Death in Astoria


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.

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.”

I think of my bare legs and bare head and of my wife somewhere a long block away on the other side of the yellow tape, and hug the tree closer.

A chief of operations tries to light a cigarette, but it’s wet. He tosses it in disgust. Numerous white helmets—battalion commanders and deputy chiefs of operations—confer and direct, but they have no silver bullet against a building fallen down on their men. Too focused for anger, someone carrying a bunch of halberds tells me, “Now, you are in the way.” But a scribbling pen seems to grant license. And why not—who could write anything bad of these men?

There’s talk of another assault by a unit I’ve watched rest. Eighteen firefighters move forward, then stop, massed at the metal door down into the sidewalk. A chief is half up the steps, still in good shape, strategizing, the jackhammer a couple of feet from his eyes.

Speaking of a rescuer, someone asks, “Is the lieutenant still down there?”

“Yeah, he won’t come up.”

They wet white clothes to drape around their necks, including the one woman firefighter I see, a Latina, maybe five foot seven.

I ask someone a question, and he says he hasn’t a clue, he just got here from Manhattan. Then he wants to know what unit the trapped man is from, but I don’t know. Seventy-five units responding, firemen here from all over the city, someone will see an old friend and there’s the briefest glimmer of hello.

After one fireman has gulped air and water sufficiently, I invoke God’s blessing only partly to encourage him to talk. He cuts me short with, “Don’t bless me. Bless those men trapped down there!”

Only once is the fear that is thick in the air given voice, someone saying, almost to himself, “All right, it’s time to get those fucking guys out of there!” But it’s not said loud, and it is the only worry I hear expressed during my hour-and-a-half presence at what no one hopes will be a portal to the next world. Despite what these men know, no one wants to grant death a toehold by speaking of it aloud.

Two white helmets discuss getting the diamond-blade chain saw from Rescue Squad One. Amid the piles of stuff (a lot of it floating in water, though people still grab what they need, their hands slowed by oxygen deprivation), it’s hard to fathom anything’s been held in reserve.

Bosses cluster, point, and cup their ears, as the chain saws rip at the front of the store. Some giant starts swinging a sledgehammer. A stretcher is brought forward, hopeful and terrible, but is then withdrawn. The smoke gets worse, and I circle around my tree. A man asks me to hold his big flashlight up so he can buckle it around his waist, his hands clumsy with exertion. He wacks at the buckle to make it work. Everything looks functional, but ragged and old, and I recall discussions of private fundraising for protective equipment. You look at the love and fear etched on every face and wonder at that.

Around 5:20 p.m., a man who is not a fireman asks who I am. Even had I a press pass, I was still a block too close, and I get nowhere with my stammered explanations and pleas. I see from his jacket he’s from the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management.

Threatened with arrest, backpedaling, one last time I ask a smoke eater dazed against a wall if there’s been any contact with the man in the basement. He just looks at me from another place, knowing as little—and as much—as his mates with red faces, wet mustaches, and anguish clawing their eyes.

Postscript: What every firefighter knew, but refused to grant purchase, was that two of their comrades were already gone. I don’t know what was said by the men across the street, awaiting their go at it, but from the men attacking the basement crypt, I heard not one lament for Harry Ford, age 50, of Rescue Company 4, and John J. Downing, age 40, of Ladder Company 163.

Nearly an hour before my arrival, the seemingly routine fire had turned catastrophic as Long Island General Supply exploded, its two stories of brick collapsing on Firefighters Ford and Downing who were fighting the blaze from outside. Mangled and in cardiac arrest, they had already been dug out and taken to Elmhurst Hospital Center.

According to Elmhurst Hospital, the two men were declared dead within three minutes of each other by 4:30 p.m. David Billig, a FDNY spokesman, said, “I would guarantee that word came from the hospital within minutes back to the scene.”

So yes, the men knew, the men who worked with not a murmur of grief as long as one of their own lay trapped. More than exhaustion and worry explained the thousand-yard stare of men too good to tell a reporter where to go.

“They had steeled themselves that that would be the news, but they blocked it out during the fire,” Chief Brian Dixon said later of their resolve.

Not once did they crack. Such fortitude in the face of disaster defies the comprehension of someone who’s never seen combat, in this case a fight against smoke and flame—and time. But their frantic efforts, their courage, were not to be repaid. The body of Brian Fahey, age 46 and also of Rescue Company 4, was finally recovered from the basement rubble after 8 p.m. He died of smoke inhalation, having been able to call on his radio for help only twice before it fell silent.

Firefighter Ford left a widow and three children, the youngest age 10. Firefighter Fahey is survived by his wife and three sons, an eight-year-old and three-year-old twins. Firefighter Downing is survived by his wife and two children, ages seven and three. Firefighter Joseph Vosilla, 41, remains hospitalized in critical condition with a broken pelvis and internal injuries. More than 50 firefighters were injured at the scene.

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