Cornell Fire Centenary
Saturday, December 9, 2006
The 6th and 7th of December marked the centenary of the greatest tragedy in our Fraternity’s history: On the night of 6 December 1906 a great fire engulfed the Lodge of Alpha Psi at Cornell. By the morning of 7 December, the fire had completely destroyed the Lodge and caused the death of four Brothers and three volunteer firefighters.
Against the stark backdrop of horror were outlined many individual acts of heroism, which epitomize the spirit of brotherhood that those men embodied. At the time, the fire transfixed the imagination and was a source of sorrow for all Chi Psis, the entire Cornell community, and the nation at large. The fire became the subject of many articles in some of the nation’s leading periodicals.
One hundred years have not dimmed that memory for Chi Psi, and the events surrounding that tragedy reveal so much presence of mind that the story and its lessons seem as fresh and relevant today as they were a century ago.
When the story of the fire spread across the country a hundred years ago, the selfless conduct of the members of the Fraternity was widely recognized. That twenty-six young men should have met a test so severe with so much coolness and instinctive self-sacrifice should strengthen our faith in human nature and the bonds of Chi Psi. Each counted his life as less than the needs of his friends.
In Ithaca this December, #23 Sam Bessey represented Chi Psi for remembrances at the Lodge the evening of the 6th and with the fire department on the 7th. At the same time, there were reports of Brothers across the country gathering to remember those Brothers and firefighters who died a century ago. Some marked the event with a moment of silence at dinner; others took turns reading the story aloud by candlelight; others took lunch to their local fire firefighters as a thanks for all they did for their communities.
Early on the 7th, the Ithaca Fire Department and Chi Psi fraternity members commemorated the deaths of the Brothers lost in the 1906 fire by mounting a memorial plaque bearing the lost members' names inside the Lodge.
Later in the day officials gathered at the Ithaca City Cemetery to dedicate a memorial to all Ithaca firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty. The 1906 fire "was a very big event,” said retired Assistant Fire Chief Raymond Wheaton Jr., caretaker of the Ithaca Fire Department's history. "To lose three firefighters and four students shocked everyone. Even President Teddy Roosevelt sent his condolences and visited the plots. It was widely reported all over the country. These men were well-known and respected in the community. In the age of the telegraph, it was a pretty momentous event. Our collective hope is that we'll never have to engrave a name on this plaque again,” he said.