Fifty years ago today, on October 17, 1966, members of the New York Fire Department responded to a fire at East 22nd Street in Manhattan.
The firefighters didn’t know where the fire was burning (though the smoke was obvious) so some of them went into the building at 23rd Street. The idea was to bring hoses in and hit the fire from behind.
What was burning in the 22nd Street building, a subsequent investigation showed, was paint and lacquer that had been stored in the basement by an art dealer. What the firefighters who went into Wonder Drug & Cosmetics, at 6 East 23rd Street, across from Madison Square Park, had no way of knowing was that the store and the 22nd Street building shared a basement, and that an interior basement wall had recently been moved to give the 22nd Street building more underground storage space.
That meant that the drugstore’s thick floor was poorly supported, and as the fire burned below it collapsed, sending 10 firefighters plunging into the basement. Two others were caught by the flames that quickly roared up to the first floor through the huge hole left by the collapse.
12 firefighters were killed that day. At the time, it was the worst loss of life in the history of the NYFD.
I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but there’s a short documentary (produced by the department) about the fire on the NYFD Foundation website.
From Wikipedia, the names of the dead:
Deputy Chief Thomas A. Reilly, FDNY 3rd Division
Battalion Chief Walter J. Higgins, FDNY 7th Battalion
Lt. John J. Finley, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
Lt. Joseph Priore, FDNY Engine Co. 18
Firefighter John G. Berry, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
Firefighter James V. Galanaugh, FDNY Engine Co. 18
Firefighter Rudolph F. Kaminsky, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
Firefighter Joseph Kelly, FDNY Engine Co. 18
Firefighter Carl Lee, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
Firefighter William F. McCarron, FDNY 3rd Division
Firefighter Daniel L. Rey, FDNY Engine Co. 18
Firefighter Bernard A. Tepper, FDNY Engine Co. 18
(I can’t find an official NYFD memorial page. There’s a unofficial historical site, NYFD.com, that does have a memorial page.)
(Does anyone remember being in elementary school and having to watch fire safety films? You know, how to behave when the fire alarm goes off and your school is burning to the ground? Was that only a thing in the mid-1970s? Or even just in certain parts of the country? It seems to me in the distant mists of memory that we were always watching one fire safety film or another when I was in elementary school.)