The date was October 26, 1962. The country and the world were concerned about the very real possibility of a nuclear war that could break out at any moment. As president John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev maneuvered warships and missiles, a local fire would have a huge impact on a half a dozen families.
At around 9:00pm a fire at the Sefu Soap and Fat Co. at 44-15 56th Road broke out from an unknown cause in the two-story brick, 73-by-50-foot building. By the nature of the business that occupied the building, the fire was intense and went to four alarms being declared under control at 10:50 p.m. As firemen were walking in and out of the first floor of the building from a loading platform outside a voice cried out: Look out, there goes... The sentence was never finished. The wall and ceiling tumbled down, burying the fireman under tons of bricks and other debris.
About 20 firefighters were trapped under at least 6 feet of debris. A fifth alarm was sounded to bring emergency equipment to the scene. Firemen Richard Andrews, James Marino, Captain William Russell of Engine 325, Firemen Richard Gifford, George Zahn of Engine 238 and Fireman Francis Egan of Ladder 115, were killed and many were injured.
John Killcommons, then a 28 year-old with only two years on the job worked at Ladder 128 on Greenpoint Avenue. The 128 was the first hook and ladder to arrive, when we got here the fire was roaring. "The more water we took out of the creek, the fire just got brighter," said Killcommons.
Killcommons was about 5 feet away from the men working under a garage shed when the right side wall of the two-story brick building collapsed. He was saved because he happened to be standing in a doorway of the building. "I knew all of the lost firemen, four of the dead joined me in FDNY in the spring of 1960. We were replacing guys who served in World War II," said Killcommons.
Captain Russell, a decorated WWII veteran, joined FDNY after the war. Probationary firemen, Richard Andrews, joined the FDNY four months prior. Killcommons was one of the firefighters digging out Andrews, who was crushed by the weight of the wall. Today probationary firemen are not allowed to enter buildings on fire.
FDNY Captain George Zahn Sr., Engine Company 324 in Corona arrived at the scene hours after the fire to see where his son died. Zahn Sr. approached Killcommons and said, I have only one son and now he's gone. "We were trying to comfort him but you can see he was totally devastated," said Killcommons.
Lives were lost, families were broken apart and life was changed for so many. But for New York City, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the news of the day. And the Maspeth fire which took six young lives faded from the headlines.
Fast forward to 2012. Peter Keane, the owner of VIP Auto Body, which now occupies the old factory was looking to renovate his building and found some charred beams buried in the walls. He started to research the history of the building but could get no information about its past. Keane asked his general manager, Marc Eberle, and firefighter friend Michael Sarro, for help. They combed through microfilm and eventually found the history of the building and its tragic past.
Since the 50th anniversary of the fire was nearing Keane thought that some recognition should be made to honor the brave men that were lost on that night in 1962.
"Every time I pass this place, it puts a tear in my eye," said Killcommons, who lives in Middle Village and is Second Vice President of the Juniper Park Civic Association. As one of the surviving firefighters of that evening, Killcommons visited the site in early October to meet with Keane. It always bothered me that there was no memorial.
On Friday, October 26, 2012 the families of the men killed, FDNY brass and hundreds of fellow firefighters and residents gathered to unveil a long awaited plaque to honor the men who were husbands, fathers, friends and colleagues. Peter Keane commissioned the memorial plaque and mounted it on his building. "They came because they always do," said the Rev. Msgr. John Delendick, an FDNY chaplain who began the dedication ceremony. FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano gave a moving speech on the dedication of firefighters. Not only will the names on the wall remind us of the dangers of this job, but they will drive us to work harder because we owe it to those who came before us, said Cassano. These young men were taken from the department far too soon, bravely battling a fire to protect the city.
John Killcommons spoke of how lucky he and others were that night and that this dedication and turnout demonstrated how close the FDNY is. "I want to thank the owner of this property, Peter Keane, who is responsible for this ceremony today and for his generosity to the families of our lost brothers," said Killcommons. There was not a dry eye in the house.