‘We all died a little in there’: Inside the 23rd Street Fire tragedy
The 1966 blaze was the deadliest fire in the history of the FDNY until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001
On Oct. 17, 1966, the floor of a drugstore collapsed into a cellar during a fire on East 23rd Street in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. The fire claimed the lives of 12 firefighters and held the notoriety of being the deadliest fire in the history of the FDNY until Sept. 11, 2001. The incident would come to be known as The 23rd Street Fire.
Herb Brown, his wife Marion, and their four children lived in an apartment on the top floor of a four-story brownstone at 7 East 22nd St. in Manhattan. The first and second floors of the building housed Brown’s art gallery and frame shop, and the third floor was occupied by a lamp store.
At approximately 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1966, Marion smelled smoke and asked her husband to investigate. He went downstairs and could see smoke coming from a skylight on a rear extension of the building. He evacuated his family, and his wife reported the fire. The call was received at 9:36 p.m.
First on scene
The initial assignment included Engines 14, 3 and 16; Ladders 3 and 12, as well as a battalion chief and deputy chief.
The smoke that Herb observed from the skylight had originated in the building’s cellar, which housed drums of lacquer and other supplies for art and framing.
Members of the first-arriving engine company, Engine 14, were met with intense heat and dense smoke as they descended the cellar stairs and attempted to advance to the seat of the fire. They were unable to make much progress, and because of the untenable conditions, the company was ordered to retreat to the sidewalk and operate their 2½-inch handline into the cellar from there.
While Engine 14 was advancing to the cellar, the next-arriving engine company, Engine 3, stretched to the second floor and conducted a search.
Ten minutes after the initial call, an automatic fire alarm was received for Wonder Drugs and Cosmetics at 6 East 23rd St., a five-story building of ordinary construction located immediately behind the initial location. Additional commercial occupants of that building included a candy shop and a lingerie shop.
Battalion 7 and Ladder 3 were directed to the drug store to investigate the alarm and attempt to gain access to the rear of the 22nd Street building.
Because companies were not making sufficient progress and the fire was believed to have extended, a second alarm was then transmitted, bringing Engines 1, 5, 18 and 33 as well as Ladder 7 to the scene.
As with many older cities in America’s Northeast, buildings in New York City routinely extend to the property lines and share walls, known as party walls, and other features with adjacent structures. Such was the case for 7 East 22nd St. and 6 East 23rd St.
Though the firefighters on scene were unaware, the cellars had been reconfigured. In 1961, a load-bearing party wall that formed the border between the two buildings had been removed, and a block partition was constructed 35 feet into the rear of the 23rd Street portion of the cellar. This space was used by the frame shop to store drums of lacquers and other refinishing chemicals as well as other supplies and finished products. Because of the shared cellar, the building department considered these buildings to be one and the same, but the removal of the cellar wall was not approved by the department.
Ladder 3 and Engine 5 were assigned to investigate the conditions in the cellar of the 23rd Street building. The drug store had the only access to the cellar from the 23rd Street side, and access from the 22nd Street side could only be made through the brownstone.
The engine crew stretched a handline down to the cellar and the ladder crew searched, finding smoke and a block wall, but no fire. They were under the impression that they had checked the entire cellar but were misled by the location of the rear partition.
Firefighter Nicholas Cicero was standing at the top of the stairs and felt a large volume of air rush into the cellar, as if the fire was taking a breath. He alerted the firefighters in the cellar that something was wrong. They retreated up the stairs as the collapse occurred and engulfed the cellar. Some members suffered burns as they climbed through the flames and intense heat. Lt. Royal Fox of Ladder 3 stayed back to ensure that the last firefighter made it to safety. The situational awareness of Firefighter Cicero and the selfless actions of Lt. Fox saved the lives of their fellow firefighters.
At the same time, Engine 18 and Ladder 7 were operating on the first floor at the rear of the drug store and reported light smoke the but not much heat. They were accompanied by Battalion Chief Walter Higgins. Suddenly, a large section of the floor collapsed into the cellar inferno. The terrazzo gave way in large chunks, leaving nothing behind for the firefighters to grab onto. Ten firefighters fell into the cellar inferno as the fire flashed over on the first floor.
Two additional firefighters – Rudolph Kaminsky and William McCarron – who had attempted to warn the others of the changing conditions suffered fatal burns at the rear of the store.
