DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
UNITED STATES PENITENTIARY
ALCATRAZ ISLAND, CALIFORNIA
June 7, 1944
Mr. James V. Bennett,
Shortly after midnight this morning I sent you the following telegram:
Fire in net shop discovered about 10 PM. All out. Made lots of smoke took lots of water which made mess of place but estimate damage not great probably six or seven coils of rope.
While my telegram was brief, it described the situation that confronted us and was accurate in particulars, except as to my estimate as to damage. I said in the telegram that we probably lost six or seven coils of rope, but after I reviewed the stuff in daylight this morning, and checked the rope that had already been cut ready to go on the tables for weaving, and the coiled rope, and checking it with Mr. Manning, I am inclined to think that our loss will amount to about ten bales of jute that we had for weaving the mesh and about six rolls of sisal for jackstays. Some of the coils were burnt, while others were apparently undamaged, and it is just possible that when we get the stuff dried out, and in shape for working over, and, after cutting out the burnt parts, we may find some of it useful.
It is our custom to have the officer on duty in each shop inspect the shop before bringing his detail in for the evening count; one Foreman is always designated for a follow up inspection of the entire industries building after the men have been brought in, then the patrol officer on the first watch makes an inspection, which is followed by several patrols made in the area by patrolmen on evening and morning watches. This inspection practice was followed yesterday and everything was apparently in good order when the industries were closed for the day.
About 10 P.M. Mr. Olsen, who was on duty in the Power House, smelled smoke which was being blown over that way from the industries building, but he could not tell just where it was from. He notifed Junior Officer Waters, who was on the first watch. Mr. Waters went all through the laundry and finding everything in order went to the net factory where he found a dense smoke. He turned in the alarm and directed the men and apparatus to the net shop. When I got to the net shop, Associate Warden Miller, Captain Weinhold, Lieut. Simpson and other members of the Staff had opened the doors of the net factory, and of the model shop on one side of it, and Mr. Manning's office on the other side, but because of the thick smoke could [page two] not locate any flame. They played the stream on it from three points; through the doorway of the net shop, through the glass petition of the model shop, and Mr. Manning's Office, and turned a portable chemical on it from the gallery in the rear of the shops. The smoke was so dense that several of the officers donned gas masks so they could get into the extreme end of the shop. After pouring a tremendous amount of water into it, and feeling that the fire was under control, we rolled all of the rope damaged, undamaged, cut, and uncut, and partly woven outside and pulled it beyond the end of the building as that was the only way in which we could be sure we were not leaving any smouldering fire.
There wee 46 persons responded to the fire alarm, 43 were our employees; one from the Lighthouse, and 2 were soldiers who happened to be off duty crossing the parade ground at the time they heard the alarm.
This morning we notified the Navy Department because the rope is their property and we wanted to get the clearance from them before making any attempt to put the shop in shape to resume work.
The Navy sent Suzanne Falk, Ensign, W.V.S., USNR, over and after about 45 minutes of inspection the Ensign thought that the matter had been properly handled and as much as possible of the material salvaged and gave us a clearance to go ahead and operate.
We have been very strict about enforcing "No Smoking" rules in the net shop except for the morning/afternoon pause that is allowed the men for smoking, and the men are brought away from their actual work to smoke in safe places. They are never allowed to smoke at the weaving or cutting tables or over their work. Of course, it is possible that some prisoners may have attempted sneaking a smoke and threw the cigarette away, and it is also possible that some prisoner may have set some sort of a slow burning thing to start a fire, but we really have no evidence to indicate that the fire was of an incendiary origin. It is true that there were men working there that may have some resentment or hostile feeling against the Government, but on the other hand their attention at work, and industry, has been rather noticeable and growing, and to illustrate this, I may cite that in the month of May we made 804 nets which was high point in production, and you may note from the examination of the inmate payroll that the men in the net shop top, not only their own previous record, but top all the other factories in earnings per man for May.
It is our understanding that spontaneous combustion may occur with jute and sisal, particularly if it is damp, therefore we will not attempt to use any of this rope until it is thoroughly dried out. We are placing the wet rope to one side for drying, and also getting the shop thoroughly dry, and then we will roll in new rope and resume operations.
UNITED STATES PENITENTIARY
JUNE 6, 1944
To: E.J. Miller, Associate Warden
The following persons responded to the fire call this date.
[NARA-SAN BRUNO:RG-129:ADMINISTRATIVE FILES:B&G-G GENERAL]