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Editor’s note: A five-alarm fire in a hardware store in the Astoria section of Queens, NY, on June 17, 2001, killed three FDNY members – Lieutenant John Downing, Firefighter Brian Fahey and Firefighter Harry Ford – and injured numerous others. There were nearly a dozen career-ending injuries from this incident. The fact that the fire occurred on Father’s Day was traumatic not only to the families, firefighters and fire department, but to the entire City of New York. Charities set up for the families raised several million dollars, something that was unheard of in the city before this tragedy. Just over three months after this incident, 9/11 would be the worst day in the FDNY and have a tremendous impact on America. Some people say the Father’s Day fire, as terrible as it was at the time, has been forgotten, but we say it was just overshadowed by 9/11. I spoke to all but one of the firefighters right after the fire. As the 10th anniversary approaches, we recall what happened on that Father’s Day in June 2001.
(now Deputy Assistant
Chief of the Special
I had been at a reported hazmat incident where nothing was found. Squad 288 gave a “10-75” (working fire) a few blocks away. As I arrived, Squad 288 was operating a saw to cut roll-down gates. I walked down the exposure-2 side to take a look. A civilian approached me and said I know where the fire was located. He said it’s right behind a door in the exposure-3 alley. I thought it was a better way to attack the fire. I had Engine 262, second due, stretch a line to the rear rather than the interior stairs. Ladder 163 was arriving on the exposure-2 side of the building. I had Ladder 163 work with Engine 262 to force the door in the rear. Apparently, kids had spilled some gasoline and it was the father who pointed out where the fire was located.
Squad 288 opened the roll-down gates. Chief Kevin Duffy of the 45 Battalion arrived. I had him supervise the operation in the rear. Squad 288 had a hoseline in the fire building at the top of the basement stairs. Several times, the door opened. They could hear aerosol cans exploding and possibly electrical arcing. Conditions on the first floor were getting bad. I told Squad 288 to keep the basement door closed and protect the stairs.
I went in with Squad 288, who was at the top of the stairs. They said they had a half tank left in their SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). Rescue 4 called for a line as they had some fire extension on the first floor. Engine 312 stretched a line into the store. Captain Brian Hickey of Rescue 4 asked Mike Milner of Rescue 4 if he needed a line on the second floor. He said no. I called the 45 Battalion and asked how they were doing. They said there was a problem with the door. I said if you can’t make it, we’ll try from here. The third time I asked, the 45 said we’re in, but there is another door. They used the Rabbit tool and then a Hurst tool. They were able to only open the outside door 15 inches. Engine 262 was going to advance, but the 45 said do not enter until the entire door is open.
I went outside to check on Engine 312. It was getting pretty bad inside the store when Battalion Chief John Moran of the same battalion arrived. He was detailed to the Special Operations Command. I was talking to him for about 30 seconds. A member of Ladder 163 got a saw to cut the hinge on the rear exterior door. The officer of Ladder 163 slipped inside and was halfway in and halfway out when the building exploded. The explosion blew me, Chief Moran and Engine 312 into the street. The 49 Battalion aide, who was at the corner of exposure 1 and 2, was knocked into the corner. The 14th Division aide reported to the Queens dispatcher to transmit a second alarm and that there had been an explosion. Deputy Chief Arty Messbauer of the 14th Division, who had just arrived seconds earlier, walked back to the car and had the aide request a fourth alarm.