Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email: Scribbles@cogeco.ca

Addie McCormick, Switchboard Operator and Heroine

As fire flared and smoke billowed close by, Addie McCormick stayed at her switchboard to warn guests and fellow workers to flee. Addie’s bravery cost her her life.

Heroes come in all forms. They are not all caped crusaders, ready to take masked flight to save the day. The average person can have as much strength and determination as a length of tempered steel when faced with disaster. Vince Coleman was the code-tapping hero in the shattering Halifax explosion. He remained steadfast at his post to make sure the inbound train engineer and others knew about the impending catastrophe.

Much like Vince Coleman, Addie McCormick stayed at her switchboard as fire raged near her in the Beacon Arms Hotel, to ensure all were warned to escape the flames. But, as with the noble man in his Halifax telegraph office on December 6, 1917, Addie did not survive her act of valour in a different situation.

Mrs. Addie McCormick was a switchboard operator, a woman experienced in the telephone system of the Beacon Arms Hotel in downtown Ottawa, Ontario. Beginning her career when she was a teenager, Addie answered calls, directed questioners and helped others for nearly 5 decades. No doubt she was adept and comfortable with the wide range of changes in telephone switchboards over her years on the line.  The 64-year-old was a dedicated professional.

Advertisement for the Beacon Arms Hotel, where Addie McCormick lost her life to save others

Beacon Arms Hotel on fire

On the 31st of July 1964, a fire was somehow sparked in a basement storage closet of the Beacon Arms Hotel at 88 Albert Street. The fire quickly overtook the foyer. “As dense smoke filled the first floors the hotel accountant sounded a fire alarm and ordered the employees to leave,” reported the entry, “Addie S. McCormick,” by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. Addie immediately called the fire department.

Answering calls from anxious guests on upper floors of the 12-storey building, Addie also spoke with her fellow employees about what was happening. With no time to think of her own safety, she began to phone the 60 or so guests of the hotel to make sure all were aware of the fire. Giving directions for evacuation, she told guests to use the stairs and to avoid the elevator, since it would open near the blaze. Many hotel guests and workers fled for their lives as the hot, crackling flames spread. As she was leaving, one hotel attendant heard guest room telephones ringing. Urgently, Addie McCormick was making certain to call each occupied room.

Addie McCormick placing urgent calls

The accountant came through the switchboard office one more time before he left the building. Addie was still hard at work at her switchboard. He gave her the order to leave. “I’m coming,” she replied, but it seems she wasn’t quite finished as the accountant went out the door.

Only two minutes later, the accountant tried to get back into the building. Addie had not emerged from the hotel. He could not get in. The foyer entrance was blocked by merciless heat and fire. “He shouted to [Addie] and got no reply,” said the Carnegie entry. The fire department arrived within ten minutes of Addie’s swift sounding of the alarm. Several guests were plucked from windows by the aerial ladders, safe into the hands of firemen. The blaze was extinguished within a half hour. Most hotel guests had escaped from danger and hotel workers were out of harm’s way. Except for Addie McCormick and two others.

Switchboard operator found on floor

Suffocated by the unbreathable, smoke-choked air, Addie was lying lifeless on the floor in front of her telephone switchboard. Selflessly brave, the 64-year-old Mrs. McCormick stayed at her post to assure all guests would be unharmed by the fire. She was honoured as a Carnegie Hero for her fearless act of courage.

Ottawa’s Beacon Arms Hotel severely damaged by fire, and Switchboard operator Addie McCormick dead.

Platoon Chief Percy Reid gave evidence about the fire at the inquest held in September 1964. The lead fireman could see thick black smoke rising blocks away. In the Ottawa Citizen report on September 23rd, Reid’s inquest statement noted, “If the smoke I could see was any evidence, I knew I would need all the help I could get.” Along with Addie, two others died in the fire, one a man trapped in an elevator stalled on the 6th floor. The inquest found that cleaning supplies stored in the closet were the probable cause of the fire.

In 1917, the citizens of the city of Halifax were not spared as those in Ottawa at the end of July 1964. Along with Vince Coleman, over 2,000 people were killed and thousands of Nova Scotians were injured in the biggest man-made blast in Canadian, and in world, history.

Imagine how many more would have been dead or injured in the disasters without the astonishing bravery of those two “average” Canadians.

Sources:

“Beacon Arms Hotel Tragedy: Cleaning materials likely cause of fire,” The Ottawa Citizen, September 23, 1964. Accessed July 30, 2010

The Halifax Explosion of 1917 Accessed July 28, 2010

The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission Accessed July 28, 2010 (This MP3 takes a moment to load.)

“Urbsite,” an Ottawa Architecture Blog Accessed July 28, 2010

This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2010.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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