No Job Too Tough for Minute-Men Cops (May, 1933)
No Job Too Tough for Minute-Men Cops
Emergency Division of Police Trained to Handle Tragedies and Freak Accidents of a Great City
By Thomas M. Johnson
A NEW building was going up. Before it stood a big concrete mixer. To chew up stone, gravel, and sand, its vat-like interior had strong teeth, powerful flanges, and cogwheels. To keep these fed, was the job of one man who stood on a running-board and watched those teeth grind concrete. Suddenly the man slipped. Frantically, vainly clutching for safety, he toppled into the mixer’s jaws. Bruised, half-smothered in liquid concrete, he was shocked by violent pain. His leg had been caught in the cogs. Those crunching teeth were tearing flesh and breaking bones. His screams of pain and terror brought men on the run.
Barely in time, they stopped the mixer. It had ground up its victim’s leg, nearly to the hip, and still held it in a cruel grip. Pain-tortured, he lay, half submerged in the concrete, whose gray was stained red by his blood. Before he bled to death, he must be got out. The gathering crowd milled about, crying, “Get a doctor!” A policeman ran to a telephone and put in an emergency call.
Two minutes later, a screaming siren announced the coming of a dark green truck trimmed with twinkling brass. From it leaped young policemen, who dashed for the machine that had trapped a man. The sergeant sized up the situation.
“If we move those wheels,” he said, “we’ll kill him.”
Quickly the men in blue brought a stretcher, blankets, oxygen tank, and an acetylene torch. While some of them tended the injured man, others using the acetylene torch, skillfully and swiftly burned away the heavy steel cogwheels. Gently they lifted the victim out and into a waiting ambulance. He would lose a leg, but he would liveâ€”thanks to the green truck.
In a few hours the green truck rolled again. This time through dark streets to a loft building. There stood a patrolman.
“C’mon,” he urged. “Here he is!”
He turned his flashlight into an open coal-chute. It shone upon a glistening bald head, entirely surrounded by coal. A plaintive voice implored:
“Get me outa here!”
“Is that your burglar?” the Sergeant asked.
“Sure,” replied the patrolman. “Tried to get in through the coal chute, and got stuck. That’s an emergency, so I sent for an Emergency Squad. Right?”
From the green truck were produced sledge-hammers, crowbars, saws, chisels, wrenches, and shovels with which they dug out the burglar.
To meet situations as widely different as these two, the green trucks carry, all told, 103 different pieces of equipmentâ€” and their crews are trained to use them. This Emergency Service Division is the most versatile and adventurous branch of the whole New York Police Department. Its green trucks don’t roll unless the rest of the Department is more or less stumpedâ€”whether by a hazardous rescue, a riot, an explosion, a gas suicide, or one of New York’s myriad freak occurrences, as for instance, horned owls. They were keeping people awake nights in peaceful Flushing, Long Island, part of the Greater City. So a green truck went, with portable searchlights and shotgunsâ€”and the owls hooted no more.
To meet any crisis, big or small, the Emergency Service Division has called to its aid science and invention. Inspector D. A. Kerr and Deputy Inspector Louis F. Dittmann welcome new ideas and better methods. The present Division of 512 men, manning twenty trucks so distributed that in three or four minutes one can reach any point in the city, is New York’s newest police unit. It has saved an estimated $10,000,000 to the city, and its usefulness increases. In 1931 green trucks rolled 3,928 times, in 1932, between 5,000 and 6.000 timesâ€”a thirty per cent increase. Other American cities are adopting the idea, and the British Government has made specific inquiry about its anti-gas measures.
New York does not dread gas air raids in the next war as does London, but the emergency squads are trained to wage chemical warfare. At their headquarters in the Police Academy building, they have laboratories and gas chambers where they experiment constantly in an effort to find new means to save human beings from death by any gas â€”natural, fumigant, carbon monoxide. For every gas suicide, a green truck rolls; and its trained men have worked thirty-five hours to save a life some one had thought worthless. Seven policemen once saved a baby by breathing into its mouth incessantly for two hours. Suicides increased in depressed 1932, but not gas suicides.
