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  • Remembering the 1966 Fire in NY

    October 12, 2003
    A Grievous Day, Eclipsed by Sept. 11
    By ROBERT F. WORTH

    n Oct. 17, 1966, 12 firefighters died while responding to a catastrophic fire across Broadway from the Flatiron Building. For 35 years, the tragedy remained the New York Fire Department's single greatest loss of life.

    For more than two decades, the city marked the anniversary with a solemn ceremony. But in the early 1990's, several years before Oct. 17 was eclipsed by Sept. 11 as the saddest date on the firefighters' calendar, memories began to dim, and the city stopped holding memorial services for those 12 dead men.

    The terrorist attack is still an open wound. Flowers and candles can still be seen in front of firehouses that lost men, and ground zero remains a somber pilgrimage site. T-shirts proclaim that we will "never forget."

    But we do forget. Like many before it, the '66 fire has begun fading into history. All that now remains at the site, a high-rise on East 23rd Street facing Madison Square Park, is a small bronze plaque with the date and the names of the dead.

    Calamities cry out for attention every day, and the sad truth is that huge numbers of casualties trump small ones. So it is not surprising that the loss of 343 firefighters on Sept. 11, 2001, has dwarfed every other Fire Department tragedy.

    A small group of firefighters and relatives still gather on the anniversary of the '66 fire. A few have vowed to bring it back to the city's consciousness. But they know that time and totals are against them.

    "When I started hearing the numbers after Sept. 11, I said to myself, `Well, 12 is nothing now,' " said Manuel Fernandez, who lost all but one of six fellow firefighters in Engine 18 in the '66 fire. "But that shouldn't mean we forget these guys. Twelve men never came home. And it meant a lot to the city at the time."

    Mr. Fernandez has been urging city officials to revive a formal commemoration. As of now, there are no plans to do so, said the Fire Department's chief spokesman, Francis X. Gribbon.

    "Unfortunately," he said, "there have been so many tragic losses in recent history that it would be hard to honor them all separately."

    Photographs from the '66 fire eerily foreshadow the images of Sept. 11. Thousands of haggard firefighters gathered at the scene as the dead were carried out of the blackened building. Thousands more lined Fifth Avenue during the funeral cortege four days later. The heroism of the dead men was proclaimed in headlines for weeks afterward.

    "It really stopped New York City," said Daniel Andrews, who at the time followed Engine 18 as a teenage fire buff and now works in the Queens borough president's office. "You could hear a pin drop on Fifth Avenue during those funerals."

    It all began on a cool evening at 9:30 p.m. Mr. Fernandez, a former professional boxer who had been with Engine 18 on West 10th Street for six years, was upstairs in the kitchen eating a late supper when he heard the first alarm.

    When Engine 18 arrived at 23rd Street and Broadway, several crews were already on the scene. Smoke was rising from one of the buildings along Broadway, but no flames were visible, and the firefighters were confused about the source of the fire.

    "I dropped them off on the 23rd Street side, and it was hazy in there, like a pool room," Mr. Fernandez said. As the "chauffeur," his duty was to man the motor pump on the engine.

    While on the street, he heard a dull roar and knew instantly that something was wrong. He went into the drugstore building where five of his fellow firefighters had gone and began crawling in darkness. "You had about a foot of clear vision," he recalled. "I'm yelling: `Eighteen! Eighteen!' "

    At that moment, he saw a burst of flame in what looked to him like the shape of a Christmas tree, and a tremendous wave of heat struck him in the face. He heard popping — the sound, he later realized, of drug or perfume bottles exploding — and turned to run out.

    He did not know it at the time, but a fire raging in the cellar had caused a vast section of the building's first floor to collapse, taking 10 firefighters down with it and killing two others who had not fallen in. The flames he had seen were rising straight up from the cellar to the rest of the building.

    Standing in the street, Mr. Fernandez watched in horror as curtains of fire began to engulf the block.

    A rescue party made heroic efforts to reach the doomed men, according to a history published in 1993 by the Uniformed Firefighters Association. One firefighter, stumbling forward in the darkness, reached the edge of the collapsed area and fell in. One hand clutched the nozzle of the hose as he fell, and for a few moments, he hung swaying over the abyss, flames licking at his body, before other firefighters pulled him to safety.

