Growing up he was the only NOFD Chief I knew. When interviewed it was never about him. He always praised his firefighters when interviewed. R.I.P. Chief McCrossen

Longtime Fire Chief William McCrossen dies
Irish Channel native a 51-year firefighter
Monday, July 12, 2004
By Lynne Jensen

Staff writer


William James McCrossen, believed to be the eldest fire chief in America when he retired at 79 in 1993, died Sunday at the Lindy Boggs Medical Center in New Orleans. He was 90.

Mr. McCrossen served 51 years with the Fire Department, nearly 20 as superintendent. His career was interrupted only by two years of service as a Navy Seabee in the South Pacific during World War II.

Among his many accomplishments was championing the 1975 state statute requiring sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings, said Charles Parent, the current fire chief. Mr. McCrossen pushed for the measure after the 1972 fire in the Rault Center, a downtown building where he saw several people leap to their deaths from the 15th floor.

In his long career of battling blazes large and small, Mr. McCrossen also dodged bullets as sniper Mark Essex shot at firefighters and police from the top of a downtown Howard Johnson hotel in 1973, and he was there when firefighters worked to save the burning Cabildo in 1988.

As a retiree, the former fire chief remained active as the historian of the New Orleans Fire Department Museum on Washington Avenue.

The museum was Mr. McCrossen's dream, and he was its heart and soul.

Former museum director Bob Whitman jokingly called Mr. McCrossen "our oldest living artifact."

Most days, he would head for the museum from his Gentilly home and sit behind a big desk, where a portrait of his father, the firefighter he idolized, smiled down on him from the wall. His uncles were firefighters, too, and he loved to talk to visiting youngsters about the adventures of being a fireman.

"He was an icon, a dyed-in-the-wool firefighter," said Nick Felton, president of New Orleans Firefighters Association Local No. 632.

Mr. McCrossen remained a true firefighter, even as fire chief, Felton said. "Any general-alarm fire, he was there."

New Orleans Coroner Frank Minyard said Mr. McCrossen "was fire chief when I got elected, and he took me under his wing for a time. He was a product of the Irish Channel, and we met at the various watering holes. I really enjoyed his company."

When Mr. McCrossen was growing up in the Irish Channel, the blue uniform of a firefighter was as common as Victorian shotgun houses. "I loved to pass fire stations whenever I had a chance," Mr. McCrossen said in a 1992 interview. "I always visualized, 'I'm going to end up at one of those fire stations.' "

But becoming a firefighter proved trying.

Mr. McCrossen was 3 years old when his father died, and he dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help his mother support the family. He worked as an errand boy for a wholesale drug company and later as a warehouse laborer.

Even rookie jobs with the Fire Department went to those with political connections. But with help from lawyer and political ward boss Robert Skinner, Mr. McCrossen joined the Fire Department at age 28 and set out to succeed.

He passed a high school equivalency test, earned a fire technology degree from Delgado Junior College and worked his way up in the department, starting with a promotion to truck operator in 1951 and ending with his appointment as superintendent by Mayor Moon Landrieu in 1973.

Maria-Kay Chetta, 48, a grants manager in the Mayor's Office of Homeland Security and the Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, recalled childhood days when her father, Nick Chetta, a police detective, would bring her to a Gentilly firehouse to visit Mr. McCrossen, then a captain. The two men were members of the Police and Firemen's Holy Name Society, she said.

Her father and Mr. McCrossen "would talk for hours," she said. Her patience was rewarded with a snowball.

Mr. McCrossen was "a pillar of the community," Chetta said. "He was a tall, towering, proud man," but also humble, she said. He lived in his Gentilly home on Music Street until his death. "He never bought up," she said.

Mr. McCrossen was devoted to his wife, Blanche, who died in 2002, Chetta said. The year after her death was the only time that Mr. McCrossen didn't send personalized Christmas cards to friends, she said.

Mr. McCrossen was a plain-

talking man, Minyard said. "His advice to me was not to take yourself too seriously, do your best and always tell the truth."

Mr. McCrossen loved all aspects of his Irish heritage, said friend and Municipal Court Judge John Shea. "Whether it was a parade or a party, he was there. He was New Orleans from the tip of his toes to the top of his head."

Mr. McCrossen "was not just a cousin but a great friend," former Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris said. "He loved life, and his excitement for the Fire Department never diminished. That flame kept going."

In honor of his devotion to the department, American flags at firehouses will fly at half staff.

Survivors include a son, William McCrossen Jr.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Sunday.

William McCrossen:Retired from N.O. Fire Department in 1993 at age 79 [1158716]