run haphazard.”

About 10 years later, Fox came along, and his experience and organizational skill came in handy. The men he worked in the construction trade with were firemen, and they told him, “You oughta join the fire company.”

The volunteer fire company was built of strong men, supported by strong women, who ran commercial and charter fishing businesses and other hands-on work.

“It’s the ability to think like that, and operate equipment and do what you have to do,” Mikuletzky said. “Every situation is different.”

“But we needed to get the guys trained; they didn’t have drills,” Mikuletzky explained. “In 1958 they had one drill. I had to work overtime that night and I missed the drill. So that kind of ticked me off: ‘They had one drill, and I miss it? This is crazy!’ So I saw the need to do that: get the guys trained.”

It’s not that there are a lot of structure fires in town, then or now, the two men noted. But when a fire breaks out, it may be an involved blaze by the time the call comes in.

“Most of the house fires are in the middle of the winter,” said Fox. “Something goes wrong and there’s nobody on the street and nobody sees it,” Mikuletzky finished the thought. “It’s out of control before you even get called.”

Baldwin Hotel Demise: A Long Night

It was around midnight when the call went out that the Baldwin Hotel in Beach Haven was burning. This fire on Sept. 24, 1960 was not the first but it was the final; it would destroy the block-long building that had stood since 1883.

“When we left here, I’m thinking there were five of us on the truck. They were open-cab trucks that we had back then. My dad and I both came up, Carl Bjornberg was chief at the time, and then George Svelling, who lived next door, he was the driver. There was somebody else who went and I can’t remember who it was.

“As we drove down, we could see the glow in the sky,” recounted Mikuletzky.

“The Baldwin had an oceanfront new addition, then it had the other part, the older structure, and the older structure was burning. In one corner there was a big house; that’s where the help lived. We ended up on another corner on a three-truck relay – in other words, they’re pumping water from the bay because there was no water in the water tower.

“There were little water towers, not like these today. And even this water tower, you can empty it in 20 minutes with a fire truck,” added Mikuletzky, who is also a Barnegat Light borough councilman.

Written accounts say there were 20 fire companies from several counties called to the blaze. The hotel had the capacity for 400 guests, but had reportedly fallen on hard times in its later years. Yet it was a formidable piece of history on its ground between Pearl and Marine streets.

The Barnegat Light fireman recalls the wind shifting and burning the whole new section down. Then the staff house caught on fire.

“We were trying to contain the fire with large-diameter hose – not using inch-and-a-half, but using 2½-inch just to drown the fire,” he said. “But we had small lines going out, protecting the houses across the street and putting out spot fires, because there was so many embers coming off the thing.”

The battle went on for hours. “We left here somewhere around midnight, and it was daylight when we came out of there the next day.”

It occurs to a listener to ask whether the men had oxygen masks. The fireman shook his head.

“Nobody had anything like that then.”

“Not in those days,” put in Fox, who at that time was still living in Franklin Lakes.

“We didn’t even have a radio in the truck,” Mikuletzky added, with a smile. “The three trucks pumping water had no communication with each other; you just pump everything you can.”

“That’s why you had open cabs on the fire trucks: so you could holler,” Fox said. “It was the stupidest thing!”

The story continued, a flow of memory on a momentum of its own.

“The line that came up the side street … going around to fight the back of the hotel, the wall fell on it,” Mikuletzky related. “The guys just dropped it and ran.

“And then all the water had to come through my hose. You’ve got three trucks pumping water, and the operator had to shut the truck down but you’ve still got the water coming, and you’re fighting the hose, jumping around.

“There were a couple guys helping me, but one went to go get coffee and one guy, I don’t know, he had to run off for a minute. A couple of bystanders just happened to help me and jump on the line – I don’t even know who these guys were, whether they were firemen or not, because they didn’t have gear.”

Again, a question came to the mind of the riveted listener on this rainy Sunday.

“What did you have covering your face?”

“Nothing. I had boots, a jacket, and a helmet.”

Fox threw in, “You were lucky you had that.”

“Yeah,” his comrade agreed. “Even when you came, we had hardly any gear.”

The fire company was broke. The new part of the fire hall was later built after the 1962 storm as a shelter. It became a venue to house bingo games as fundraisers. In 1965 or 1966, a truck that was only three years old froze up when it was left outside at the service station on a cold night and the pump broke.

“So they had to get another truck right away… they’re paying for two trucks that are only a few years apart. So they were hurting for money.

“Little by little, we were able to get some equipment.”