That is a phase of the defensive work of the squads, which makes them an effective “save-a-life league.” But there is a grim offensive side to their operations.
One of the most amazing events in modern crime annals, was the seige of “Two-Gun” Crowley a couple of years ago. This notorious criminal and cop-killer was run to earth in an apartment house off upper Broadway. There, with a man and woman to help him, he stood siege, sniping at the police who were firing from the street and nearby housetops. A crowd of thousands gathered. Every police official from Commissioner Mulrooney down, was present. But it seemed impossible to make the captureâ€”until the green trucks turned the trick.
Their crews came running, with light machine-guns that every truck carries. Working up as close as possible, they unloosed a crashing, ripping fire, that kept the desperados cowering on the floor. Then down upon them hurtled gas grenades that exploded, filling the small rooms with choking tear-gas. Snatched from the green trucks, dropped through holes in the roof chopped by axes from the same trucks, the grenades turned the tide. Blinded, weeping, “Two-Gun” and his mates came out, hands up.
Against another gas, the squads have made a counter-offensive to defeat its menace to life and health. This is hydrocyanic, or prussic, acid gas. Colorado uses it to execute murderers. New York warehouses and other establishments began to use it as a fumigant.
“Come quick!” pleaded a frightened telephone call. “Everybody here is dying!”
The crew of a green truck found a restaurant in which men, women, and children lay in a stupor with faces and bodies convulsed. A strange odor filled the room. Before they had got everyone out, policemen were strangling. In vain they sought throughout the restaurant for the source of the gas. Then someone went to the warehouse and stooped to the keyhole. He staggered back, clutching nose and throat. He had found the source of the gas. The warehouse manager, deciding to fumigate, had turned on the gas, locked the door, and gone home. The fumes had seeped through to the restaurant and nearly killed everyone there.
Thus the emergency squad had its first experience with hydrocyanic acid gas. Into a chamber filled with it, walked Inspector Dittmann, unmasked, to test human powers of endurance. Presently followed protective devices, a prescribed treatment, then a general order that anyone insisting on using the deadly stuff must notify the emergency squad and get a permit.
From this defensive chemical warfare has come a discovery that may develop into a new means to save lives from drowning. The emergency squad first adopted the McCaa Breathing Apparatus and a suit of gas-proof clothing as special equipment for policemen going into gas-filled rooms or buildings.
Early last summer those visiting one of the city baths, marveled to behold policemen clad in these gnome-like outfits, disporting themselves under water. On August came an opportunity for a real but sad test of the equipment. The twelve-year-old son of a New York policeman, attending a summer camp at Delaware Water Gap, Pa., had gone swimming and
drowned. The body could not be recovered. Patrolmen Kiernan and Wynn, with Inspector Dittmann, took one of the gas outfits to the scene. Moored to shore by a rope, Kiernan walked into the river. An hour spent under water, with short rest intervals, and he had found the body. As a result, the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and other organizations are now experimenting with the same suit, and the Navy is testing it as a new safety device for pilots of amphibian planes.
Already the rubber suits have proved their worth in a hazardous rescue along the marshy shore of Barren Island in Jamaica Bay. On a raw autumn evening, squatters there heard a cry for help. Rowing toward the sound, they saw across the water the head and shoulders of a young man, barely above the mire. Frantically, he cried to them:
“Help! Help! I’m sinking!”
“Hunting reed-birds,” they told one another. “Caught in a quagmire. And we can’t get to him. The reeds are too thick!”
One boatman raced for shore and a telephone. Down to the water’s edge came the truck of Squad Fourteen. Out tumbled Patrolmen Pad-rick, Van Thunen, and Janosy. Hurriedly they donned rubber suits and, taking a 100 foot line, waded out into the reeds. Daring the treacherous slough that had nearly entombed the man they wanted to save, the policemen forged their way toward him.
When they at last reached their man, the quagmire had dragged him down until water was lapping his throat. To keep it from running into his mouth, he had to tilt his head back as far as possible. Drowning by inches was about to complete the work of fright and cold. The three policemen barely managed to drag him from his living grave with the long rope from the truck. When that fortunate youth, Edward Foley, 16, reached the hospital, he was blue from head to foot, but he was soon out again, hunting reed-birds.
