October 17, 1966 was one of the darkest days in the history of the F.D.N.Y. On that day, twelve members of the New York City Fire Department were killed in the line of duty. The following account is one man’s personal experience on that tragic day: the mixed emotions that bombarded him, the final crushing realization that twelve of his brother firefighters had died, and that every man’s life is irrevocably tied to another’s.
I got to work at 5:15 in the afternoon. Another Tuesday, no different from the other six days of the week, to a man in my occupation. I opened my locker and carefully hung my suit in it, replacing the blue chino trousers and blue shirt: the work clothes of a New York City Fireman. It was all so automatic. I had gone through those motions hundreds of times before. Just as hundreds of times before, I had left my family in my home in Patchogue, Long Island to commence the uneventful hour-long ride to Engine Company 24.
THE MEN OF ENGINE 18
When I descended the stairs, it was 5:48 and the bells were sounding. It was nothing new, but the adrenaline started motivating the body of every man in the firehouse. No man ever grows completely indifferent to that sound, no matter how long they’ve responded to it. Box 539 clanged in and we rolled to Jane and West Fourth Streets just as Engine 18 pulled up with little Jimmy Galanaugh in the seat. Jimmy was the type of kid you instinctively wanted to protect because of the impression he gave of being frail. He looked so damn out of place in the seat of that huge fire engine. He had the blond good looks of a college kid, and wasn’t at all the average New Yorker’s idea of what a fireman should look like. It was just one more example of how appearances can be deceiving. He was good at his job, which was what really counted.
On the back step of 18’s pumper were Kelly, Tepper, and the “probie,”Rey. More faces I had seen innumerable times before and taken for granted, for the simple reason that people tend to believe their relationships with each other are continuous and without end. Engine 24 had worked with 18 many times before. Our men, working alongside their men, was an inevitable fact of all our lives. An integral part of many operations; an integral part of a pattern we call “procedure.”
Kelly had been assigned to our company during most of last year’s subway strike. He was never without his pipe, his books (he was always studying for the next Lieutenants’test) and a ready smile. Kelly always smiled. Not just most of the time. Always.
Tepper was a man whose face had no age stamped on it. I could never reconcile myself to the fact that he was forty-one, and not just on the threshold of his thirties. He was just perpetually young. They were both, like Jimmy, two guys a person had to like.
I had only seen the “probie”Rey a few times, but his face was familiar nonetheless. All probies wear that same expression of loneliness, mixed with a tremendous eagerness. I had experienced the feeling behind that expression myself, just as every man in the department has. And that includes my buddy Toby Vetland, who was working with me that night and reading my mind. We had the simultaneous desire to make Rey feel more comfortable, so we went over and spoke to him. Small talk and jokes. He laughed with us gratefully—but he was waiting all the time.
He was anticipating his “big fire.”All probies do. They feel that once they’ve gone through it, and proved themselves to the men they admire, they’ll finally be accepted. He had no way of knowing that every man there always had one eye on him for his sake, not their own. They’d break him in and watch over him at the same time, until he was capable of taking care of himself.
When I was in Japan, the people had a saying about their mountain. “He who doesn’t climb Mt. Fuji once is a fool. He who climbs it twice is an even bigger fool.”Only a fireman can understand the logic behind that and apply it to his breed. Each one anxiously awaits that first big fire, and when it’s all over, he prays that he never sees another one. This fire had been a small one and we returned to our respective quarters when it was out.
EVENING LOOKS ROUTINE
At 7:15, a complaint came in. Since I was scheduled for the detail, I signed myself out to investigate it. Combustible rubbish in the hallway at 71 Barrow Street. It turned out to be a valid complaint, so I issued a violation order to the super of the building. He was to remove the rubbish immediately.
I was on my way back to the firehouse when a civilian called to me and pointed out an open electrical box located in his building, with the wires exposed. I would have issued another violation order except that super of that particular building lived just a few doors out of my district, so I called Engine 18 through headquarters. Kelly turned me over to the Lieutenant Priore, who told me that he’d send a man out on it right away.