A member of the Fire Patrol, Edward Popisil, had seen where the companies were operating prior to the collapse and drew a sketch of their location in the store, making it possible for rescue crews to locate them quickly. Sadly, their efforts would end in the worst of ways. The fire and collapse took the lives of 12 firefighters, leaving more than 30 children without fathers and 12 wives as widows.
Engine 18 lost all but two of its members that night. The chauffeur was operating in the street and Firefighter John Donovan was returning from a detail when the collapse occurred. Donovan was nearly killed when he slipped into the cellar during rescue efforts but was saved by members of Ladder 24.
Ladder 7 lost four men, and both the deputy chief from the third division and the battalion chief from Battalion 7 were killed.
Companies worked tirelessly through the night and into the morning to gain access to the cellar and dig out their brothers from the rubble.
The five-alarm fire continued to burn and would eventually involve three buildings.
Chief of Department John O’Hagan had been out of town and arrived on scene in the morning as the firefighters’ bodies were being reverently carried from the building. While addressing the firefighters on scene, he said, “This is the saddest day in the 100-year history of the fire department. They never had a chance. I know that we all died a little in there.”
What went wrong
Unauthorized and unreported building modifications contributed greatly to this fire and collapse. Occupants of the 22nd Street building had taken over a portion of the cellar of the 23rd Street building to enlarge their work and storage space. In doing so, a load-bearing wall was removed and a non-load earing partition was added 35 feet from it. Not only did this compromise the structural integrity of the building but also the smoke and fire protection originally afforded by the wall.
Firefighters were not initially aware that the 23rd Street cellar was only 65 feet deep. When crews from Engine 5 and Ladder 3 entered the cellar and began looking for the seat of the fire, they were unaware that they only had access to a portion of the cellar. Without measuring or pacing out the distance, there was no way to tell that the wall they had found was merely a partition, and that the seat of the fire was behind it. This would have been a daunting task in the smoke.
If the building is our enemy, as the late Frank Brannigan once said, then time is its secret weapon. The collapse occurred just over an hour after the initial alarm. We need to consider every minute of elapsed time as a minute closer to collapse. It can be easy to lose track of time at a fire scene, so many departments use time stamps to help crews maintain situational awareness.
The firefighters had been standing on a terrazzo floor. Terrazzo is a compound similar to concrete and contains chips of quartz, marble and other decorative aggregates. It is mixed with cement and binders, and either cast in a factory or poured in place. Once dry, the surface is polished for appearance and ease of maintenance. Versions of this material have been around since Neolithic times, and terrazzo was popular in commercial and government buildings built in the early to mid-20th century.
Terrazzo shares certain qualities with standard concrete, namely strength, durability and insulation. Finished terrazzo, including its substrate, can weigh over 20 pounds per square foot. This is several times heavier than other commercial-grade flooring options and is a dead load that needs to be supported properly. The floor of Wonder Drugs was documented as having been 5 inches thick and supported by 3 x 14-inch joists and wooden planks. Rough calculations indicate that the floor could have weighed over 55 pounds per square foot. Even with its substantial subfloor structure, this building was not designed to carry this amount of weight.
The building was not showing traditional signs of an impending collapse. Because of the characteristics of the poured aggregate floor, there was no sponginess, no soft spots and no bowing. While the floor of Wonder Drugs was supported by 3 x 14-inch timbers, terrazzo is an efficient insulator and the floor acted as a heat sink, disguising the danger that lay below. It was also effective at blocking the communication of smoke from the cellar to the first floor.
Even with today’s thermal imaging technology, firefighters need to be aware of the insulating factor of terrazzo and other poured aggregate materials. The difference in heat signature may not be as drastic as one would expect with thinner or lighter-weight flooring materials.
All of these factors led to an unexpected and catastrophic collapse. Upon examination, many of the floor joists were found to be burned completely through, with nothing supporting the heavy and brittle terrazzo, and there was no way for the firefighters to know that the structural integrity of those beams had burned through. The terrazzo maintained its integrity as the support system it rested on burned away, but when the remainder of the framing could no longer support the weight of the floor, it gave way in large chunks. Nothing was splintered, nothing was bent or twisted. There was nothing to grab on to. The floor opened like a trap door, dropping these men into the heart of the inferno that they had been assigned to extinguish.
