The Explosion

A Buffalo captain relflects on an explosion 19 years ago that killed five firefighters, two civilians and injured scores of others.

This is by no means meant to be a technical article. It is, instead, a collection of impressions, memories and feelings that I have about an event that happened 19 years ago. I have never written about it, but I think about it every single day. With all the tactics and technology that we are immersed in, we always have to remember that this is the most human of professions. This story deals with my human side, the feelings of fear, love, sadness, and family. You can certainly discount this as the ramblings of a lunatic. I have after all, been called and considered much worse.

In the Zone

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I feel that I need to give you some background on myself to help you understand more of this story. I started life in the Fifties and was 2 years old when my dad died. My mom worked three jobs to feed four kids. As a kid I would hang around the firehouse near the apartment building where I grew up. The firefighters there were good to me. As an adult, I realize that a lot of my values and lessons in life were learned there. It is also interesting to realize that this was in the days prior to "customer service." The firefighters were just decent people. The battalion chief in that house was a newly promoted guy by the name of Harvey Supple.

He was in the 7th Battalion only a couple years before he went down to the busier 3rd Battalion. He would invite me down to the 3rd, and I would ride all the time. This was the late Sixties and there was tons of fire duty. I went into the military at 18, and Harvey would write to see how I was doing and let me know what was going on at home in Buffalo. Harvey was the closest thing to a father I ever had. When I was appointed to the fire department, Harvey was my battalion chief and his brother Jack Supple was my division chief who ran the city on his shift.

This brings me to the night of December 27, 1983. I was a pretty new firefighter. At 20:23 hours, a full assignment was dispatched to North Division & Grosvenor streets. The three engines, two trucks, rescue and 3rd Battalion were responding to a report of a large propane tank leaking in a building. Engine 32 arrived and reported nothing showing, but they were talking to some workmen from the four-story, heavy-timber warehouse (approx. 50' x 100'). Truck 5, Engine 1 and BC Supple arrived right behind E-32.

Thirty-seven seconds after the chief announced his arrival, there was a tremendous explosion. It completely leveled the four-story building. It demolished many buildings on four different blocks. It seriously damaged buildings that were over a half a mile away. The ensuing fireball started buildings burning on a number of streets. A large gothic church on the next block had a huge section ripped out of it as if a great hand carved out the middle.

A ten-story housing projects a couple blocks away had every window broken and some had even more damage. Engine 32 and Truck 5's firehouse, which was a half mile away or so, had all its windows shattered. This is, I'm sad to say, was just the property damage. The explosion killed the five members of Truck 5. Firefighters Mike Austin, Mickey Catanzaro, Red Lickfeld, Tony Waszkielewicz, and Matty Colpoys were killed instantly. Two civilians were also killed, neighbors of the warehouse who were in their living room watching TV. Eleven firefighters were injured. Several, including chief Supple, were critically injured. Over 150 civilians were transported to hospitals for injuries suffered in the explosion. Scores more were treated at the scene.

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