The Explosion

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

At about 8:45 that evening, the news about the tragedy started breaking on evening TV. As terrible as it was, the reports were worse. One report said that the entire 3rd Battalion had been wiped out. A scroll at the bottom of the screen during the Sabres hockey game said 23 firefighters were dead.

These reports had families and loved ones frantic. Engine 19 was relocated to Engine 32's house during the fire. The crew had a hard time, since the dinner of E-32 & T-5 was still on the table. The phone at the firehouse was ringing with calls from family of the crews. Engine 19 finally called the alarm office and asked to be sent to the fire or anywhere else. They were sent shortly thereafter to the fire.

My wife called the firehouse where there was no answer. She then tried all different places to get info on my crew and me. She was now in contact with the wives of the other guys in my company. My wife is a RN and at that time was a new nurse at Buffalo General Hospital. After exhausting all attempts through the FD, she called BGH's emergency room. A nurse she knew told her that there was a guy in the ER who had a big mustache was about my size and was dead, and that it could be me. She asked if Sandy wanted to come to the hospital to take a look. Sandy said she would wait for the FD to call. (The real heroes are the ones at home. I cannot imagine going through that.)

Unknown to us, this had become a big story. All the local stations went to it live for the rest of the night. At 11:30, it was on Nightline. At about 04:00, we returned to quarters and I called my wife. We had a very tearful talk, and I told her I would see her later. That morning she had to work at the hospital. At morning report, Sandy broke down when talk of the explosion and the casualties came up. They let her go home, and I picked her up and we went home to our kids.

That night, I reported to work as the brass and union started planning funerals. That week was a blur as I attended the wakes for our brothers. I would go to the hospitals and check on Chief Supple and other guys who were hurt. My wife ended up taking care of Gary McAndrews, who was critically hurt in the blast. On New Year's Eve 1983, 12,000 firefighters from all over the world came to Buffalo to honor our brothers. We ended up having a couple guys from out of town spend New Year's Day with us that year. This had a profound effect on many others and me. I have tried to go to any funeral for a firefighter that I could since then. It had effects that I did not realize at the time. My Daughter was seven years old at that time. She often points to that week and all its events as a big reason why, 13 years later, she joined the BFD. She has seven years on now and is assigned to Engine 31.

The men who died or were injured truly were heroes, but they were also dads and husbands and sons. They were little league coaches, and guys working second jobs to make ends meet. They weren't supermen but they did super things. They cared enough about others to give their all!

I still don't know what lessons I learned or should have learned from this catastrophe. But the important things from this I know are these: Hug your wife and kids every chance you get; thank the people that have helped you get where you are (you never know if you will get another chance); have fun and enjoy yourself (it's not a dress rehearsal). I am pretty sure there is a return date stamped on the inside of your forehead. Hug your wife and kids: Oh, I said that one already.

Stay safe.

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