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Hickey and Gaine moved into the area on the exposure-4 side. The chief came back in and said they were having a hard time, you may have to go downstairs from here. How much air do you have left, he asked. We all had half tanks left. The chief asked the captain if he thought they had enough air to do it. The chief was going to go outside to coordinate so they didn’t advance and then would give us the green light at that time. There wasn’t any fire coming up the stairs. Murphy started to orchestrate how he was going to have us go down the stairs. He made sure we were all OK. He gave me a nod, are you ready? I looked at him and said something doesn’t feel right. The chief left to go back and a few seconds later the place blew up.
The explosion was like a blockbuster going off, you heard it and then you felt it. The way we felt it, we were in line facing the stairs waiting to go down. It felt like the whole place went up in the air. The floor was like a wave. Everybody in the squad had left-side leg injuries. I felt the floor waving from the exposure-4 side. I didn’t see any fire. It was lights out. It was quiet for a few seconds. All the guys inside were trying to give Maydays. Nothing was coming over the radio. You could hear the firefighters from a few feet away. They were all trying to key their mics at the same time. A couple of people got their Maydays out. I could hear Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, there has been an explosion.
The guys that were in the store started calling for each other. I didn’t have anybody around me, so I gave a Mayday. Chief Seelig said we’re coming to get you. I thought I had fallen down a hole into the basement right at the top of the stairs, I wasn’t sure. When the explosion happened, I went upwards and hit something, possibly the tin ceiling, and I passed shelving units on the way down. That’s why I thought I was in the basement. I pictured the whole Mayday drill verbatim in my mind. Tim Murphy, the door man, was blown out the front door and hit a car parked outside.
After I gave the Mayday, I waited for them. Again I thought I was in the basement and didn’t want to get lost. There were so many things happening they didn’t get to me at that time. I’m waiting, shining my light in the air. I couldn’t find my microphone. There was stock on top of me. After awhile, I said I have to do something. I still didn’t hear anybody in my area, although I heard guys talking initially. The radio traffic was pretty solid. I looked up in the air and saw a little box of light that looked like a flashlight, but it didn’t move. I thought it was daylight. I crawled up a ramp of bricks that appeared to end just before the first-floor ceiling.
When I crawled to the top, I could see Ladder 116’s apparatus. I was unable to walk; there was something wrong with my left leg. So I crawled down the bricks on the outside. I crawled right into Firefighter Joe Vosilla. My mask was still on and being dirty I couldn’t see him trapped in the rubble on the sidewalk. Someone came over to tell me to watch out. There as a firefighter located there. I moved over and crawled into the middle of the street in front of Ladder 116. I took my mask off and could hear PASS alarms going off. I saw Captain Murphy sitting on the sidewalk across the street from the exposure-2 wall that collapsed. Because of the missing wall, you could see fire sporadically in different rooms in the fire building. Shelves with stock were visible. Other injured firefighters were there as well. I said if there is another explosion, the stock could blow out to us. So we all started crawling around the corner. Cops and firefighters helped us around the corner away from the collapse zone. We sat there and waited for EMS.
Squad 288 (now retired)
I was putting the company back in service and we decided to drive back to quarters after a run on 21st Street. A woman flagged us down. We were met by a male resident. He led me into a residential building, into the basement apartment and into the rear common area. There was a black door with a silver padlock in the rear. I felt the door and it was a little warm. Smoke was puffing and you could hear the fire. There was an odor of gasoline. He was the father of one of the two kids playing back there. The firefighters had started to stretch a 1¾-inch handline in front of the residence. I told them the fire was in the hardware store. The 49 Battalion arrived. Firefighter Tim Murphy was forcing entry into the roll-down gates with a saw.