Thursday, July 31, 2014

Credwell Chronicles – Chapter 12: Cops and Cronies

June 22nd at 8:30 a.m. — Outside Neptune Casino
Within five minutes of the Casino catching fire, the Santa Cruz Fire Department was notified of the affair. Within ten minutes, a wheel hose had been hitched to the wagon outside the fire house. After twenty minutes, the fire crews had arrived outside the Casino and Plunge looking on in horror at the impossible task in front of them. At approximately thirty minutes after the blaze had flared up, two other fire crews from Capitola and Soquel had arrived.

Fred Swanton was waiting for them outside the Casino when the first crews arrived. Beside him, the shaky Plunge attendant Ben looked worried, repeatedly glancing back at the pool’s building. “Welcome to my new light show,” Swanton said with a sarcastic tone in his voice to the fire captain.

The captain gazed up at the towering inferno then back at Swanton. “How exactly did this happen?” he asked.

“I presume something went wrong with the electrical since the power went out immediately before the fire. My men had been working on wires in the kitchen last night. Perhaps they left something exposed. Fools!” Swanton turned to the attendant. “Ben, my boy, let’s go across the street and get ourselves a drink. I don’t think there’s much more we can do here.” The two of them crossed the street, leaving the fire captain and his crew confused. 

Setting his eyes on the two other fire crews, the captain looked back at the burning building, and then turned to follow Swanton across the street. The rest of his crew followed, as did the firefighters from Capitola and Soquel. All thirty-two men settled in on the patio of the Tent City Restaurant and ordered coffee as they watched the buildings burn to the ground.

Locals watching the fire from the safety of the nearby Sea Beach Hotel, June 22, 1906 *
It took flying embers igniting the roof of the restaurant to call the fire crews back to action. Another fifteen minutes had passed and much of the buildings were in ruins by now, the fire seeming to peter out east of the Casino. As they exited the feigned safety of the restaurant, the crews realized that many of the tents were burning around the restaurant. Fleeing back to the street, it was all they could do to avoid being caught in another fire that consumed the restaurant in a matter of minutes.

The two-story building had once served as the original Neptune Bath House in the 1880s before being moved and converted to a restaurant. Now it was yet another inferno adding to the mayhem of the morning. With Swanton, Ben, and the fire crews, the displaced restaurant staff joined the motley assortment of confused individuals. Other people were coming out of their houses to watch, while those staying at the Sea Beach Hotel had front-row seats to the affair. The fire had become a spectacle that would not quickly be forgotten by the people of Santa Cruz.

Finding resolve, the chief of the Santa Cruz fire department ordered his men to split into two brigades. One he charged with protecting the remaining tents from further harm, while the other headed to the Plunge pump house where a small blaze was threatening to spread to the neighboring skating rink.

When the crews crossed the street, they realized that the pump house was already partially burning from the inside, though the outside, which was mostly cement, was largely unharmed. The fire was quickly suppressed and the flames emanating from the Plunge were subdued. The large building had collapsed a few minutes earlier while the fire crews looked on.

Two members of the crew were brave enough to move down the remains of the passageway between the buildings to the primary entrance door for the pump house. They cautiously entered, holding their axes close for comfort as much as for a purpose.  The floors inside were littered with bits of cast iron and water. All four boilers were torn to pieces, with the basins shredded at about mid-height and the top collapsed into the bottom. Cement floors and asbestos walls had protected the building from extensive damage despite the violence of the fire within the building.

As the men walked toward the opposite side of the room, one man’s boot found something that easily shattered. Looking down, the man discovered the blackened bone outline of a human youth. The two men looked at each other in horror, and ran back out from where they came from, shouting for their captain as soon as they emerged from the building.

– – – – –

Fred Swanton was waiting at the end of the passage when they came running out. The director-general was wearing a new light grey suit and he had a wry expression on his face. Behind him, the Santa Cruz city chief of police looked on menacingly while beside him The Santa Cruz Sentinel’s editor-in-chief looked sheepish.

“Gentlemen,” Swanton addressed the two fire fighters. “I must thank you for taking care of this problem so efficiently. A fully destroyed entertainment complex is so difficult to rebuild.” Swanton’s expression had turned to a slightly humored grin as he spoke. To the fire fighters, it was eerie considering Swanton had just lost two buildings valued in the millions of dollars. “I presume that you will find the buildings empty of any casualties as they were closed at the time when the fire started.”

“Actually, director-general, we have found evidence that...” the first crewman began to reply.

The smoldering wreckage of the Neptune Casino, June 22, 1906
Swanton quickly waved him off. “I believe you were going to inform me that the buildings are clear of any fatalities.” Swanton turned slightly to look on the other two buildings which were slowly being surveyed by fire crews. The large Casino had apparently finally collapsed and much of the fire extinguished itself at that point. The restaurant across the street was a pile of timbers, with little streams of smoke emanating from some surrounding tents. “You must understand gentlemen,” he continued, “that the future success of Santa Cruz as a tourist resort is linked to the understanding that there were no fatalities in this fire. Do you catch my meaning, sirs?” The smile on Swanton’s face disappeared suddenly.

The two crewmen looked at each other, then one spoke up. “We understand your meaning, director-general, but won’t the press...”

“The press will not be an issue, will it, Mr. Howard?” Swanton said as he turned to The Sentinel’s editor.

“Certainly not, sir. After everything your company has done for Santa Cruz, we do not want to jeopardize that relationship,” Howard sputtered reluctantly with a false sense of loyalty.

“So again, gentlemen,” Swanton resumed, “will there be any problem?”

“No, director-general. However, we do ask what will become of the...refuse?” the crewman said with a strong air of resentment.

“We will take any unusable materials and add them to the foundation of the new building I am planning to start construction on tomorrow,” Swanton replied matter-of-factly.

“So you mean to rebuild?” Howard jumped in excitedly, happy to have some subject to report on.

“Certainly!” Swanton returned with a broad smile. “There is always something doin’ in Santa Cruz, and I want that ‘doin’ to be here! The summer is upon us and we must build, build, build! Investors from San Francisco are already on their way. I called them first thing this morning to discuss the plans.”

“Very good, director-general!” Howard praised. “We are glad that this tragedy is already in the past. I’m sure something new and equally magical will rise out of the ashes of these buildings.”

“Indeed, Mr. Howard. There can never be a dull moment in Santa Cruz.” The three men turned and walked away, leaving the two crewmen alone, pondering a lifetime of shameful silence.

This story is a work of fiction. All reference to historical incidences and individuals is purely for plot purposes and may not represent true events or real-life personalities and attitudes. This story is designed for an adult audience with moments of violence, terror, and the painful deaths of minors and adults throughout. Please direct all comments to the section below. Thank you and enjoy!

* Descriptions of photographs with "*" are fictional and do not actually depict their description. Actual historical photographs and illustrations do not have an asterisk.

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