BOX 598 10-17-66
October 12, 2003
A Grievous Day, Eclipsed by Sept. 11
By ROBERT F. WORTH
On 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.
REST IN PEACE TO THE 12......NEVER FORGET !.....................The FF mentioned in the story above who fell into the hole after the collapse while searching for his Unit & held onto the Nozzle & was pulled out was a FF i knew whose Father let me keep my car in their garage while i was in Viet Nam......His name was John "Jack" Donovan ......he lived for several years after this incident & after transferring to LAD*173 made a Roof Rope Rescue being lowered into Jamaica Bay off the North Channel Bridge to rescue a person in the water ...he later passed away from a stroke while a Member of LAD*173.....His Brother Tom was a FF in ENG*53....Manny Fernandez who was very active in FDNY Boxing Passed To a Higher Level in 2020....... Another friend of mine Ed Pospisil was a member of the Fire Patrol & had been in the cellar prior to the collapse & drew a map that was instrumental in ascertaining the correct location to breach a wall & locate the Members in the cellar & received the FDNY Albert S. Johnston Medal ....He subsequently became a career FF in Hartford Conn Retiring as the CPT of TAC*1 (their Squad) .... ALSO let us NEVER FORGET the Bernard Tepper Triangle here in QNS named in Honor of FF Bernard Tepper ENG*18 that day...it is on the intersection of Homelawn St & the South Service Road of the Grand Central Parkway just where Utopia Parkway ends South of QNS College ...JK ..68jk09.
|In this Fellow's recollection of ENG*18 he mentions Ken Pogan being a Buff at ENG*18 back when...Ken went on to become an FDNY Dispatcher then getting Appt to SQ*3 in BKLYN around 1970 then as the SQs were being disbanded in '76 after the fake NYC fiscal crisis ( Ken saw the handwriting on the wall just before & went to ENG*28 when the Lower East Side was burning ) & ultimately getting Gary Howard then in SQ*3 to join him in ENG*28 ... then Ken went to SQ*1 in BKLYN when they were reorganized in Dec '77 becoming a Senior Man there .....Ken in later years went to BN*22 & was the BN*FF driving BC Jack Calderone ....Ken has since Passed To A Higher Level but certainly left his mark OTJ....his Son follows in his footsteps in LAD*3.....Frank Geib also mentioned as a Buff in ENG*18 back then was a NY Fire Patrolman who I worked with when I was there for a short while in '68 between the USMC & getting appt to the FDNY .... Frank later went on to be an FDNY Dispatcher. ...... www.qgazette.com/articles/a-boys-lifelong-heroes/|