When I signed myself back in quarters a few minutes later, it appeared that the evening was going to be a quiet one. A lot of routine. Not that any one of us had ever been guaranteed a completely routine evening; there are no guarantees in this job. But the overall mood of the firehouse was a quiet one.
We began our evening meal at 8:35.
ENGINE 24 RESPONDS TO 4TH
At 9:36, Box 598, the “All hands”came in, which meant that the companies that responded to that first alarm had a fire and were hard at work. We checked the response card. Engine 18 was scheduled to respond on the second alarm and we had to go on the fourth. It didn’t necessarily mean that there would even be a second, third, or fourth alarm. But we stood by.
It was 10:06 when the second alarm came in.
We heard the third at 10:37, and the calm that had prevailed up until then was obscured by a tense, busy, silence as every man prepared himself for a big one. I remember climbing the 101-year-old spiral staircase, telling myself that we had a good crew on tonight. That wasn’t just blind reassurance. It was a good crew. I took the long staircase up to the third floor and put on some heavier clothes. There was a cold wind blowing out there. With an extra pair of socks in my back pocket, I checked for my hose strap and spanner and then went down to wait with the rest of the men on the apparatus floor. All our gear was on the rig.
When the fourth alarm came in, we were ready.
I was cold when we left quarters. Nervous cold. Every man in the crew was feeling that same chill and we remained silent as Bill Miller drove out. Our regular chauffeur, Vic Bengyak, was on vacation and I recall wishing that Bill was on the backstep with us. Every man was evaluating the crew, assuring himself that it was a competent one.
An entire group of stores was burning. It was a big one.
We reported to the Chief in charge and were ordered into a bookstore on Broadway, between 22nd and 23rd Streets. I had the nozzle. Toby was behind me, followed by Joe Tringali--more reassurances.
When the Ladder Company forced the door open, we had our water and were to initiate an operation that we had executed many times before. We went in with two lines; Engine 24 to the right and 13 to the left. As we moved in together, 13 caught a large body of fire to her left. Straight ahead of us was the orange glow of still another body of fire. The heat was insane. There were obstacles in our path no matter where we turned—boxes of books, bookcases, and all sizes and shapes of debris.
Toby jumped onto a crate and I passed the line up to him just as 13’s Lieutenant was yelling for his line. A wall to his left had dropped and, when it did, we discovered that the floor in the next store had collapsed.
Both companies were on top of it immediately, hitting the fire together and pouring water directly into the cellar. It had never occurred to any of us up until then that this fire, which was raging so fiercely all around us, was also burning right below us under the very floor we stood on. Suddenly, the Lieutenant was ordering us out. The floor near the doorway was getting soft and it didn’t take us long, once we heard that, to get out. When our last man was out on the sidewalk, the entire floor that had supported us just seconds before gave way. An overwhelming sense of what could have been passed through me, accompanied by a deep feeling of relief.
There wasn’t even time to talk about our close call. The spectators across Broadway were gasping in unison, and when we heard the ensuing shouts, we directed our eyes upward. There were still companies scrambling to get off the roof of the doomed building and the fire was lapping dangerously close to the aerial ladder that was their only means of escape.
No one had to order us to open our lines. We shot water at a ninety-degree angle up towards them, to shield them from the outstretched hands of the blaze that was slapping at them persistently. We held that stream steady until the last one of them was safely off the roof.
When the building came down, every company was engulfed in smoke and bombarded by debris. When it was all over, the outside walls stood firmly—a monument to something that no one was sure of yet.
The fire had apparently burned itself out and we were all sure that the worst was over. But it was about that time when the rumors started to circulate: missing men! I don’t know who near us first spoke those words, but I remember that we were all tight-lipped. Every one of us was outwardly rejecting the rumor, and inwardly praying that we were right—that the reports were false.
The head count seemed to take an eternity. When the results got back to us, it was difficult to believe. There were twelve men unaccounted for.
Excerpted from "Engine 24: Fire Stories Books 1, 2, and 3" by Joe Corso. Copyright © 0 by Joe Corso. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.