Book excerpt: 'Five Floors Up: The Heroic Family Story of Four Generations in the FDNY'

Brian McDonald shares the stories of the Feehan and Davan families of firefighters, stretching over nearly 100 years of FDNY history


The following is an excerpt from "Five Floors Up: the Heroic Family Story of Four Generations in the FDNY," Chapter 8: “War Years.” Here, we meet William M. Feehan during his first days as captain in a Harlem firehouse circa 1970s, the busiest era in the history of the FDNY. Captian Feehan went on to hold every rank in the FDNY, including fire commissioner. He was killed in the collapse of the North Tower on 9/11. 

By Brian McDonald

In February 1972, the fire department promoted Bill to captain and assigned him to Engine 59 in Harlem. At evening mealtime his first day in Engine 59, a newly minted Captain Feehan walked into the kitchen in the firehouse to see the members of his company, burly veteran firefighters, sitting around the table naked. Completely. No boots, no pants, no shirts, no underwear. Birthday suits. The first thing that came to Bill’s mind was that it wasn’t a pretty sight he was looking at. He then realized that this was an inflection point. How he reacted would set the tone of how they perceived him as their superior. He decided the best action was inaction. Without so much as a second glance, he filled his plate, sat, and began eating his dinner. When he finished, he left the table and went up to his office, without ever saying a word.

Bill might have passed the engine company’s initiation, but as far as the men in Engine 59 were concerned, the new captain was a ladder guy until proven otherwise. As it happened, there would be plenty of opportunities for him to do so.

It’s commonly held that during game two of the 1977 World Series, while a helicopter-​mounted television camera captured a huge blaze in a public school a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, Howard Cosell announced to his TV audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.” As the writer Joe Flood once pointed out, it would have been a great quote if he actually said it. As is often the case with pithy phrases, ones such as “Houston, we have a problem,” or “Play it again, Sam,” Cosell never actually said those words. He did wonder aloud how many alarms the fire was (five). He told the viewers that the “fire department has its work cut out for it.” But the words “the Bronx is burning” never tumbled from the bombastic sportscaster’s lips. They gained infamy, however, because they aptly captured the reality of the moment. Throughout the 1970s, in large sections of the Bronx, fire and abandonment consumed over 95 percent of the building stock.

In his book Strong at Heart, Tom Von Essen describes his time working in Ladder 42 in the South Bronx. His firehouse was so busy, the future fire commissioner writes, that dispatchers would remind chauffeurs on the rigs not to stop at other fires on the way to the ones to which they were responding. By the 1970s, his firehouse received twenty to thirty calls a night, an unbelievable and exhausting

number. Still, the phrase doesn’t tell the full story. The Bronx wasn’t the only section of New York City that was burning. Citywide, the fire statistics during the 1970s, an era known in the FDNY as the “war years,” were staggering. In the 1950s, the yearly average of fire alarms was about sixty thousand. By 1975, that number had exploded to four hundred thousand. Flames engulfed the South

Bronx, Brownsville and Bedford-​Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side and Harlem in Manhattan. Arson was the talked-​about culprit. And though it was true that fire insurance policies were sometimes worth more than properties, and that some slumlords ripped anything of value, such as appliances, telephones, and copper wiring, out of the buildings before punching holes in the roofs so the fire would travel and then setting them ablaze themselves, arson was not the main reason for the devastation. In fact, it made up only a very small percentage of the fires. In his wonderful book The Fires: How a Computer Formula Burned Down New York City— and Determined the Future of American Cities, author Joe Flood details the closing of firehouses in lower-​income areas in New York and the city’s reliance on a misguided computer-​generated strategy— devised by the military think tank the RAND Corporation— to predict fire and assign manpower. Following RAND’s computer models, Commissioner O’Hagan closed nearly fifty firehouses in all. When you added the fact that the city’s infrastructure was falling apart because of neglect and a lack of funds to fix it— some estimate that over a quarter of the fire hydrants didn’t work— it was no wonder the fires had the upper hand.

The reasons the city was on fire, however, mattered little to the firefighters in the trenches. In Engine 59’s first response area, lightning-​quick tenement blazes would devour the structures from the inside out. Yet time after time, fire after fire, the engine company would run hose lines into the burning buildings and climb the stairs. The fires came so frighteningly fast, the joke went, that all you needed was sneakers and a raincoat to be a Harlem firefighter then. For Engine 59, the fight was personal. They fought so many tough five-​story tenement fires, blazes that always seemed to start in the same, hard‑to‑access location in the building, that the company came up with a motto: “Five floors up, and five rooms deep.” They’d go to wherever the fire took them. After the first few fires Bill fought with Engine 59 he was convinced he would never get out of the place alive.

About the Author

Brian McDonald is a journalist and author of six non-fiction books, including "My Father’s Gun: One Family. Three Badges. One Hundred Years in the NYPD" and "Last Call at Elaines." He teaches undergraduate journalism and has written for The New York Times, New York Post and other publications. He lives in New York City. 

"Five Floors Up: The Heroic Family Story of Four Generations in the FDNY"
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

© 2022 by Brian McDonald

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