On March 24th 1934, twenty-two men died due to a fire at the Federal Transient Bureau building in downtown Lynchburg. The Federal Transient Bureau opened its doors to the poor and homeless on December 18th, 1933 in a two story building on the corner of Twelfth and Church Streets. Its purpose was to feed and house occupants during the Great Depression and on the morning of the fire, one- hundred and ninety men were using the facility. The cook for the Bureau had arisen early that morning to prepare breakfast when he inadvertently spilled a pan of water into a vat of boiling grease which caused a fiery explosion. The grease fire rapidly spread, eating through the dry wood supports and cardboard partitions of the building. To make matters worse, there were no fire escapes on the building since city code did not require them on two-story dwellings at that time.
All of the windows in the second story of the Bureau were covered with wooden planks to prevent people from breaking the glass and to stop people in nearby buildings from peering in. The men located on the ground floor were more fortunate and most were able to escape through the front doors. Once the boards covering the upstairs windows were broken, men came spilling out. Those that were afraid to jump were pushed onto the snow covered sidewalk below. A police officer walking his beat came upon the scene and sounded the alarm. Fire Chief Rapp and the men from the Fifth Street Station could see the flames spurting from the roof of the Federal Transient Bureau building when they pulled out of the firehouse.
It was difficult for the drivers of the fire engines to position their trucks near the burning building as the streets and sidewalks were filled with men who were suffering from burns and broken bones from jumping out of the windows. In the fifteen minutes from the start of the fire until the sounding of the alarm, thirteen were already confirmed dead. One more passed away en route to the hospital and three others died over the weekend from their injuries. The final total reached twenty-two as all of Lynchburg’s hospitals labored to save the remaining injured survivors. An army veteran who served during World War I commented that the scene at the Virginia Baptist Hospital was “like that of a field hospital in a combat zone.” Those that had escaped the fire unharmed were sent to the Salvation Army and given food until the City Armory could be adapted into a suitable shelter. This fire received national press coverage and brought scores of telegrams and telephone calls into the city with requests for information about relatives who might have stayed in the building.
The youngest fatality from the fire was a fourteen year old boy who had come from North Carolina for work. He was on his way home when he decided to stay overnight in Lynchburg due to the snow. Panic and the sealed windows were labeled as major factors in the high death toll by officials and to this day, the Federal Transient Bureau fire is considered one of the worse fires to ever occur in Lynchburg due to the loss of life.
Written by Kaitlin Shiflett
Lynchburg Museum Staff