The Explosion

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

The first report came from Truck 2. They had gotten hung up at a snow bank a block from the incident. Lt. Hamilton reported a large explosion that "got the companies in front of the building and the chief too." The alarm office sent a second alarm. At the same time, we heard 3rd Battalion Chief Supple call for a 3rd alarm and all the ambulances that they could send. He continued to run the operation for 10 minutes until he was transported to the hospital after turning over command to his brother, Division Chief Jack Supple. Harvey ran the fire for those 10 minutes with a 5-inch-long by 1?-inch- thick stake sticking into his neck. He had a fractured collarbone and fractured sternum and ended up getting over 100 stitches to close his various wounds.

We responded on the second alarm. The fire eventually went to a fifth alarm and an extra two trucks (15 engines, eight trucks, two rescues). Upon our arrival, we found the area filling with stunned civilians who were trying to figure out what happened. Our company came down Eagle Street and set up a turret on the rubble to stop the fire that was going on in the church. I jumped from the pumper top with an old multiversal.

Firefighter Walter Jones ran with two 2?-inch lines after me. Our officer, Lt. Pat Coghlan, and our driver, Bob Groulx, were barely able to keep up with the hose Walt was dragging. We then went forward and started searching the rubble for trapped firefighters. DC Supple had instructed companies to come in with lines to aid in the rescue. A major area of concentration was Truck 5's rig which was a 100-foot tiller. It had been blown across the street into a row of houses.

It and the houses were now burning, the chief's concern was that firefighters were trapped under it. At this time firefighters and civilian casualties were being taken to the area hospitals. They were sent in almost every conceivable vehicle, ambulances, police cars, private cars, fire apparatus, and even an animal-control vehicle (dogcatcher's truck). One of the firefighters killed was found immediately and transported. Four of the five were removed within 10 to 20 minutes of the blast. The last man was found about three hours into the operation. He had been buried by a large amount of debris.

It is hard for me to relate in a concise manner all the actions of that night. Being a young firefighter and considering the magnitude of the event, I am left with brief recollections more than with a view of a tactical operation. I remember that shortly after my arrival, erroneous reports were coming in of members being killed. I remember an officer telling me that Mickey Catanzaro was cut badly but okay, and that he had seen him digging around Truck 5. Mickey died instantly when the explosion occurred. I remember digging under Engine 32 with Capt. Don McFeely and having blood fall on me, and I remember praying to God that when I turned over, there would not be a body next to me or above me. There wasn't. I remember seeing 30-year veteran, tough-as-nails firefighters crying and getting really, really scared.

I remember Firefighter Larry Dahn carrying a woman out of a burning house, returning and then carrying out the woman's husband. I remember coming up to Engine 32 and seeing its roof blown off, laying upside down next to it. The crosslays had been blown out of the rig on to the roof of a commercial building that was partially collapsed.

I remember Capt. Larry Sullivan of Engine 1 and his driver Bob Cole being trapped in the cab of the pumper and us using the jaws to cut off the roof and get them out. It was supposed to be Capt. Sullivan's last night on the job. As Engine 1 arrived, his crew said, "Stay in the rig; we got this, Cap." I tried to help firefighters from Engine 1, who were covered in blood from injuries. They would walk away saying, "We had to get the guys who were hurt." I remember seeing DC Supple at about 02:00 on Jefferson Ave. and him telling me that Harvey was alive but that was the most he knew at the time.

I remember for a number of hours, a bunch of us had formed a line to remove brick and debris to uncover Mike Austin. It seemed like we did that for a long time, and the pile did not get smaller. As I said, Mike was removed about 23:30. At that time the chiefs had accounted for our men and all the dead and injured had been transported. We treated the main building now as a large rubbish fire. At about 02:00, I tried to call my wife. I thought she might have heard about the incident. Unfortunately, all the phone lines for blocks around were out. I had no idea at that time what she was going through.