Resident at Westbeth since 1970
The Fire on the Pier, March 7, 1976
The fire was huge. According to the New York Times, four fireboats, three Coast Guard vessels, and some one hundred firemen were deployed to fight it. It was still burning the next dark. Smoke blanketed parts of the West Village. What I remember from that time was how the smoke came alive.
Abandoned piers lined the Hudson in the seventies. They were dangerous, decaying, dark, and dank. They were our urban haunted houses. To us kids, however, they were our backyard. We lived in a building by the river, but we had no riverbank. However, if you ducked under the overhang of the abandoned and crumbling elevated West Side Highway, you emerged into the sunlight of the riverside. Many people used the piers then and for various reasons. Looking back, I realize there must have been a tacit agreement between the people who did adult activities and those families with children (always as a group and always with an adult) to share the space safely at certain times. But on that Sunday, the piers turned on us.
The fire started at 1:30 in the afternoon. I don’t remember the fire, but I do remember the smoke. It didn’t billow; it didn’t blow. It rolled like a living thing across the water. A real life “Blob” consuming the sun. The smoke chased us. I remember running through Westbeth’s inner courtyard to escape it and then watching in horror as the smoke crawled over the walls and oozed through the courtyard. It was a race to reach the glass doors before the smoke engulfed us. I ran screaming into the small lobby and watched as the courtyard turned black and the air became solid. It seemed evil in its detached and dispassionate erasure of the sun. I learned to fear smoke more than fire that day.