September 13, 1919 was one of the most terrifying days for the residents of Greenpoint. On that September day a huge fire threatened to engulf the entire neighborhood in flames. The fire at the Sone and Fleming oil Works on Kingsland Avenue was one of the largest and most dangerous fires in Brooklyn history. It led to millions of dollars in damage and the evacuation of hundreds of residents. Many Greenpointers feared being burned to death.
Fires were common at the works, but the fire was not supposed to happen. The firm was well aware of the capacity for such a fire and they had installed a special pump that doused oil fires by creating steam. However, the explosion that started the fire was so strong that the pump system failed and the yard with a hundred huge oil and Naptha tanks lay defenseless.
The fire started at one-forty in the afternoon when tank #36 with fifty-five thousand gallons of gasoline exploded. Five minutes later the flames had spread to three other tanks. A fire alarm was sounded as were a second, third and fourth, but the fire was so huge and dangerous that a borough wide alarm went out. Soon four hundred seventy-five fire fighters were battling the flames along with nine fireboats. However, because the fire had so much flammable liquid it posed especial danger. The fire soon engulfed the company’s four-story office building on the site.The heat from the flames was intense and the fire was so loud that fire fighters had to use hand signals to communicate.
Soon the flames were so dangerous that civilians had to be evacuated. Seven hundred girls who worked for a local dye factory were sent out of their place of employment to safety. Hundreds of tenement dwellers in the area around Kingsland and Norman Avenue also had to be evacuated. Many of them were Italian and Polish and their limited ability to communicate in English only added to their fear. In the rush to escape the flames children were trampled and one young Polish boy was seriously injured when he was trampled.
By about four-thirty the situation looked hopeless. There were a hundred tanks on the site and they all seemed in danger of blowing up. Soon the fire had jumped the creek. It burned a candle factory in Long Island City and soon the flames engulfed the Standard Oil works in Long Island CIty. The flames ignited the bridge that connected Long Island CIty and Greenpoint. All availabe fire fighters in the city eventually had to be called and all the available equipment that could be sent to Greenpoint was dispatched there. The fire was so huge that it could be seen twenty miles away on Long Island
The firemen were most afraid that the flames would ignite two tanks of highly flammable naphtha. FIremen worked feverishly to keep the tanks from catching fire. Then suddenly, the wind veered and headed directly for the naphtha tanks. Someone yelled,” Oh my God there go the naphtha tanks.” The firemen fearing being burned alive and ran as fast as they could.
By ten O’Clock thousands of people crowded the streets. There was terror amongst many Greenpoint and Williamsburg residents. The flames were so intense that the area was lit up as if it had been day. Eventually the fire burned itself out, but many fire fighters were burned and a huge swath of industrial Greenpoint and Long Island City was a a smoking ruin.