23rd Street Fire
The 23rd Street Fire was an incident that took place on October 17, 1966, in the New York City borough of Manhattan, when a group of firefighters from the New York City Fire Department responding to a fire at 7 East 22nd Street entered a building at 6 East 23rd Street as part of an effort to fight the fire. Twelve firefighters were killed after the floor collapsed, the largest loss of life in the department's history until the collapse of the World Trade Center in the September 11 terrorist attacks.
A fire was reported at 9:36 pm at an art dealer located at 7 East 22nd Street, just off Broadway, in a four-story brownstone, transmitted as Box 598. A FDNY report after the incident showed that the dealer had stored highly flammable lacquer, paint, and finished wood frames in the basement. By the time the first firefighters arrived, the intensity of the smoke and heat made it impossible to enter through the 22nd Street side of the building.
Firefighters attempted to approach the burning building through Wonder Drug, a store located at 6 East 23rd Street in a five-story, 45x100 commercial building that abutted the burning art dealership. As part of a recent construction project, a common cellar under the two buildings was renovated, removing a load-bearing dividing wall that had supported the floor above. The removal of the wall allowed the art dealer to increase their storage space and move some of their supplies into a space that was now under the drugstore.
The building at 7 East 22nd Street had a two-story extension adjoining the rear of the building at 6 East 23rd Street. The cellar of the 22nd Street building extended about 35 feet under the drug store. The drugstore's floor was supported by 3" x 14" wood beams. 3/4" wood planking atop these beams was covered with five inches of concrete finished with terrazzo. The fire underneath the store weakened the wooden beams, while the thickness of the floor prevented firefighters from feeling the extreme heat below.
A 15 by 35 foot section of the floor collapsed at 10:39 pm, one hour and three minutes after the initial alarm was transmitted, causing ten firefighters to fall into the burning cellar. Two other firefighters on the first floor were killed in a flashover. In all, twelve firefighters were killed: two chiefs, two lieutenants, and eight firefighters. It took firefighters 14 hours to dig out the rubble and reach their dead comrades. The dead men left behind 12 widows and 32 children. The fire raged to a 5th Alarm.
10,000 firefighters lined Fifth Avenue on October 21, 1966, as ten firetrucks carried ten coffins to separate services at St. Thomas Protestant Episcopal Church and at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Firefighters came from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska and San Francisco, and included a group of 500 firefighters from Boston who had come to pay tribute.
Firefighters killed in the line of duty include:
- Deputy Chief Thomas A. Reilly, FDNY 3rd Division
- Battalion Chief Walter J. Higgins, FDNY 7th Battalion
- Lt. John J. Finley, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
- Lt. Joseph Priore, FDNY Engine Co. 18
- Firefighter John G. Berry, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
- Firefighter James V. Galanaugh, FDNY Engine Co. 18
- Firefighter Rudolph F. Kaminsky, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
- Firefighter Joseph Kelly, FDNY Engine Co. 18
- Firefighter Carl Lee, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
- Firefighter William F. McCarron, FDNY 3rd Division
- Firefighter Daniel L. Rey, FDNY Engine Co. 18
- Firefighter Bernard A. Tepper, FDNY Engine Co. 18
- Duggan, Dennis. "Following in Heroic Footsteps", Newsday, September 15, 2001. Accessed August 7, 2008. "Fernandez was a young firefighter in 1966 at the scene of what until Tuesday had been the worst fire disaster in the department's history when 12 firefighters died at a West 23rd Street fire."
- According to Edward B Watson and Edmund Vincent Gillon, New York Then and Now: 83 Manhattan Sites Photographed in the Past and in the Present, New York: Dover, 1976, ISBN 0-486-23361-8, pp. 158-59, the American Art Galleries.
- O'Donnell, Michelle. "Oct. 17, 1966, When 12 Firemen Died", The New York Times, October 17, 2006. Accessed August 7, 2008.
- "The 23rd. Street Fire, October 17, 1966.", New York City Fire Department. Accessed August 7, 2008.
- Alden, Robert. "Firemen Bear Their Dead Down 5th Ave. in Silent Grief; Throngs Watch as Firemen Bear Their Dead Down Fifth Ave, in Silent Grief", The New York Times, October 22, 1966. Accessed August 7, 2008.