The Explosion

Dec. 27, 2002
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.

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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.

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.

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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