By Sabina Mollot
Fifty years ago on Monday, October 17, twelve firefighters lost their lives battling a blaze in Flatiron, making the date the deadliest the department would ever know until 9/11.
The fire, which was hidden at first due to illegal building alterations, had prevented firefighters from knowing just what a dangerous situation they were in for.
On Monday, dozens of fire officials and rank and file, along with family members of the fallen firemen, gathered at the Flatiron Plaza for a remembrance ceremony and then a wreath laying at the site of the fire at the corner of 23rd Street and Broadway. Today, it’s home to a high-rise residential building with a plaque alongside it memorializing the deceased firemen.
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro spoke at the ceremony about how the 1966 fire is still a big part of training for firefighters today.
“Every probationary firefighter learns about this in the academy; 23rd Street has been the subject of countless drills,” the commissioner said. “This was the department’s darkest tragedy… and remained so until 9/11.”
On the day the fire broke out, firefighters arrived at the scene following complaints of an odor of smoke from neighbors. At first, the FDNY found nothing at the address, 7 East 22nd Street, but firefighters were still driven out by the amount of heat and smoke that had built up. Soon after that, firefighters checked the building to the rear of 7 East 22nd Street, which was 6 East 23rd Street. Then, as smoke began billowing out of the Wonder Drug store on 23rd Street, firefighters began rushing into the store. Sadly, there were no warning signs for what happened next, which was the first floor of the store collapsing into the basement, and the rear section of the store getting swallowed up. The basement, in a storage area, was where the fire had originated from and apparently had been burning for some time.
Of the 12 firefighters who died, 10 had fallen into the basement when the floor collapsed beneath them, and two who were close by and later succumbed to fire-related injuries, according to FDNY Deputy Chief Jay Jonas.
Jonas, who has done extensive research on what the FDNY has continued to refer to as the “23rd Street fire,” said that alteration work in the building to extend the basement had not been approved by the city. One heavy floor had been held up by wooden beams. The fire had started in storage drums of flammable liquid, lacquer for coating picture frames used by a framing business, in the basement.
In 1966, Jonas explained, the FDNY’s inspection process was still in its infancy.
Today, he added, the odds of a fire happening because of similar structural dangers are much smaller due to FDNY and Department of Building inspection regulations and procedures, though it still could happen.
“You can never say never,” said Jonas, adding he was sure there were still some buildings with illegal conditions. “In fire inspections, you (try to find out) what could possibly go wrong.”
At one point during the ceremony, Christine Priore, the daughter of one of the fallen firefighters, Lieutenant Joseph Priore, spoke about the loyalty she’s seen firefighters show for each other.
“This isn’t a 9-5 job,” she told the crowd. “The FDNY is a legacy that’s passed on through the generations and keeps getting better and better. But what never changes is a fireman’s heart.”
Christine, who’d attended the event with her sister, Alicia was then presented with a helmet in her father’s honor.
Twelve members of nearly every rank, from deputy chief to probationary firefighter, died in the 23rd Street fire. They are: Deputy Chief Thomas A. Reilly and Firefighter William F. McCarron, both of Division 3; Battalion Chief Walter J. Higgins of Battalion 7; Lieutenant Joseph Priore, Firefighter James V. Galanaugh, Firefighter Joseph Kelly, Firefighter Daniel L. Rey and Firefighter Bernard A. Tepper, all of Engine Company 18; and Lieutenant John J. Finley, Firefighter John G. Berry, Firefighter Rudolph F. Kaminsky and Firefighter Carl Lee, all of Ladder Company 7.
Each year on the anniversary, the FDNY gathers for a ceremony. The department is also producing a commemorative book about the fire.