The most decorated firefighter in FDNY history

Jack Pritchard first joined the New York Fire Department in 1970 as part of Squad 4

By Xavier Jackson

From the 1970s through the 1990s, there were thousands of fires raging across New York City. And all those fires had one thing in common: They were likely to have faced the likes of Jack Pritchard, the most decorated firefighter in New York City history.

Pritchard first joined the New York Fire Department in 1970, as part of Squad 4. Four years later, not content with his current assignment, he finagled his way into Rescue 2, one of the most elite units in the FDNY.

Jack Pritchard pays tribute to fallen FDNY firefighters during the 2014 FDNY Memorial Day ceremony.
Jack Pritchard pays tribute to fallen FDNY firefighters during the 2014 FDNY Memorial Day ceremony. (Twitter)

Within weeks, Pritchard had proven himself a worthy member of the team, although his commanding officer was reportedly getting worried about his “near suicidal” tendencies when battling fires. For example, he found himself at the fire of a three-story building with a mentally-challenged child trapped on the third floor. He quickly charged in without oxygen and found the child, before he realized he was trapped. Left with no other exit — and by this point actually on fire himself — Pritchard smothered the child, and leaped to the first floor where he was doused with water and shipped off to the burn ward with the boy.

Pritchard escaped the burn ward before fully healing so he could get back to his unit quicker; this would become a regular occurrence for him.

Pritchard's next large inferno would be several years later, when he found himself rescuing fellow firefighters from a fire at Waldbaum's Supermarket in Brooklyn. It was a fire he didn't even have to go to, since his shift had actually already ended. But that wasn't going to stop him.

After several years worth of heroics, the FDNY awarded him his own command, giving him Engine 255 on Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn. They would soon be reputed as "Captain Jack's Jolly Rogers."

Pritchard drilled his men constantly, churning out the quickest response times across the city, a fact which he defended fiercely. He wasn't against racing other companies to fires, or actually charging at them with fire trucks to ensure he got there first.

It didn't take long for him to distinguish himself again. On March 27, 1992, Engine 255 arrived at a fire to find an injured firefighter being pulled from the building after unsuccessfully attempting to rescue a 70-year-old man. Impatient and realizing he didn't have to wait for orders as he was already in charge, Pritchard charged into the inferno, safety equipment be damned. He found the man, on fire, in his bed. Not hesitating, Pritchard extinguished the flames himself and dragged him out of the building.

He spent the next two months recovering from his burns in the hospital.

Then in July of 1998, Engine 255 pulled up to a fire where Jack Pritchard would perform the most famous heroics of his career. After learning there was an infant trapped in a crib on the fourth floor, Pritchard entered his Superman-mode and fearlessly leaped into the building to locate the baby.

After taking flames directly to his unprotected face, Pritchard located the baby, still alive. Unfortunately, flames were leaping above the crib, preventing him from lifting the baby to safety. Using his un-gloved hands — because safety was a word that still didn't exist in his vocabulary — Pritchard grabbed the melting crib and began dragging it out of the room. Breathing carbon monoxide and severely burning his hand the whole way, Pritchard dragged the crib to his fellow firefighters where they assisted in rescuing the infant. For this he was awarded his second Bennett medal — the first was for the Walbaum's fire — the highest award possible in the FDNY.

He finally retired from the department in 1999 with the rank of Battalion Chief, ending his career by simply stating, “It's been a real honor to be a firefighter.”

This article, originally published April 2014, has been updated.

Next: 5 of the toughest customers in firefighting history

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