September 19, 2006
The Fallen of the Fire Department, Recovered
By MICHELLE O’DONNELL
The funeral for Fireman James A. Hagan in 1911.
Several years ago, a fire buff named Micheal Boucher began a project about death. Mr. Boucher wanted to compile a list of every firefighter killed in the line of duty since 1865, the year the paid Fire Department of New York was founded.
Mr. Boucher knows the world of firefighters. He is a Fire Department dispatcher, the person who sends firefighters to fires, sometimes to their deaths. The work can leave one with a heavy, if misplaced, feeling of accountability, and Mr. Boucher, a bespectacled fellow, sometimes suffers from that feeling.
The department’s memorial wall at its Brooklyn headquarters has just the name, rank and date of each death, so Mr. Boucher hoped to uncover the story of each death and make the plaque more human.
“I’m not really rewriting history; I’m correcting it,” he said.
So began a long and winding odyssey of hunting for answers regarding a department that, historically, was not given to writing much down.
He was working on 1955 (four deaths) when, at the Fire Department’s library, he ran into another fire buff, Gary R. Urbanowicz, who, it happened, was on a similar if more challenging quest.
Mr. Urbanowicz was trying to track down a record of every New York firefighter who had died before 1865, when the service was a volunteer organization whose records are now largely lost.
Mr. Urbanowicz, a firefighter’s son who sports a healthy mustache just short of handlebars, had noticed that the firefighters who died before 1865 were not named on the official memorial wall. In addition, firefighters from companies outside Manhattan who died before those boroughs merged with Manhattan were also left off the wall.
The two researchers soon recognized that combining their work would capture a more complete account of New York City firefighting deaths. A third Fire Department history buff, Frederick B. Melahn Jr., a retired electrical worker, joined them, and the result of their work, “The Last Alarm,” is now nearing publication by the M. T. Publishing Company of Evansville, Ind.
It was no easy task. They mined city records at the Municipal Archives, defunct newspapers, the department’s daily bureaucratic reports and 100-year-old firehouse log books collected and cataloged by Mr. Melahn, who went to firehouses to pick up antiquated log books that some companies used to start fires. They found that an old newspaper article about a fire might focus on the loss of property and only mention at the end that a firefighter died, but without naming him.
They often worked on Randalls Island in the department’s Mand Library, a small, one-room outpost with an extensive collection of department miscellany. In all, they discovered about 80 Manhattan firefighters who died before 1865 and 50 from the other four boroughs. They believe there might be more because they could not get to some archives.
And they found 16 department members who should have been on the memorial wall but were overlooked, according to Mr. Urbanowicz. “They’re essentially outright mistakes,” he said.
Another buff, Dave Fontana, who was also a firefighter, was doing his own research on firefighters who died during World War II, and became friendly with Mr. Boucher. Firefighter Fontana died on Sept. 11, 2001, and Mr. Boucher was so shaken that he stopped working on the book and did not resume until 2003.
A book with hundreds of entries about death might seem a morbid thing. In fact, it is rather flat and somber, particularly for an institution that is famous for its exuberance, yielding a narrative that is a dense reduction of death.
Still, there is something quietly moving about the list. There is no melodrama in the retelling, just the facts. A firefighter, name unknown, slipped off the Catherine Street ferry on his way to a fire and drowned in 1848. Lt. James T. Brown died three days after his leg was crushed in 1922. Fireman Peter Farley fell down a pole hole in 1949. (The title did not become “firefighter” until 1982, when women first joined the department.)
The entries number over a thousand, and though death is the main protagonist, New York has a strong supporting role. It appears in glimpses of how it used to be, and in some ways still is. Firefighters fell from wooden ladders, drowned in cellars where water pooled, were trampled by runaway horses and run over by trolleys.
They died from cuts infected, the authors believe, with gangrene. They were buried alive under building collapses, poisoned by smoke, drowned after slipping off icy fireboats; they died after being kicked by horses, and fell down stairs.
Often, they lived a few blocks from their firehouses and were carried to their homes, where they died.
In a foreword, Firefighter Fontana’s widow, Marian, wrote that the book confirmed that their deaths were not “in vain, that their sacrifice embodies the resounding good will of our humanity.”
The entries begin, “Name unknown, company unknown” back in the shadows of April 21, 1799. An early morning fire consumed almost an entire city block on Washington Street between Cortlandt and Dey Slips in Manhattan. Four of the city’s volunteer firefighters were injured, and one died the next day. Fireman James F. Calnan died in Manhattan on Christmas Day in 1897, when he tried to steer his speeding engine carriage around a woman and child crossing Tenth Avenue. Fireman Calnan, husband and father of four, veered off the roadway at 39th Street, flew off his seat, and was crushed by the engine. He was 33.
There was Fireman John Madden of Hose 2 of the Coney Island Fire Department, who plunged through the roof of the Bass Hotel on June 17, 1893, when it collapsed.
Fireman Michael Rigney, of Jackson Hose 5, was fatally injured in the collapse of a building on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City on July 17, 1886. Fireman William H. Janes, of Wyandotte Hook and Ladder Company 5, was crushed by chimney bricks on Staten Island on May 11, 1896.
Ten firefighters died at a store fire on April 25, 1854, a mass casualty that the city rarely calls attention to.
Then there was Fireman Joseph Williams, of Engine Company 29, who was 48 minutes late for work on Oct. 28, 1877, a fact noted in the company journal by Fireman James Donovan, who was cleaning a pipe with a knife at the time. Words were exchanged, and Fireman Williams was cut on the left arm. He died two days later “in an exhausted condition from the loss of blood,” according to the manuscript.
Besides the differences in equipment, firefighting operations and the lack of modern medicine like penicillin, the writers grasped what they said was a basic difference between the past and modern times: “Life wasn’t as precious,” Mr. Boucher concluded. “A life back then didn’t count in the old days.”
Or perhaps it only seems that way from the perch of another era. Because a life could be more easily lost then, perhaps that is why there was such a need to save it.
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Thread: Fallen Firemen Remembered.
09-19-2006, 04:03 PM #1
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Fallen Firemen Remembered.
Last edited by FFFRED; 09-19-2006 at 04:05 PM.
09-20-2006, 10:40 AM #2
Good find. Sounds like an interesting book.28 P.R.I.D.E.www.westmead1.com
Protecting Residents In District #1 Everyday
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