    By now, it had become a five-alarm fire, and hundreds of firefighters from all over the city were arriving, including many who were off duty. Ultimately, some 2,000 firefighters responded; at the time it was the largest gathering at a single working fire in American history.

    At 1:30 a.m. the first two bodies were carried out. Thousands of people, including Mayor John V. Lindsay, watched from the street.

    Exhausted, Mr. Fernandez took the subway back to his home in Queens. He recalls drinking a tall glass of Scotch and trying unsuccessfully to sleep. After an hour, he went back to the site.

    Day was breaking, and as the fire gradually came under control, 10 more bodies were found in the smoking ruins of the drugstore.

    Mr. Andrews, the young fire buff, had been uptown when the fire started, complaining to another fire crew that Engine 18 did not see enough action. He raced downtown after hearing the alarms and joined the crowds in the street. He had no inkling that the men he worshiped were already dead.

    After the last body was carried out at 11 a.m., hundreds of weary, soot-blackened firefighters walked across the street into Madison Square Park. They were led by John T. O'Hagan, the chief of department, who had known all the dead men.

    "This is the saddest day in the 100-year history of the Fire Department," Chief O'Hagan said as the firefighters gathered around him and removed their helmets. "They never had a chance. I know that we all died a little in there."

    No civilians were killed in the fire, which investigators said appeared to have been triggered by electrical wires in the basement of an art dealership that had been loaded with wood and flammable paints.

    In the years afterward, the Fire Department marked the anniversary with annual memorial services. On the fifth anniversary, Mayor Lindsay spoke, conjuring up still-fresh memories of the scene. On the 10th anniversary, Mayor Abraham D. Beame presided.

    In 1986, Mr. O'Hagan, then a former fire commissioner, said he thought the department's annual memorial services for firefighters who die in the line of duty should be moved to Oct. 17.

    "Oct. 17 should always be the first and most revered date on the New York City Fire Department calendar," he said.

    Formerly embedded in the sidewalk, the simple plaque now affixed to the Madison Green building on 23rd Street was dedicated at the ceremony. But after an observance of the 25th anniversary, in 1991, the annual rites faded away. Nothing came of Commissioner O'Hagan's proposal.

    As the 35th anniversary of the fire approached in 2001, Mr. Fernandez, who retired from the department in 1990, began urging officials to arrange a remembrance. On Sept. 7, Peter J. Ganci Jr., then the chief of department, promised him something would be done.

    Four days later, Chief Ganci was dead, along with 342 other members of the department. Suddenly the '66 fire seemed almost meaningless by comparison, and Mr. Fernandez dropped his efforts for a year.

    This year's general memorial service honoring members of the department who died in the line of duty was held on Wednesday. And it looks as if there will be no formal ceremony on Friday to mark the anniversary of the '66 fire. But at least one white-haired man will stand near 23rd Street and Broadway, quietly reliving the night he cannot forget.

  • #2
    Their sacrifice will never be forgotten...
    ‎"The education of a firefighter and the continued education of a firefighter is what makes "real" firefighters. Continuous skill development is the core of progressive firefighting. We learn by doing and doing it again and again, both on the training ground and the fireground."
    Lt. Ray McCormack, FDNY

    Comment


    • #3
      October 16, 1967 Cliffside Park, NJ

      Killed in the line of duty

      Fire Chief Gustave A. Genschow - Age 43 - 27-year veteran

      Firefighter Dominick Acquafredda - Age 31 - Engine 2 - 4-year veteran

      Firefighter Harry Brown - Age 26 - Engine 2 - 5-year veteran

      Firefighter James Edwards III - Age 35 - Engine 2

      Firefighter James Lauria - Age 60 - Engine 2



      October 17, 1966 Box 55 598 FDNY

      Killed in the line of duty

      DC Thomas A Reilly, Division .3

      BC Walter J Higgins, Battalion. 7

      Lt John J Finley, Ladder 7

      Lt Joseph Priore, Engine 18

      Fr John G Berry, Ladder 7

      Fr James V Galanaugh, Engine 18

      Fr Rudolph F Kaminsky, Ladder 7

      Fr Joseph Kelly, Engine 18

      Fr Carl Lee Ladder, 7

      Fr William F McCarron, Division 3

      Fr Daniel L Rey, Engine 18

      Fr Bernard A Tepper, Engine 18


      May they rest in everlasting peace!
      Proudly serving as the IACOJ Minister of Information & Propoganda!
      Be Safe! Lookouts-Awareness-Communications-Escape Routes-Safety Zones

