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There were reports of many members missing. I had no idea the exposure-2 side wall had collapsed. After the explosion, we didn’t have a lot of guys to do anything. The guys we did have were missing, injured or in shock. Engine 312 became aware of a member missing. There was a hole that you could see into the basement. I looked in the hole and I could see stripes on a turnout coat. I thought we were going to get to him. A guy from the RAC (Recuperation and Care ) unit came into the hallway with a shovel to remove debris. Squad 41 arrived and I told them to attempt to remove the missing member. The captain from Ladder 116 told everybody working with hand tools to get away from the hallway and the front of the building.
Five to 10 minutes after the first collapse, a second collapse occurred. After the units regrouped, there was a lot more fire in the store and in the basement where we had seen the turnout coat. We brought a line into the area of the hole where we saw the firefighter. We operated saws inside the building. Conditions got real bad. Guys were tumbling out. Eventually, they made a hole in the floor and Firefighter Pat Hickey from Rescue 3 went down a scissor ladder into the hole. There was too much heat and fire for him to continue. There was a concern of another collapse in front of the building. The remaining members of Rescue 4, who were missing two members, were told to stand by. Firefighter John Gaine asked to let them go in and give it another try. Chief Moran operated in exposure 4 as units tried to breach a several-foot-thick wall into the basement.
Rescue 3 and the collapse unit responded to the scene as the second rescue on the signal “10-60” (major emergency). There was a lot of radio traffic on the Queens frequency. Coming over the Triborough Bridge, we could look down on the incident. There was a good fire and a lot of smoke. When we arrived, we positioned the rescue and collapse unit at the intersection. There was a lot of chaos. The building had detonated before we arrived. The exposure-2 side of the building was visible where the wall collapsed.
It took a few minutes to get a handle on what was going on. There was a report of a member trapped in the basement. The last contact they had was his Vibra-Alert was going off ... They were also looking for a couple more firefighters. I saw Firefighter John Giordano from hazmat leaning against a wall across the street; he was exhausted and had an astonished look on his face. I hooked up with John Gaine from Rescue 4. He thought that Brian Fahey was down in the basement in the front portion.
You couldn’t find the stairs initially. The place was charged with smoke. There was zero visibility. There was stock all over the place. Crawling back out, you couldn’t see anything. It was so bad that as I crawled out of the building onto the sidewalk, someone grabbed my shoulder straps and said hey brother, you’re out, you’re out. It was impossible to get downstairs; the fire conditions were too heavy.
The idea was to go into exposure 4 and breach the basement wall. We used the Stanley hydraulic system. The wall was several feet thick. There was a lot of water in the basement of the fire building. There were different-colored fires burning in that basement. I came back out front. There had been a collapse of the front parapet. They were worried about more of the building coming down. We went up the aerial ladder of 154. We slung a wire around the parapet with a griphoist and pulled it down. Eventually, I made my way to the hardware store. Getting into the middle of the floor, I located the basement stairs, which ran from the middle of the store back to the front. I radioed that I had found the stairs. At the bottom, I was in water up to my thighs. It was waist deep. There was smoke, but the fire was knocked down.
Within five or six feet of the stairs, I found Firefighter Brian Fahey of Rescue 4. A few more guys came down. There was no sign of life. We called for a Stokes basket. The stairs were very narrow. We put a rope on the Stokes basket and packaged Firefighter Fahey. A few firefighters pulled on the rope from above and we were able to get him upstairs. We got him up to the first floor and Rescue 4 took over. They carried their brother outside and down the block to a waiting ambulance. Every firefighter in the street took off their helmet and waited in silence as Firefighter Fahey was taken home.
Chief Ray Downey called us over and thanked us for doing a good job. Someone else thanked us for a difficult assignment. I had taken a walk around to the side where the wall had collapsed. They had already located Harry Ford and John Downing. Harry had a tremendous reputation. I thought how could this happen to this guy?