Know Your Enemy #40

A veteran fire officer tells a gripping story of a fatal collapse that caused compulsory retirement to be instituted in New York.


There was still some stock on what remained of the upper floors and from the time to time that along with building material would come crashing down. Fortunately, no one was hurt in those secondary collapses.

The north wall at the first floor level had been breached from a store at 751 Broadway under the direction of Deputy Chief "Wild Bill" Taubert who, although off duty, had come in to offer his services along with hundreds of other men and officers who gave up plans for a festive New Year's Eve when they heard that their comrades were caught in a collapse.

Rescue Co. 1 got into that hole and they started to use their jacks and other tools to lift beams and shore them up. Finally, they heard some one talking to them and they realized they were about to uncover another victim who it turned out was the last of the 21 men who had been trapped when the collapse occurred. This was about six o'clock in the morning.

It turned out to be Lt. Jerry Cronin, H&L 9. "Jerry is there anything that I can get you?" asked a rescuer. "Get me a priest and a blanket that I can chew on so I don't scream out with pain". He was pinned between two floor beams. It took about another half hour before he was finally removed about 6:30 a.m. having been buried for almost 12 hours. He remained on light duty for a long time, but finally returned to full duty and was subsequently promoted to captain and battalion chief, all the time on full duty.

I worked in that neighborhood for years after, both as a fireman and company officer and I never passed that building without thinking of the night we spent there and about the guys who were killed and injured there.

The Aftermath

Within a month, an order came down ordering all firemen, company officer and chief officers over 65 to the Medical Office to determine their fitness to continue on duty. Strangely enough, there were quite a few men in that category especially captains and chief officers. There was a holdover from the days of steam fire engines.

Eugene Pallett, the last Engineer of Steamer, 80 years old, was an early physical fitness enthusiast. When he was examined and told that he failed, he did a hand stand and walked back and forth across the office on his hands asking the doctors if any of them could do the same thing! The premise, and I believe it is still valid, was that any man over 65 years of age did not belong on the fire ground in any capacity much less command responsibility. Shortly thereafter the mandatory retirement at age 65 rule was adopted.

The Agonizing Decision

Chief Kaiser returned and resumed duty as Acting Second Division Deputy. He told me to drive down to 749 Broadway. He said, "I want you to go through the events of that fire from beginning to end."

He then said, "From the time I heard about that fire I was greatly upset by it, first of, all because Bill Hogan was a good friend of mine. Secondly, he was taking my place and I tried to put myself in his position. I have decided that if it was me I would first make sure that I had company officers and chief officers along side of me as you described happened and I would have told the Assistant Chief, I refuse to comply with your ordering units into this building. Undoubtedly, he would have threatened me with charges and done a lot of shouting and screaming. But if that action had been taken, undoubtedly those men would be alive today and the other men would not have been injured. Knowing Bill Hogan as I did there is no way he would not comply with an order even though deep down in his heart he disagreed with it."

Citations

Sixty-nine members received citations for bravery at this fire. The list is led by the two fatalities, Chief Hogan and Fireman Winfield Walsh of H&L 9.

A Brannigan footnote about The Levittown Fire Department

Levittown consisted of thousands of mass produced, reasonably priced homes for returning veterans, encouraged by GI mortgages at reasonable rates. The department was organized by men and officers from New York City.