Editor's Note -- Each year on Dec. 27, at 20:20, the fire department rings out the alarm 1-9-1 to honor the five firefighters of Ladder 5.
Dec. 22--It was the Buffalo Fire Department's darkest night: Dec. 27, 1983.
Thirty years later, longtime Buffalo-area residents remember that five city firefighters, all members of Ladder 5, lost their lives in a horrific propane tank explosion that leveled a four-story building along North Division Street east of downtown.
Many others remember that two civilians, a mother and son who lived near the warehouse, were fatally injured that day.
But outside South Buffalo and the closely knit Buffalo Fire Department community, few people know the fate of the firefighter most seriously injured that day, Gary McAndrews, from Engine 32.
McAndrews was 15 to 20 feet from the Chimera Radiator warehouse when the propane tank exploded.
The force knocked him out of his firefighter boots and hurled him over a fire chief's vehicle. He suffered a shattered left leg and shrapnel wounds all over his body, was unconscious for four days and suffered a stroke 33 days after the blast.
But McAndrews, whose own family didn't think he would survive his massive injuries, is alive and well now.
He is 66, walks with a noticeable limp and speaks mostly in phrases and short sentences.
Still, he is thankful to be alive. Nursed back to health by his wife, Carol, two children and a host of doctors, nurses and friends, he has learned to play golf, can drive, reads newspapers and books and still follows his beloved Detroit Tigers.
And above all, he was there to support his wife and family when their two children had their own medical crises. Their son, Brian, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 11, less than two years after the explosion. And their daughter, Shannon, underwent a 16-hour surgery for a benign brain tumor while still in college, 15 years after the blast.
Both are fine now. Brian is a golf pro. Shannon Krieger is a teacher, and they have given their parents five grandchildren.
Gary McAndrews was asked whether he has thought about why he -- and not the other five firefighters -- survived.
"Millions of times," he said. "My friends passed away. Explosion. And I'm alive. I don't know. I'm thinking Brian's leukemia, Shannon's brain surgery."
Carol McAndrews, relying on her faith, has no doubts that is why her husband survived.
"Absolutely," she said, during a two-hour interview in the couple's Hamburg home. "He was saved because I never could have taken care of my son and daughter without him. No way."
Gary McAndrews went through years of speech therapy. Several times, doctors almost decided to amputate his left leg.
He has persevered, just as the Buffalo Fire Department has, its bonds a little tighter after adjusting to the loss of five brothers.
At 8:23 p.m. that night -- 20:23 in fire-department lingo -- a full assignment was dispatched to North Division and Grosvenor streets, just east of Jefferson Avenue, responding to a report of a "large propane tank leaking in a building."
Engine 32 arrived and reported "nothing showing," as other firefighters raced to the scene, according to Firehouse magazine and other reports. Thirty-seven seconds after the battalion chief announced his arrival, the tank exploded.
Some have described that blast scene simply as a war zone. One division chief commanded the scene with a 5-inch stake sticking in his neck. Some firefighters screamed for help, trapped in their truck. Others raced into burned-out houses to rescue survivors. One fire truck had been blown across the street into a row of houses. Bodies were buried under the rubble.
And some tough-as-nails firefighters were reduced to tears.
As former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Michael Lombardo, then a rookie firefighter, later described the explosion for Firehouse: "It completely leveled the entire 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."