Incident Report: Remembering the Father’s Day Fire

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...


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As I took the chisel end of the halligan hook, the place blew up. I was blown straight toward the rear. I could see Captain Hickey, I could see the silhouette of Hickey by a big orange fireball. He was in midair sideways. I was lying near the counter. The fireball was gone, but the area was much warmer. There was debris everywhere. We had to climb over piles. I heard Maydays immediately. It was like you were hit by a bat. I just laid there and said what just happened? Maydays were being given by several companies.

Hickey called to me, John, John. Are you OK? Yes, I answered. He asked where are you? I answered I am in the back. I followed his voice. Hickey followed Adam Rand from Squad 288, who was by the front door. There were mounds of debris. There were no longer any aisles. The ceiling tiles and lumber and wire holding the ceiling tiles had collapsed. Adam was lying on his belly on a roll-down gate under the smoke yelling is there anybody in there? This is the way out. He was killed on 9/11. Hickey followed his voice and I followed Hickey. I could hear Adam when I got close to the entrance.

When I made it to the street, Brian Hickey had a look of astonishment on his face. What just happened? Hickey made it to Seelig. He explained we just had a major explosion and there were members still in there trapped. I had lost my tools and helmet. Seelig and Hickey discussed getting two 2½-inch handlines and marching in and getting the guys out. Unbeknown to us, we had no idea that exposure-2 side of the building had collapsed. There was some debris at the exposure 1-2 side. Companies were coming in. Seelig was giving directions to incoming units. Hickey was trying to account for his men on the radio. There was no response from Harry Ford. Brian answered that he was in the basement. I am trapped, come and get me. Brian was in contact three times. The last time his Vibra-Alert was going off.

When the explosion occurred, you could look down into the basement. I left and went right to Ladder 154, who had just arrived. I took a saw and a hook from them. Hickey was still calling Harry without success. Several feet in the hallway of the residential building, I started to open the floor, with the thought of after it was open we could put a portable ladder down to the front of the basement and get Brian.

Everything in the rear was untenable. Heavy smoke was coming out the front. Along the staircase wall, the fire ignited. Someone yelled the fire was over my head. They said they have a line in the street. I said shoot the line over my head, I want to get the floor opened up. Fahey is in the basement. I started to get burned from the steam. Hickey took over the saw and I stuck the line into the wall to darken down the fire. I took over the saw again.

The first special unit to arrive was Squad 41. They tried to get down the ladder, but there was too much heat. Rescue Chief Downey eventually let one firefighter down at a time. Companies tried to breach the exposure-4 basement wall. It was several feet thick. Chief of Department (Peter) Ganci and Chief Downey tried to get in, but there was fire burning on top of the water. Chief Downey made the remaining members of Rescue 4 stand fast.

When I turned the corner on the exposure-2 side of the fire, I couldn’t believe what we saw. Captain Hickey was still calling for Harry Ford. There were reports of firefighters working near a white car on exposure 2. First, a few firefighters started to dig through the rubble between the white car and the wall that collapsed. Eventually, there were dozens of firefighters passing debris from the area. After some time, Harry Ford, then John Downing were located under tons of debris on the sidewalk. When we carried Brian Fahey out, we tried to give him the respect he deserved. At the ambulance, anybody close by took a knee. There was a priest there who said a few prayers.

 

FIREFIGHTER BOB ANDERSON

Chauffeur, Ladder 154 (now Rescue 3)

We were operating at a tree down on Northern Boulevard at the entrance to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. I heard the “10-75.” When the second alarm was transmitted with a report of an explosion and firefighters down, Lieutenant Dan Buckheit said take it in. Lieutenant Buckheit called the dispatcher and said that we were enroute. We pulled up on the corner. There was chaos. It looked like a battle scene. Some firefighters were walking around dazed. Others were crawling across the street. There was utter silence. Bricks were all over the street. Fire was blowing out. There was a Battalion Chief with a bloody face. Firefighters were lying down across the street. They were all in shock.