The Stories Behind The Stories Part 2

Harvey Eisner recalls major incidents covered by Firehouse® Magazine and shares recollections of how the information was obtained.


Hackensack Firefighter Fatalities. Five Hackensack, NJ, firefighters were killed while battling a fire in an automobile dealership on July 1, 1988. A wooden bowstring truss collapsed 36 minutes after receipt of the first alarm. I did not learn of the fire until the 5 o'clock TV news. I went to...


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At the time, I was in Detroit to report on Devil's Night and from there I went to cover a training tragedy in Milford, MI, where three probationary firefighters were killed. (I had interviewed the Milford fire chief by phone, but visited the site when I was in Detroit for Devil's Night. A training fire and an arson-recognition drill attended by several departments killed three probationary members, including the wife of one of the chiefs who was setting the training fire.) My flight was delayed and I missed breakfast. When I arrived at the Indianapolis airport, it was just after lunch time. I was taken across the runway to the fire station. I was given a ride in a crash truck and shown how they can pump and roll.

I started to interview the firefighters who had responded to the jet crash. It took a while for them to warm up to me, but when I told them I had reported on the crash in Kenner, LA, and the Air Canada jet that had an inflight fire that flashed over after an emergency landing at the Cincinnati airport, they couldn't stop talking and kept asking me about other incidents I had reported on.

The Happyland Social Club Arson Fire. The deadliest fire in New York City in 79 years killed 87 people March 25, 1990, at the Happy-land Social Club in the Bronx. This fire occurred exactly 79 years to the day from when the Triangle Shirt Waist fire killed 145 sweatshop workers in New York City on March 25, 1911.

The one-alarm fire at the social club was sparked by an angry man who poured gasoline in the entrance way and ignited it. The building had only two entrances, nearly next to each other. There were no windows or rear exits. A portion of the mezzanine had a working sprinkler system. Most of the dead died from carbon monoxide.

I received a telephone call stating that as many as 50 people might be dead in a fire in the Bronx. I turned on my scanner and heard every single- and double-digit car number assigned to the top FDNY chiefs and fire commissioners responding to the scene. I guessed it was true. I eventually wound up inside the building. I was amazed, not only by the death and minor destruction, but after hearing and reading about tragedies for so many years and through history, here was a fire that was the worst in New York City in 79 years. How could something like this happen with all our fire prevention efforts and firefighting capabilities? The fact that it did not have to happen was what startled me.

Worcester. Six firefighters were killed while battling a fire in a vacant warehouse in Worcester, MA, on Dec. 3, 1999. I traveled to Worcester and marched with the more than 30,000 firefighters who attended the memorial service, even though the bodies of some of the firefighters had not yet been recovered from the collapse. I felt very proud to march with firefighters from all over the country.

I returned to Worcester a few more times to interview Chief Mike McNamee, the first incident commander. It was tough for all involved, but I wanted to report what had happened to the American fire service. We first reported on the fire, memorial service and the funerals. The report on the fire and what was known at the time was published a few months later. McNamee and several union members from Worcester traveled to Baltimore to make a presentation following the opening ceremonies at the 2000 Firehouse Expo. Moving video and audio clips from the fire and memorial service were presented.

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Photo by Harvey Eisner
The Passaic fire was started by juveniles and spread to dozens of buildings. The fire in this building is being sucked back inside around the corner.

Passaic Conflagration. A conflagration raced through four blocks of an industrial section of Passaic on Sept. 2, 1985. One firefighter was killed, 11 others were injured and the fire left an estimated $400 million in damage. The fire destroyed 18 factories in a 40-acre site and 15 adjacent homes. I spent seven hours at the fire taking pictures from numerous locations. At one point, the fire jumped the street and ignited the roof of a warehouse. The police told me to move back, it's a dynamite factory. (Yeah, right!) The fire in this exposure created its own firestorm and the fire venting out one side of the building was being sucked in to windows on another side of the structure. A photo that became the cover shot showed several pieces of apparatus battling the blaze. When the fire became too intense these units unhooked, took down their ladders and moved to another position.