Father's Day Fire: Lessons and legacies emerge from tragedy

How a fire at a Queens hardware store took the lives of FDNY firefighters Harry Ford, Brian Fahey and John Downing


A five-alarm fire killed three FDNY firefighters on Sunday, June 17, 2001 – Father’s Day – at a Queens hardware store.

"I can't think of a more tragic Father's Day," then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said in a news conference the following day. "All three of the firefighters who died were fathers, and eight children are now fatherless."

The fallen firefighters

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) shares insights into each of the firefighter's lives:

  • Harry Ford, 50, Rescue 4: Ford joined FDNY in 1974. He received the Thomas Crimmins Medal, and learned to rollerblade and snowboard because of his children.
  • Brian D. Fahey, 46, Rescue 4: Fahey joined FDNY in 1987. He was a volunteer with the Hempstead Fire Department Engine Co. 4 and a deputy chief instructor with the Nassau Fire Service Academy.
  • Lt. John Downing, 40, Ladder 163: Downing joined FDNY in 1989. He enjoyed barbecuing, jokes, home improvement and was a sports fan.
The fallen firefighters (from left to right): Firefighters Harry Ford and Brian Fahey and Lt. John Downing.
The fallen firefighters (from left to right): Firefighters Harry Ford and Brian Fahey and Lt. John Downing. (Photo/FDNY)

the father's day fire

"What was a quiet Sunday turned into a terrible tragedy very quickly," said Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen added.

Downing, Fahey and Ford were among the firefighters who responded to a call around 2:20 p.m. Smoke was coming from the store on Astoria Boulevard. Two buildings were involved in the fire – two-story buildings connected on their first floors and cellars. Both were built before 1930.

An aerial view of the structure after the blast.
An aerial view of the structure after the blast. (Photo/NIOSH)

Roughly 20-25 minutes after crews arrived, propane tanks and paint in the basement exploded, the Associated Press reported. The blast at the fire trapped the three firefighters in rubble, and its force threw other firefighters across the street.

Churchgoers next door were thrown from their seats.

"There were firemen lying underneath a wall of bricks," said Cleavon Wills, 27, who had been playing keyboard at the Lighthouse Church. "They were unconscious and bloody, and their raincoats were torn."

Ford and Downing were attempting to open windows for ventilation when the roof and façade fell, crushing them.

Fahey was in the store and fell into the burning basement.

In response to a walkie-talkie roll call, Fahey responded, “Rescue Irons, I’m trapped in the basement,” according to an FDNY report on the fire.

Firefighters tried to cut through the rubble. Fahey's body was recovered about four hours later, according to the NIOSH report.

A total of 99 firefighters were injured, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Two firefighters sustained major injuries. An outside ventilation firefighter with Ladder Company 116 was partly buried by rubble from the collapsed wall. A lieutenant with Ladder Company 163 who had been working at the rear exterior entrance to the cellar was hurt and knocked unconscious. Other firefighters were treated at hospitals and released.

The fire was brought under control early Monday.

INVESTIGATIONs

The USFA reported that the fire was caused when two boys, ages 13 and 15, knocked over a gasoline can at the rear of the store. The gasoline flowed under the rear doorway. Eventually, the pilot flame on a hot water heater lit the gasoline.

The FDNY and NIOSH investigated the tragedy and release reports with their findings:

NIOSH investigators concluded that, to minimize the risk of similar occurrences, fire departments should:

  • Ensure that pre-incident plans are updated and used on mercantile occupancies
  • Ensure that fire fighters from the ventilation crew and the attack crew coordinate their efforts
  • Ensure that fire fighters are trained to know the hazards associated with cellar fires and the precautions that can be taken to reduce serious injury

The report further stated:

  • Municipalities and building owners should consider requiring and modifying older structures to meet new building codes and standards to improve safety of occupants and fire fighters
  • Building owners should consider placing specific building hazard information on an exterior placard
  • Building owners should follow guidelines of the local authority having jurisdiction regarding the storage of hazardous/flammable materials and ensure that all existing safeguards are operational

The FDNY report includes 21 recommendations to improve fireground safety.

Memorials and legacies

The three fallen firefighters were remembered for their dedication and courage at memorials 10 years and 20 years later.

Their widows – Mary Fahey, Denise Ford and Anne Downing – bonded.

“It’s absolutely through tragedy that I gained these beautiful sisters,” Anne Downing told The New York Post. “From that day on, they were there for everything.”

On June 17, 2021, the three widows and many FDNY members attended a wreath laying ceremony in honor of the 20th Anniversary of the Father’s Day Fire. 
On June 17, 2021, the three widows and many FDNY members attended a wreath laying ceremony in honor of the 20th Anniversary of the Father’s Day Fire.  (Photo/FDNY Family Assistance Unit)

One of the fallen firefighters’ children, Harry Ford Jr., graduated from the fire academy in 2016.

Learn more about the Father's Day Fire in the NFFF's podcast "After the Fire."

The show notes contain many photos of the three fathers with their children.

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