A Month for Mourning From Coast to Coast
Bells, Buffs and Blazes
Whether in a smoke-clogged building or on a flaming hillside, death hangs silently, ominously, and ever present, as it did those days in October when 12 firemen perished in New York and not long after 11 more were fatally burned in California.
Chief of Department John T. O’Hagan of New York summed it up for fire fighters everywhere when he said at the scene of that city’s heartbreak, “We all died a little in there.”
Shortly after 10:37 that Monday night in Manhattan, the American Red Cross canteen unit manned by members of the Third Alarm Association turned out on the 3-3 Signal from Box 598, Broadway and 21st Street.
It would be a night they would never forget.
“Some 32 TAA members were on hand for the night operations,” said Bernard Grandjany of the service club. “And a dozen staff and volunteer ARC men and women pitched in and manned the canteen during the next day.”
More than 1500 firemen, policemen, members of other city agencies, reporters and others were fed by the combined efforts of the TAA and the Red Cross.
“The canteen was besieged for 14 hours Tuesday, when the search for additional bodies continued, and firemen due to be relieved refused to leave the scene until all bodies were recovered,” said Bernie.
“The word spread throughout the department that 10 members were still missing, and upon completion of their 15-hour tour of duty the next morning, firemen in each of the five boroughs, instead of returning home, silently left their quarters with helmets, boots, and turnout coats and proceeded to the scene of the collapse.
“By 10 o’clock Tuesday morning, there were 1000 off-duty firemen at the scene, awaiting their turn to enter the cellar and search for their fellow firemen. This is the tradition of the fire department. Nobody told these off-duty men to respond. They just arrived.”
It is a commentary upon the department that the commissary of a nearby life insurance company announced it would furnish a hot meal free to all firemen who desired one.
“However,” says Bernie, “such is the loyalty and the bravery of the men of FDNY that not a man moved to partake of this meal. Each one explained that he had placed his name on a list to enter the cellar and attempt to rescue his ‘brothers’ and could not accept the invitation and possibly lose the chance to engage in rescue operations.”
An idea of the burden undertaken by the TAA and Red Cross volunteers is their report showing that they dispensed 300 gallons of coffee and more than 100 gallons of bouillon and other beverages, in addition to some 700 sandwiches and other food.
If the tragedy staggered even veteran fire fighters, it became even more unbelievable a few days later on the brushcovered slopes north of Los Angeles, where a raging brush fire, touched off by Santa Ana winds that blew down a power line, burned all day and into the early evening.
In one of those freakish happenings that has long since made Los Angeles area brush fire fighters think of this type of fire as having its own savage personality, flames suddenly whiplashed over a hotshot crew from the United States Forest Service.
There was no digging through tons of debris for these fire fighters, but the task of removal was almost as complicated as helicopters groped along the darkened hillside in search of the dead and badly burned.
The tributes to these fallen men will long be remembered. In New York, John J. Weisberger was reminded of his friend, the late Dr. Harry Archer, perhaps the most famous fire buff in all of New York’s history if not, indeed, all of buffdom. Dr. Archer will long be remembered for his heroic work at other New York fire tragedies over the years as he tended to the dead and dying.
“You can bet all the tea in China that the ghost of Dr. Archer hovered over that area. I was with him many times at multiple alarms in that same Flatiron Building area where the fire ambulance, under his direction, set up a field hospital just as Ambulance 1 did on the night of the collapse.”
Dr. Archer and John were fellow members of the famed Cycle Club, whose members—firemen and buffs—kept fit through bicycling. The club is still very much in existence today.
As New York and Los Angeles mourned its dead fire fighters, funds were set up. In New York, more than $500,000 was soon raised for the widows and orphans from contributions to “Dependents of the 22nd Street Fire, 1966,” which were sent to Fire Commissioner Robert O. Lowery, Room 1132, Municipal Building, New York, N. Y. 10007. Los Angeles civic groups elected to set up plaques at the disaster site and to raise money for a burn center. Contributions were being sent to Firefighters Memorial Fund, c/o Crocker Citizens Bank, 9077 Woodman Avenue, Pacoima, Calif.
And the Los Angeles sadness was deepened by the death of Fred Allen, who had been president of the Box 15 Club for seven consecutive terms and, more recently, was chairman of the hoard of directors. Dale Magee, Box 15 president, eulogized Fred: “He was a fine man, a great fire buff, and a dear friend. We will all miss him.”
And so will I.
Please continue to send along your news reports and other comments to me at Box 814, Northridge, Calif. 91324.