There’s a small plaque outside the pharmacy at 6
East 23rd Street. It is a modest affair, barely
visible from the sidewalk. Even the drugstore’s customers don’t see it, though
it’s at eye level and to your right as you enter the store. Engraved on the
plaque are the names of 12 firefighters, victims of the New York Fire
Department’s worst disaster-until Sept. 11.
At 9:36 p.m. on
the night of Oct. 17, 1966,
Engine Co. 18 and Ladder Co. 7 responded to the report of a fire at Wonder
Drugs on East 23rd Street,
adjacent to the Flatiron Building.
The fire was in the store’s basement, but the firefighters didn’t realize they
were standing right above the heart of the blaze because the five-inch concrete
floor insulated them from the heat below. The floor collapsed, sending 10 men
into the inferno below. They all died. Two more were killed when a ball of
flame exploded from the basement.
I visit the plaque whenever I’m in the neighborhood. I
didn’t know the men or their children, but my connection is personal all the
same: My father’s friend (and, as these things go, my friend’s father), a newly
minted lieutenant in the NYFD, was due to work the 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. shift on
Oct. 17, 1966, but he worked a mutual-that is, he traded shifts-with another
lieutenant so he could celebrate his daughter’s First Communion. His
replacement’s name is written on that plaque. I don’t think my father’s friend
ever got over the pain.
Someday there will be a plaque at the World
site, and, terribly, it will be neither modest nor easily ignored. It will bear
not 12 names, but 12 times 12 and dozens more. Perhaps then we will realize, if we don’t now, that we need not search the past for
heroes, for they are in our midst, disguised as our neighbors, our friends, our
“These men-I would put my own children into the arms of any
of these men, and you would, too,” said author Dennis Smith. Mr. Smith gained
literary fame when his first-person account of firefighting in the Bronx, Report from Engine Co. 82, was
published in the late 1970’s. He has been off the job for years, but he still
stays in touch, and even served as a volunteer with Ladder Co. 16 at the Trade
Center on Sept. 11.
When, finally, the awful list of the Fire Department’s dead
and missing was released on Sept. 17, Mr. Smith knew the stories behind the
names. “Paddy Brown,” he said, referring to Patrick Brown of Ladder Co. 3 in Manhattan,
officially listed as missing. “Paddy Brown-you know, around the firehouse, it’s
enough to say about somebody, ‘He’s a good fireman.’ But ‘good’ is not enough
for Paddy Brown. He came back from Vietnam
with all kinds of medals. He got his picture in the newspapers back in the mid-1990’s, when he lowered one of his men on a rope to pick
up a victim of a fire in Times Square. When he wasn’t
working, he taught karate to blind people.
“And Brian Hickey, who was the captain of
Rescue 4 in Queens. Last month, he got blown out of the building in Astoria
where three firemen were killed. He could have gotten three-quarters
[disability pension] easy. But he wanted to come back to the job.” Capt. Hickey
is still missing.
Mr. Smith noted that because the first alarms came in just
before 9 o’clock, which marks the end
of the overnight shift and the beginning of the day shift, some engine, ladder
and rescue companies responded with double their normal personnel. Firefighters
arriving early for the day shift jumped on board their rigs, joining colleagues
minutes away from being relieved. And, in some cases, they all died.
“When I was at the site, a
deputy chief came over to me,” Mr. Smith said. “I don’t know his name. He tried
to encourage me, saying, ‘We’ll get through this.’ And I asked him if anybody
had word about Terry Hatton, the captain of Rescue 1. He broke down. He said,
‘When I think about the big numbers, I can handle it and do the job. But as
each name gets attached to a figure, it just hurts deeper and deeper.'” Capt.
Hatton is still missing.
Mr. Smith helps raise money for the New York Police &
Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund. One hundred percent of the money it
raises-$7.3 million since it was founded in 1985 by ex-Met Rusty Staub-goes to
the survivors of this city’s heroes.
In this terrible hour for the New York Fire Department,
please consider sending a donation to the fund at the following address:
PFWCBF, P.O. Box 3713, Grand Central Station, New York, N.Y. 10163.