Death in Astoria

An Eyewitness to Flame and Frenzy

 On June 17, 2001, the day three firefighters perished in a conflagration at Long Island General Supply in Astoria, Daniel Forbes, a reporter, who lives in the area, was behind police lines. This is his eyewitness account. (A shorter version of this article appeared previously in Newsday.)

No matter their shape or age, the firemen all look alike coming up the smoky steps from the hardware store's basement. Dazed, they strip their helmets off and stare, dripping sweat, snot coming from their noses, some faces a florid red, some streaked with soot. Three or four hands reach out to grab them under the arms, leading them unsteadily over the jumbled hoses and discarded oxygen tanks. A few feet on they pull their own tanks from their backs and remove the tan shrouds they wear to keep death from their faces.

Battle fatigue: a brief respite before re-entering the fray
photo: Ron Antonelli
Battle fatigue: a brief respite before re-entering the fray

A man comes from the smoke and drops to all fours, gulping the water squirting from the imperfect mating of two hoses. He's sitting on a car a minute later, and two men hold a big orange jug over his head and open the spigot. Though no flames are visible, the churning gray-brown smoke indicates their presence, and fire demands its antagonist, water, here on Father's Day a couple of blocks from the East River in Astoria, Queens.

You look at the firefighters' heaving chests and are glad when one or two sprawled on a parked car are brought oxygen. Some fall to their knees on the hoses, slumped motionless but gasping for air. Paper cups of Gatorade are thrust in their hands; they look at them a minute and summon the energy to drink. Finally they shed their heavy coats, the blue FDNY shirts as wet as can be, but they still don't shrink to merely human size—even the ones only five feet eight. More than just their hugely thick rubber boots add to their stature.

One man leans far back, holding his eyelids open to have a pitcher of water poured in his eye. A somewhat older guy sucks on an oxygen mask for all of 10 seconds, then stands up and puts his helmet back on. It says "Captain" and "252." Exhausted, he still strains at the bit, knowing that a fireman is trapped in the store basement's tangle of paint thinner, shovels, propane, and nails, huge chunks of building collapsed on top of him.

The only civilian in sight, I stifle anguish for a man whose name I don't know and keep writing. Better to keep busy like the men scurrying every which way, busy like the prone men staring vacantly, gearing up to go back inside.

Firemen's personal body alarms rend the air, mixing with the far-off sound of yet more sirens. A friend counts 91 fire trucks of every description. My rough count has 250 firefighters gathered in a half-circle before the store. (Some 350 responded to the five-alarm blaze; like the Richter scale at 10, alarms stop at five.) Water sprays steadily into the store's east half, the thick smoke pouring out. Since the roof and walls have already collapsed there, the focus is on the west section across the sidewalk from me, 10 feet away.

Though no else looks to be fighting panic, it's getting rough an hour and a half into the fire. Fearing banishment, I pick my spots, asking someone every 10 minutes if there's been any verbal contact with the man trapped in the basement. With a brother's life at stake, they barely see a civilian; it's tough to penetrate their thinking of the hellhole they've just left, soon to return.

There's a surge of activity, then more milling about. Trying to stay out of the way, I hug a tree and will myself invisible to any of the brass who might throw me out.

How long can he last in that basement? There's no talk of contact. Frantic men pass store fixtures from the shop's street level. It might help. One big lug stands with a gas-fueled jackhammer desperate to help. Twelve hoses snake around his feet. A firefighter sifts through four or five of the tan helmet liners dumped on the parked car. Though every manner of equipment is strewn everywhere—a first-aid box in four inches of water in the gutter—there's a seeming order to it all. The numbers printed on everything allow men to find their helmets. Portable generators roar, body alarms shriek, the chain saws keen and recede. Wet men hold each other up, spewing clipped intelligence from mouth to ear.

I sneak a question to one about the number of firefighters trooping in and out of the basement. He finally brings me into focus. "I don't know. It's awfully hot and crowded down there." And he stares off.

Around 4:30, a half-hour after I get there, a jackhammer starts chewing the sidewalk, but it's painfully slow.

There's a flurry of activity around a small bucket, suds on the sidewalk. Assuming nothing, I ask a man what it is. He looks at me incredulously, and finally says, "Foam." This was shortly after someone had said, "They're starting to worry about propane in there now."

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