Today in Detroit Fire Department history –
Detroit Firefighter Line of Duty Death
May 30, 1919
Detroit Fire Department Pipeman William Christopher O’Brien made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the citizens of Detroit. At the time of his death William was assigned to Flying Squadron Company Number 1.
A fire was reported in the basement of the plant of Berry Brothers Varnish Company around 2:00pm March 29th, 1919. Pipeman O”Brien was overcome by gas inhalation while working at the fire. He was taken to Receiving Hospital for treatment. He later returned to duty at his quarters. Around 10:30 pm William complained of not feeling well. After being examined by the department surgeon he returned to the hospital. Pipeman Condry died at 10:15 pm March 30, 1919.
Gas inhalation from this fire also caused the death of Pipeman Peter Condry and hospitalized 6 other firefighters. Those hospitalized were: Robert Ferry, Joseph Maher, Arthur Weber, Joseph Sullivan, Harry Callahan, and Neil Garrison. All but Garrison were members of Flying Squadron 1.
It was later found that the gas which was inhaled was formed by burning celluloid. The coroner recommended “that an ordinance be passed making it obligatory for any person or Firm to report to the Fire Department when they have any article in their building, the burning of which will form a gas.”
William O’Brien was born in Limerick Ireland. He came to the United States in 1910. On April 16th, 1913 William moved to Detroit. Two days later he filed a Declaration of Intent to become a United States citizen.
On July 18th, 1913 he applied to the Detroit Fire Department for the position of Pipeman. He began working as a substitute fireman on September 8th, 1913. On November 16, 1913 William began his full time employment with the Detroit Fire Department. At the time of his death he had served with the department for only 5 years and 6 months. William was 30 years old.
Pipeman O’Brien’s body was taken to his brother’s home in Detroit. He was buried on June 2nd in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. A detail of Brother Firemen with Chief Meginnity in charge provided escort for his remains. His wife, Helena M. O’Brien later had his casket moved.
When Pipeman Condry passed away Detroit Fire Department records listed him as a unmarried. Records from Mrs. O’Brien’s petition for widow’s pension show that she and William had obtained a marriage license on August 7th 1917 but they were unaware the law required a marriage certificate be obtained after the wedding ceremony. Records also note that they had lived together as husband and wife and she had used the name Mrs. Helen O’Brien since obtaining the license.
In October 1919 Mrs. O’Brien was granted a widow’s pension from the Detroit Fire Department. This pension continued until June 6th, 1921 when she remarried. For reasons that were not indicated in records it took until 1923 for Mrs. O’Brien to not receive the $3,000 death benefit from the Firemen’s Fund.