      *Gathering Crust Since 1968*
      On the web at www.section2wildfire.com

      Comment


      • #4
        Is there a comprehensive article or book on this tragic incident that I can get my hands on?
        FireResearch:
        I agree that, in some respects, we are losing touch with the ones whose supreme sacrifices are momentarily honored with a solemn procession and ceremony. But another tragedy occurs and we move to that one and the next one and the next one. It seems that we just move from one to another. But the ones to whom it matters the most; the brothers and sisters of the lost ones will never forget. And hopefully, before they pass, they will share that history with the next generation so that the chain will never be broken.
        Thanks for sharing your story.
        CR
        Visit www.iacoj.com
        Remember Bradley Golden (9/25/01)
        RIP HOF Robert J. Compton(ENG6511)

        Comment


        • #5
          When I start my tour I always remember the sacrifices my BROTHERS have made before. Whether it's 343, 12 or 1. This job is not an easy one. That's why the FDNY's Memorial Day is a TRADITION that will HONOR our Dead forever ALL 1,126.
          There is only three excuses not to be there, your working, you have a family emergency, or your being honored on that day.
          NEVER FORGET
          Attached Files
          Last edited by E40FDNYL35; 10-17-2003, 07:40 AM.
          ALL GAVE SOME BUT SOME GAVE ALL
          NEVER FORGET 9-11-01
          343
          CAPT. Frank Callahan Ladder 35 *
          LT. John Ginley Engine 40
          FF. Bruce Gary Engine 40
          FF. Jimmy Giberson Ladder 35
          FF. Michael Otten Ladder 35 *
          FF. Steve Mercado Engine 40 *
          FF. Kevin Bracken Engine 40 *
          FF. Vincent Morello Ladder 35
          FF. Michael Roberts Ladder 35 *
          FF. Michael Lynch Engine 40
          FF. Michael Dauria Engine 40

          Charleston 9
          "If my job was easy a cop would be doing it."
          *******************CLICK HERE*****************

          Comment


          • #6
            ,
            Attached Files
            ALL GAVE SOME BUT SOME GAVE ALL
            NEVER FORGET 9-11-01
            343
            CAPT. Frank Callahan Ladder 35 *
            LT. John Ginley Engine 40
            FF. Bruce Gary Engine 40
            FF. Jimmy Giberson Ladder 35
            FF. Michael Otten Ladder 35 *
            FF. Steve Mercado Engine 40 *
            FF. Kevin Bracken Engine 40 *
            FF. Vincent Morello Ladder 35
            FF. Michael Roberts Ladder 35 *
            FF. Michael Lynch Engine 40
            FF. Michael Dauria Engine 40

            Charleston 9
            "If my job was easy a cop would be doing it."
            *******************CLICK HERE*****************

            Comment


            • #7
              October 17, 1966
              ALL GAVE SOME BUT SOME GAVE ALL
              NEVER FORGET 9-11-01
              343
              CAPT. Frank Callahan Ladder 35 *
              LT. John Ginley Engine 40
              FF. Bruce Gary Engine 40
              FF. Jimmy Giberson Ladder 35
              FF. Michael Otten Ladder 35 *
              FF. Steve Mercado Engine 40 *
              FF. Kevin Bracken Engine 40 *
              FF. Vincent Morello Ladder 35
              FF. Michael Roberts Ladder 35 *
              FF. Michael Lynch Engine 40
              FF. Michael Dauria Engine 40

              Charleston 9
              "If my job was easy a cop would be doing it."
              *******************CLICK HERE*****************

              Comment


              • #8
                .
                ALL GAVE SOME BUT SOME GAVE ALL
                NEVER FORGET 9-11-01
                343
                CAPT. Frank Callahan Ladder 35 *
                LT. John Ginley Engine 40
                FF. Bruce Gary Engine 40
                FF. Jimmy Giberson Ladder 35
                FF. Michael Otten Ladder 35 *
                FF. Steve Mercado Engine 40 *
                FF. Kevin Bracken Engine 40 *
                FF. Vincent Morello Ladder 35
                FF. Michael Roberts Ladder 35 *
                FF. Michael Lynch Engine 40
                FF. Michael Dauria Engine 40

                Charleston 9
                "If my job was easy a cop would be doing it."
                *******************CLICK HERE*****************

                Comment

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