In 1972, Emanuel Fried wrote about the importance of the 20-minute rule, his message being that uncontrolled fire burning for more than 20 minutes and involving more than one floor is likely to result in collapse and the loss of firefighters. While there has been discussion on whether 20 minutes is still an appropriate amount of time with today’s furnishings and lightweight construction methods, the message still holds true. Monitor the time and if progress is not being made, pull everyone out, regroup and move to a different tactic.
Evacuating firefighters from a building should not be viewed as a surrender. In some cases, crews can be redeployed to an offensive posture with a different approach. In others, a transitional attack can be used, and when progress is being made, companies can re-enter the structure to complete the work. If this is the case, however, a careful assessment of the structure must be conducted to ensure that collapse is not imminent.
The same failures that occurred in New York in 1966 could occur in any town today. Lightweight wood and steel truss are used as floor framing in commercial and residential occupancies everywhere and are far inferior to the 3 x 14 joists found on 23rd Street. Terrazzo is still around today and is making a comeback. Concrete floors are even more common, but the risk factors associated with the 23rd Street fire are not limited to wood-framed buildings or thick terrazzo floors. Ceramic and stone tile floors have been used increasingly since the early-90s in residential and commercial buildings, and though they won’t absorb as much heat as terrazzo or concrete before becoming hot to the touch, they can still fool our senses and our thermal imaging.
In some cases, buildings are modified without engineering consultation, the attainment of building permits, or the approval of plans because building owners and developers don’t look at buildings the way firefighters do. From their perspective, the benefit of removing a load-bearing wall can appear to outweigh the risks. Their objective might be more sales floor space, better access to storage, or an open floor plan for aesthetic purposes. An inexperienced contractor or building owner doing their own work might remove or modify a load-bearing wall or other support without realizing how that could affect the building’s integrity under fire conditions. When this occurs, the building may stand for decades without the modification causing any harm. But fires and firefighting change how buildings behave. Fire stresses a building’s ability to perform as designed and with every minute of structural fire involvement that passes, buildings become less stable.
Even cities with the most aggressive building departments have illegal construction occurring in their jurisdictions. Basements and cellars are more likely to have unapproved changes due to their relative invisibility. Fire departments must be vigilant in their building construction familiarization efforts.
Some fire departments have no authority over code enforcement, but that does not mean that they shouldn’t be visiting buildings in their response areas. A strong public education and outreach program can help get a non-punitive building familiarization program off the ground. The Chamber of Commerce and similar business-oriented groups can be excellent resources in gaining access to buildings in the community. If business owners understand that our objective is to keep firefighters safe and to prevent the loss of life and property in their buildings, they may be more likely to invite us in. Leading off with a term like “familiarization visit” in lieu of “building inspection” can put minds at ease. Scheduling visits ahead of time can be helpful, too. Many of us have met the shop owner who doesn’t want us showing up unannounced and interrupting business.
Firefighters are competitive and results driven. When given an assignment, they tend to carry it out with everything they’ve got. The mission is to find the fire, confine it, and extinguish it to save lives and to protect property. Everybody on scene shares the same objective: Eliminate the fire.
Honoring the fallen
An estimated 20,000 firefighters from around the globe attended the combined funeral for 10 of the fallen members on Oct. 21 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Funerals for the two remaining members were held on Long Island.
The New York City Fire Academy sits on Randall’s Island, between Manhattan and Queens. When it was constructed, all streets on the academy grounds were named for the firefighters lost in this fire.
The scene of this fire looks very different today. Much of the site is occupied by a high-rise multi-use building and some of it is green space. The casual observer would have no idea of the tragedy that occurred on that site except for the presence of a plaque on the wall to honoring the men who gave their lives that night.
These men gave their lives to protect the lives and property of the citizens of the City of New York. While they are honored and memorialized at the site of the fire, in the firehouses they called home, and on the street signs of Randall’s Island, the ultimate tribute we can give them is to learn from their sacrifice.
- Deputy Chief Thomas Reilly
- Firefighter William McCarron
- Battalion Chief Walter Higgins
- Lt. Joseph Prior
- Firefighter Bernard A. Tepper
- Firefighter James V. Galanaugh
- Firefighter Joseph Kelly
- Probationary Firefighter Daniel L. Rey
- Lt. Joseph Finley
- Firefighter Carl Lee
- Firefighter John G. Berry
- Firefighter Rudolph F. Kaminsky