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Three firefighters were killed and 50 other people, including firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians, were injured following a tremendous explosion in a hardware store. The fire which was originally reported at 12-22 Astoria Blvd. in Queens (Box 7512) at 2:20 P.M. on Father's Day, June 17, nearly leveled the two-story brick, 128- year-old building.
Apparently, there was another run in the area only moments before. Units were assigned and nearby Squad 288 transmitted a 10-75 (request for a full assignment). Two lines were stretched and reportedly the chief officer in charge was using all hands (full-first-alarm assignment) and going to request a second alarm when the explosion ripped through the structure.
The fire escalated to five alarms within minutes following the blast. A roll call determined three firefighters were missing. Special calls for additional rescue and squad companies from throughout the city, additional engines and ladders and battalion chiefs reached nearly 10 alarms. The cause of the tragedy is under investigation. The explosion blew several firefighters out into the street off the hoseline. Many suffered broken bones.
Two firefighters, Harry Ford, 50, of Rescue Company 4 and John Downing, 40, of Ladder Company 163 were working outside to open the building for ventilation and were buried after the blast by two floors of bricks and debris. They were killed. Still other firefighters making their way down the hallway of the hardware store were lifted up and bounced off the first-floor ceiling. Outside, firefighters took the impact of the bricks and pieces of building. Two firefighters received critical injuries. Many other firefighters suffered broken bones, cuts and burns.
One of the firefighters in the hardware store hallway was thrown into the basement. Firefighter Brian Fahey, 46, of Rescue Company 4 called on his radio several times and told his unit of his location. Herculean efforts to gain access to the area were thwarted by heavy fire conditions. An attempt to breach the basement wall from the exposure was successful, but it was determined there was waist-high water inside. Searches inside the breach were unsuccessful. It took about three hours of careful searching among the precarious remains of the partially collapsed building when his body was finally located. Notifications to families of all the dead and injured were a monumental task. Immediately after the blast, injured members were removed by all available means to hospitals and the New York Hospital-Cornell Burn Center, which FDNY members vigorously support.
These are the third, fourth and fifth line-of-duty deaths suffered by the FDNY this year. Rescue Company 4, which protects Queens (including Kennedy Airport, LaGuardia Airport and Shea Stadium), suffered two other line-of-duty deaths in recent years. Lieutenant Thomas Williams was killed while battling an arson fire in Maspeth in 1992. Firefighter Peter McLaughlin died in Long Island City in 1995.
Harvey Eisner, reporting from the scene