During a storm at about 12:45 a.m. on May 13, 1913, the famous spire on Knox Presbyterian Church was struck by a great bolt of lightning. The spire was set ablaze, resulting in a tragedy unlike any experienced before by the city's first responders.
Flames were seen about 50 feet from the top of the steeple by Const. Mathew Hamilton and he notified the Stratford Fire Brigade. Firefighters who arrived under the command of Chief Hugh Durkin found fire encircling the steeple being fanned by strong winds.
When the fire burned down to the roof on the southwest corner, a ladder was placed on the southeast end to enable a hose crew to get up on the roof to try to contain the fire in the steeple. Before that could be accomplished the tip of the wooden ladder caught fire and Chief Durkin called for assistance to move it. All firefighters were occupied manning the hose lines, so police Chief John McCarthy and Const. Hamilton jumped in to assist the fire chief, as they had done so many times before.
When bringing the ladder back, a large section of the burned-out steeple slid off the roof. Chief Durkin yelled,“Look out boys, get back.” But it was too late; the burning debris fell on the men. Firefighters and volunteers quickly dug them out. Police Chief John McCarthy Jr. (see McCarthy Road) and Const. Hamilton were killed instantly. Fire Chief Durkin died on his way to the hospital.
He was 46 years old and unmarried. He came to Stratford in 1890 and joined the Stratford Fire Brigade that year. He was appointed captain in 1902 and became chief in 1910. Private funeral services were held for all three civic employees at their respective homes.