FDNY marks 40th anniversary of second-deadliest blaze

Newsday - October 18, 2006

by RICHARD PYLE

NEW YORK -- As tragedy it paled next to the losses of 9/11, but the fiery floor collapse that cost the lives of a dozen New York City firefighters 40 years ago was remembered on Tuesday in much the same way _ with fervent prayers and words of encouragement to the families of the fallen.

The 23rd Street fire, as it is still known, began in a cellar of an art store on Oct. 17, 1966, and firefighters were trying to reach it through an adjoining drugstore when the store's floor caved in.

The 12 men killed _ a division chief, a battalion chief, two lieutenants and eight firefighters, one of them brand new to the job _ represented the highest casualty toll in department history until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, in which 343 firefighters died.

As present-day firefighters stood in ranks in the gentle rain, officials and veterans of the department recalled the calamity that occurred as the fire spread from building to building, and the 12 men entered the smoke-filled drugstore.

Ten were killed in the floor collapse and two in a flashover inside the store. A later investigation showed that unknown to the department, support braces under the floor had been removed to increase storage space.

"I heard a boom and saw two guys run out. I couldn't see anyone standing up, and I was yelling '18! 18!' but I didn't realize until later that they were all gone," recalled retired Capt. Manuel Fernandez, 75, who was the driver for Engine 18 that day, and the only survivor among its six members.

The dead also included four members of Ladder 7, another of several units that responded to the fire. Both companies brought their trucks to the ceremony marking the 40th anniversary. Several family members represented the dead firefighters, who left 32 children.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta recalled that after the fire, thousands of firefighters had gathered across the street in Madison Square, where then-Commissioner and Department Chief John O'Hagan told them, "I know that we all died a little in there."

In the "fast-paced city" of New York, "the fire department sees the passage of time a little differently," Scoppetta said. "We never forget the sacrifices that our members and their families are called upon to make."

Chief of Department Salvatore Cassano told the gathering that firefighters "work with each other and we die with each other," and there is no higher calling than a job where one may have to "give your life for someone you don't know, or the person next to you."

To relatives of the dead firefighters, he said, "The fire department will be here for you forever."

Led by Scoppetta and Cassano, officials laid a wreath next to a commemorative plaque on the wall of a 30-story apartment building that now occupies the drugstore site.