The conversation returned to the Baldwin fire, and a firefighters’ victory in that it didn’t spread farther.

“We saved all the neighboring houses. Yes, that was the thing.

“The truck seat actually had burns on it from the ashes,” Mikuletzky commented.

Hazard was literally in the air around them.

“It was a gasoline fire truck and when we had to refuel, we put a tarp over the truck and a cascade of water like a waterfall over it to keep any sparks away from the gas cans filling the truck up, you know,” Mikuletzky told about the necessity to adapt. “It’s an operation running.”

The 1962 Storm: Fending, and the Firehouse

A year-and-a half later came the 1962 storm, which severed the Island at Harvey Cedars. The story is that many on the north end were able to fend for themselves.

Mikuletzky was away working at the time but came over once by boat to check on things. He said the firehouse sheltered some townspeople.

“A lot of the members stayed at the firehouse; we had a kitchen downstairs at the time. Other ones stayed in some of the houses where they had portable generators, and they survived.

“They were kind of locked in a community where they couldn’t go anywhere. They had a state police officer who came here and stayed at the firehouse with the people who were here during the storm. If you were here, you just hunkered down.”

Mikuletzky thought some more and described, “There weren’t a lot of people living here. And the people who were here were fishermen, people who could really fend for themselves. You didn’t have the retirement community that you have now. And a good many of them were members of the fire company.”

The Freezing Night When Lucy Evelyn Burned

We asked Fox what was going on when the Barnegat Light crew reached Beach Haven the freezing February night the Lucy Evelyn was lost in 1972.

“They were pulling the firemen out of it because they were afraid they were going to get hurt. The fire was flying off the boat.”

The sight is burned into the memories of those who couldn’t stop the element of fire from claiming the stately schooner that had worked as a packet ship to South America and retired as a landmark.

It was Fox’s first big fire here since he had moved south. The air was in crackling contrast to the flames.

“It was cold that night, very cold; everything was freezing,” Mikuletzky added.

“I was still chief at the time. I walked in to find out what they needed us to do, and they said, just stand by. I said, ‘Well, standing by, our truck is going to freeze up.’ If you’re not pumping water, it’s going to go. You’ll freeze the pump up.”

He also recalled, “They were doing a lot of drafting out of the bay right there, and water was flowing down the street. So, it ended up that they wanted us to stand by and be coverage in case there was another fire.”

Said Fox, “They were cutting a hole in the stern; they were chopping a hole trying to get into it, as I remember. We were out on the street.”

Various factors added up against the ship once the fire gained hold.

Summed up Mikuletzky, “You had to fight it from the inside, because it’s a double-hulled ship. In other words, you’ve got planks, ribs and planks. You had planks on the outside and inside, so if the fire gets in between …”

When crews couldn’t stay inside, another fire company tried a piece of equipment called a deluge gun, put a fogging nozzle on it “and put it inside the ship and pulled the guys out and left it spraying,” the other observers recalled.

But apparently somebody decided they didn’t want to lose the deluge gun, to what must have seemed like a losing battle.

“After that…,” Mikuletzky commented, letting the obvious end result speak for itself. “They should have left it in there … you’re trying to put the fire out.”

A faulty thermostat in a heater inside the ship was blamed for sparking the blaze, according to published reports.

As Years Went On

More memories came with 61 and 50 years on the fire company. And changes. The Island fire chiefs got together and advanced the training. Also, today’s co-ed teams include a practiced water and ice rescue unit. A pumper truck today costs $500,000 to $800,000. By requirement, members in New Jersey take 180 hours of training at first, and then 20 to 50 hours more every year.

Current Barnegat Light Fire Chief Keith Anderson had a lot to say for the veterans who were honored for their longevity. “We call them the firehouse grandfathers. When new guys join, we steer them toward these two guys. They point them in the right direction, and teach them everything. They did when I joined: here’s Frank, he’s going to teach you how to pump; here’s Warren, he’s going to teach how to fix the trucks.”

“You do it because somebody has to do it,” Mikuletzky stated of why he joined, “and you do it because you’re capable.”

“If you don’t love it, then you’re not going to make it,” added Fox. “It becomes a chore. You do it because you enjoy it and want to give back to the town you’re living in.” Fox lives in Loveladies, one of the northern sections of Long Beach Township covered by the Barnegat Light Volunteer Fire Company.

The best way to learn more is to talk to a fireman yourself. You might be surprised at your response if they say, “you oughta join!”

— Maria Scandale

Reposted from The Sandpaper