BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The fire alarm had already rung once that night. Then came another.
On October 31, 1940, the Birmingham Fire and Rescue’s Station No. 18 in Pratt City received the first call a little after 8 p.m. from the fire alarm box at Falls Street and Third Avenue. In those days, “fireboxes” were placed in busy intersections so they could be accessed by community members since in-home alarms had not been invented yet. To activate the alarm, a lever needed to be pulled to spark an electrical current, sending a signal to the nearest station about a possible fire or emergency.
The first call to Pratt City was somehow determined to be a false alarm, but an hour later, another call came from the same box. The firefighter crew, who had previously been entertaining children visiting the station, hopped into action, even though some suspected it was another false alarm.
“Veteran that he is, (operator) Crossett had a hunch the alarm was another false one, but he had no alternative–the company must roll,” The Birmingham News reported in an article published the next day.
James Terry Pearson, a 38-year-old firefighter better known as “J.T.,” jumped onto the back of the truck, joining the brigade he had been a part of for the last 15 years.
Driving out to the call, the truck crossed over the railroad at First Street when it was struck by a locomotive. In press reports, firefighters said the locomotive seemed to “appear from nowhere” when it hit the back of the truck, throwing Pearson onto the street.
“The men atop the hose cart first called ‘go-ahead,’ and then as they noticed Pearson was no longer on the back step, called to the driver to stop,” the News reported. “The group returned to find Pearson dead upon the pavement!”
While the department called in another truck to assist the firefighters, another false alarm rang from the same box. Two more would come in from the Pratt City box, bringing the total to five false alarms from the location.
News of Pearson’s death swept across the city. Even Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s public safety commissioner who would later be known for his resistance to the civil rights movement, commissioned two detectives to get to the bottom of the fatal Halloween alarm.
“Somebody’s violation of the law has cost the city an efficient servant, one of the best of the department,” Connor told The Associated Press.
Police arrested 19-year-old R. Veal Benning and John Henry Farmer, who reportedly confessed to sounding the Pratt City alarm, two days later. On Nov. 17, 1940, they were both convicted of turning in a false fire alarm and sentenced to six months in jail in addition to each having to pay a $100 fine.
Two years before Pearson’s death, another Halloween prank also led to a fatality in Birmingham. Stonemason Elviro DiLaura was on his way to fix stone stairs at the Vulcan statue that had been damaged during Halloween of 1938. DiLaura died after he was struck by a tree cut down as crews cleaned up from that year’s pranks.
The night Pearson died, a total of 19 prank calls were reported to fire and police stations across Birmingham. But even outside the Halloween season, prank calls in the city had caused death and injury. In 1925, a driver was killed when her car was struck by a fire truck traveling to a call turning out to be a false alarm. In 1917, George Crossett, the dispatcher who received the call resulting in Pearson’s death, hurt one of his legs while responding to a false alarm.
“Records show more firemen have been injured and more damage done to fire equipment and apparatus while answering false alarms than while making runs to real fires,” the Birmingham News reported in 1940.
The next Halloween, “Bull” Connor continued to discourage prank calls: “Recalling the death last Halloween of City Fireman J.T. Pearson in answering a false alarm, Commissioner of Public Safety Connor Wednesday warned Halloween celebrants that false alarms and the willful destruction of property in the name of Halloween will not be tolerated,” the News reported on October 30, 1941.
Today, Birmingham Fire and Rescue works with more sophisticated technology than fire alarm boxes, and Battalion Chief Sebastian Carillo told CBS 42 false calls are not really an issue for the department anymore.
“Technology has taken care of all that,” said Carillo, explaining that departments are now able to use their 911 systems to track the location and validity of calls. “We can actually trace those kinds of things,” he added.
Pearson, who had been known to offer free blood transfusions to those who couldn’t afford donors, had a wife, Eunice, and a son, James Terry Pearson Jr., who was 14 years old at the time of his death. Pearson is buried at Elmwood Cemetery.