Disaster on Broadway
By John J. Cashman, Lt. (Retired) FDNY. Deceased, February 2002. RIP
This article was published in part by Firehouse Magazine in 1993.
A veteran fire officer tells a gripping story of a fatal collapse that caused compulsory retirement to be instituted in New York. Those familiar with Herman Wouk's Caine Mutiny will see again the agonizing question, how does a subordinate officer react to a disastrously incompetent order?
Comments on disaster on Broadway by Frank Brannigan, SFPE (Fellow) and Author of Building Construction for the Fire Service.
I thought it would be more helpful to the reader to provide these comments before the article, so you would understand certain terms used.
About The Author
Jack Cashman and I were friends for over 60 years. We met in 1937 when we were fellow buffs at 24 Truck in Midtown Manhattan.
Like myself he was a founding members of the Fire Bell Club. I am now the only survivor.
Jack entered FDNY. He came from a fire fighting family. His grandfather was a volunteer who joined the new paid department in 1865, and rose to Deputy Chief. His grandmother was a sister in law of James Dale, the last Chief of the Brooklyn City Fire Department. His uncles were respectively, Captain of 71 Engine, FDNY Assistant Chief of the Fire Patrol, Fire Marshal, Chief of Ridgefield Park; NJ His cousin was a Battalion Chief, FDNY.
Jack was active in the organization of the Levittown, New York Fire Department formed to protect the huge community that sprang up in potato fields to house returning veterans. He was it's first Chief.
After he retired as Lieutenant of 5 Truck after 26 years "south of 14th St", he was Chief of the Barrington, RI Fire Department for ten years. After a standing ovation from the citizens at a public meeting he was fired by the city manager for refusing to sign documents saying that an old three story school being converted to senior housing, was only two stories high and thus did not need sprinklers.
Those of you who study "Building Construction for the Fire Service" are the beneficiaries of a number of nuggets of his hard won experience worked into the text. He is a charter member of the FDNY Honor Legion (At least 5 citations for bravery). He holds the Delehanty and Department Medals for valor. One of his several citations is a Class II for his great personal risk in the Broadway collapse rescues.
About The Fire Department
During the depression there were many officers and firemen acting out of rank to save money. There was even a helmet frontispiece, "Acting Battalion Chief". The fact that command officers were acting above their usual rank was crucial to the disaster which occurred. Acting officers are naturally reluctant to dispute the orders, however incompetent, of a superior. This was especially true in the New York Fire Department of that era.
It was founded in 1865 and many of its original officers had served in the union army. Blind obedience to incompetent superiors cost thousands of lives in that war, but the same military tradition permeated the fire department. All reports began Army style: "Sir, I have the honor to report.....;
Officer's uniform coats were a copy of a cavalry officer's complete with a split back and buttons for horseback riding etc. Firefighter deaths were considered a demonstration of how dangerous a firefighter's job was. In the decade 1930-39 the 6000 man department suffered 82 line of duty deaths which were accepted as part of the job, much as military casualties are accepted in battle.
The area below 14th Street was considered by the fire department to be special. Originally, firefighters had to serve several years below 14 Street before they could be transferred elsewhere. The firefighters who served there were called the "Iron Men" and they perpetuated this sobriquet as they were transferred to other areas, by telling sea stories. I can testify from personal observation that the truth was tough enough and needed no embellishment.