Over the radio came a roll call. I heard Brian Fahey say I am in the basement. I went to work breaching the wall, which was made of fieldstone and was several feet thick. There was a lot of fire and hard to make it in the basement initially. We later carried out Brian after we placed an American flag over the Stokes basket. John Downing of Ladder 163 got off the tower ladder turntable to help Harry Ford. He did the right thing. His wife and son died of cancer after the fire. It was a bad week for the fire department. Who knew in a few weeks the fire would be off the front pages and not remembered after 9/11?
We were in the firehouse. Senior man Harry Ford was doing his crossword puzzles. Tiger Woods was playing golf on TV. We were cooking lunch. We received a run for a vacant building collapse in Harlem, Manhattan. As we were crossing the Triborough Bridge, the dispatcher gave a report that the building was vacant for years. There was no collapse; the building was coming down for years. Return all special units.
The Manhattan dispatcher said switch to the Queens frequency; they have a run. Captain Hickey switched to the Queens frequency and we made a U-turn at the toll plaza. Respond to Queens “10-75,” Astoria Boulevard, a hardware store. We could look down over the side of the bridge and Brian Fahey said there is the smoke. We were two minutes away from the location. We could hear the handie-talkie traffic. Hazmat and a lot of companies were already there.
We witnessed a commercial building on the corner. Heavy, black smoke was pumping. The forcible-entry saws were cutting the roll-down gates. Chief Seelig said we haven’t found the fire, open up the gates. One gate had been cut and we finished the second one. I entered the hardware store. There was a counter midway back. I got to the rear and took the glass. One window had steel bars and the other had a scissor gate. I carried a thermal imaging camera. Going down the aisles Captain Hickey met Captain Murphy of Squad 288. We have the stairs to the basement. The orders were to hold the fire at the top of the stairs and don’t go down into the basement.
I could feel the charged line. I said let’s make a push. Captain Murphy said who is that? He shined the light in my face. He said the 49 said stay at the top of the stairs. Hickey said let’s look for extension. I could see heat coming up a couple of bays from the basement. There was no visibility. We had our masks on. Squad 288 and Ladder 116 were at the top of the stairs. They could see fire down the stairs with the fire rolling along the ceiling.
Hickey said before you open up, let me call for a second line. Hickey called Chief Seelig several times before he went outside. I pointed the camera to show him the way out. I went back to search for another door or exit. I could look out the rear windows and see that it was two stories down. I went back to Squad 288 and Ladder 116. Brian Fahey was across from me talking. Lieutenant Pat Horn, Ladder 116, opened the door and tried to take a few steps down, but there was too much fire. There were green and blue flames coming through the door. Hickey came back in. He said let’s open the walls. I put the camera in Hickey’s belly so he could feel it because I couldn’t see him.
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.