Fire in The Mat Shop



Alcatraz, California June 8, 1940

TO: Director, Bureau of Prisons

RE: FIRE IN MAT SHOP June 7, 1940

As a followup of my telephone conversation with Captain Conner yesterday, I want to give you the detailed report of the fire in the Mat Shop, June 7, 1940.

At about 11:10 A.M. the details of prisoners were counted out of the shops in routine manner preparatory to marching in to the prison for mid-day meal. Just as the lines were marching away from the shop buildings, Junior Officer Wilson, who was on duty in the tower on the roof of the Model Shop Building, smelled smoke and looked around his own tower thinking it might be an electrical connection. Finding no evidence of any fire, he called down to Mr. Pone, Clothing Factory Foreman, to take a look around and also called to several of the Laundry Foremen. They looked around and found smoke was coming out from the entrance to the Mat Shop and several of them grabbed hand chemicals and others got the large chemical tank on wheels that was inside the work area and began to play the chemicals while Officer Wilson notified the Associate Warden and turned in the fire alarm.

Officers at fixed posts remained at their stations and all the other officers who were on the Island, including clerical staff and Industries employees, responded promptly and went to work energetically. I got to the fire a few minutes after the alarm sounded and the men were all at work and proceeding in accordance with plans laid out for our fire organization. There was a good deal of smoke and some excitement before we were certain that the fire was under control and there was no danger of spreading.

In the meantime the lines had proceeded in regular manner to the cellblock and messhall and the counts were checked to make certain of custodial safety. We did not send the men back to work in the afternoon as we thought it best to have them out of the way while we were making check and surveying the damage.[page two]

The survey shows that there was no damage except that done to the rubber that actually burned and no damage to the shop or building other than the breaking of the glass in front and entrance and the glass in the detention sash on the Bay side of that particular room. There was no damage whatever to machinery or motors, so that I may say that at the outside figure the total would not exceed $50 damage. The men are at work and the shop is running this morning in the regular manner.

For the present, though we have no absolute proof or eye witnesses to the act, there are a number of circumstance that indicate that the fire was incendiary in origin and the suspicion and suspicious circumstances point to Hensley #357-Az. He has been a very great disciplinary problem; we have been trying very hard to keep him at work though it has been necessary to caution and reprimand him about attitude bordering on agitating.

As soon as I was certain that the fire was controlled and the mess partly cleaned up, I came back to the office and tried to get you by telephone but as you were not available I gave the information to Captain Conner. When we sounded our fire alarm, it was heard either by persons on a ferry boat or on the shoreline of San Francisco and the San Francisco Police Department called me to find out if we were in any trouble or needed assistance, so I explained the situation to them and also to the press, all of whom treated it moderately.

J.A. Johnston