Remembering Bravest lost in '66

NY Daily News - October 18, 2006

by TINA MOORE

The men are now in their 70s or 80s, but the imprint the 23rd St. fire has left on their memories is indelible.

"Most of us worked at that fire 40 years ago," Sol Elias, 71, said yesterday at an anniversary service at the site on 23rd St. and Broadway. "It was hell, knowing you lost a bunch of brothers."

He and other retired firemen remembered the comrades they lost in what was the FDNY's largest loss of life at a single fire before Sept. 11, 2001.

They were joined at the somber service by widows, children and grandchildren as department officials praised the men killed exactly 40 years before.

"We were on the other side of that wall when those 12 fellas went down," William O'Keefe, who suffered second- and third-degree burns while fighting the blaze, told the Daily News. "We just made it out through the grace of God."

Walter Clarke, 75, said he had seldom talked about the fire - a raging inferno adjacent to a drugstore - since Oct. 17, 1966.

"But in the last few weeks, I've been going over it and over it," Clarke said. "I can remember every detail."

So can Manny Fernandez of Ladder 18 - he was driving the truck that night. "I dropped them off and they went into the drugstore. I was hooking up and heard a boom," he said. "I crawled in yelling, 'Eighteen! Eighteen!' By then, the back of the floor had lit up."

Chaplain Fred Eckhardt, now 81, tried to stop him.

"He was going in after them, and I grabbed him and said, 'Manny, it's not going to do any good,'" he recalled.

In the days that followed, Eckhardt consoled 12 widows who were left with a total of 32 children.

Tony Liotta, who was 34 in 1966, was at the site in the days that followed.

"We were in the cellar where the men were buried," he said. "We found the men and carried them out."

He remembers talking to a wife who was waiting to hear whether her husband had been found. "I just held her," he said, choking back tears. "I didn't know what to say. I saw her husband in the basement."

The pain also was near the surface for Jeanette Harrison, whose husband, Rudolph Kaminsky, was killed.

"It's still there," she said, tears quickly welling up in her eyes. "I still remember it; all the shock and the disbelief."