Such experiences are continually adding to the knowledge of humanitarian police work collected by the expert troubleshooting jacks-of-all-trades who ride the green trucks. Chosen for previous mechanical knowledge, they get postgraduate training to prepare them to face the emergencies of a city of six millions. They are taught metal-burning with the acetylene torch, handling block and fall, shoring, knots, grappling for bodies, gas masks and gases, breaking locks, boiler explosions, elevator emergencies, accidents and suicides on subway or elevated railways, handling mobs and riots. Varied as is their work, most spectacular is that of extricating men and women from the traps the great city sets for them.
To a Brooklyn Hospital was brought a man whom only an immediate operation might save. They put him on the table. Assistants and nurses stood by, as the surgeon bent over, knife in hand. Then the lights went out.
Candle-light would not do. A moment’s anguished silence.
Then a stern command, “Call the police!”
A green truck rolled up to the hospital door. A few moments, and the operation was proceeding under light bright as day, furnished by the same portable searchlights that had revealed the horned owls.
On another night, these searchlights shone upon a heap of twisted ruins. A two-story factory had collapsed. Beneath tons of wreckage, lay the night watchman, a heavy boiler pressing upon his crushed leg. But his groans proved he lived. Toward him, through the mass of wreckage, three policemen tunneled with tools from their green truck. At their heels crept Sergeant Michaels, with emergency kit, ready to amputate the victim’s leg if need be to get him out.
Ambulance surgeons would not go into the tunnel for firemen warned that it would cave in. Almost it did, but not quite. The men in blue worked frantically, and at last, in triumph, they brought out the watchmanâ€” his leg neatly bandaged.
From tragic to amusing rescues is a transition the squads make every day. They play Providence to drunken men, boys and animals. One of the first, they salvaged from atop a wooden pile where he was marooned in the East River, forty feet from shore. Supposedly, he had crawled there from a passing boat; he couldn’t remember.
THE noisiest of all the squads’ many animal rescues, was when they lassoed a brown bear. He had strayed from a pet-shop into a tenement house. The bear roared, and the occupants screamed. Another time, Squad Fourteen threw a rope around a $10,000 prize bull that had jumped off a cattle-boat, landed at Coney Island, and chased the bathers. When lassoed, he was completing an eighteen-mile swim in the Upper Bay. A cat’s meow has summoned many a policeman to risk life in an effort to retrieve a pet from a situation where, alive or dead, it threatened to be a public nuisance. Policemen have been lowered by ropes attached to lifebelts, from the roofs of tall buildings, to save cats from copings; they have used their knowledge of high-tension wires in climbing telegraph poles for the same purpose.
But such ordinary trifles cause only a fraction of the calls on which the green trucks roll. They have played a part in coping with all the great emergencies of recent months in New York. Last summer, an ammonia pipe-line in a refrigerating plant burst in the crowded lower East Side. Over eight blocks of tenements spread a miasma of choking fumes. Hundreds were gased; they lay in narrow hallways or staircases, on pavements or sidewalks where they had fallen. It was the emergency crews who revived them, and calmed the panic-stricken crowds.
Ten trucks rushed to Coney Island to handle a crisis caused by the $2,000,000 fire of last July. Here were 200,000 people, many with nothing but bathing suits, penniless, refugees in fog and smoke, milling about, some being overcome, some looting. Calming those people and getting them started home was the work of the green truck crews.
ONE of the most formidable offensive tasks the emergency squads have had, was the recent revolt of 1,600 prisoners on Welfare Island in the East River. One was killed, before the first police got there. An emergency truck reached the scene in three minutes, a battleship on wheels, with its full armament
or rifles, shotguns, machine-guns, tear-gas and smoke grenades, and even bullet-proof vests and steel helmets for the crew. They waded into the milling criminals and soon had them under control.
Thus night and day, the green trucks roll in answer to the calls from the restless life of the great city. When they go out, they are prepared for any emergency. It may be a riot in Union Square, a helpless child clinging to a window ledge, an explosion in Wall Street, a mad dog scare in the tenement district, the body of a suicide on the roof of an annex. Whatever it is, they never hesitate.