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School honors Woodside firefighter

For Rosie McCullagh, sister of former Woodside resident John Downing, who died in 2001 fighting a fire in Astoria, a Friday night ceremony at St. Francis Prep was about honoring the man she remembers as nothing short of a hero.

“He guided me in everything in my life,” said McCullagh, a New Hyde Park resident. “He looked out for everybody.”

Downing’s No. 34 basketball jersey was retired at a half−time event attended by about 200 people at the Fresh Meadows school Friday.

Downing, a 1979 St. Francis Prep graduate and one of seven children of Irish immigrant parents, died at the age of 40 after a wall collapsed on him while he fought a five−alarm blaze in an Astoria paint store on June 17, 2001. Downing was one of three firefighters who died in what is known as the Father’s Day Fire at the Long Island General Supply Company.

Downing was a member of Woodside’s Ladder 163, where he worked for about a decade, and family and friends remembered him as an ideal father, son and husband who never failed to make people laugh.

“John was a great person,” said Bellerose resident and Woodside firefighter Tom Harrington. “We called him the mayor of Woodside because he grew up in Woodside, his mom lived in Woodside and he knew everybody in the neighborhood. When we would go out, he’d wave to everyone and they’d wave back.”

St. Francis Prep officials gave Downing’s mother, Josephine Downing, and widow, Anne Downing, the former St. Francis Prep’s center’s jerseys during the ceremony, also attended by firefighters from Woodside’s Ladder 163 and City Councilman Eric Gioia (D−Sunnyside), who gave the family a proclamation.

“John was a very good student, quiet and always helpful,” said Brother Robert Kent, who taught and coached Downing at St. Francis. “He played extremely hard and was the biggest guy on our team. Whatever he did in the game, and in life, he gave 100 percent.”

Downing, who taught himself to be a plumber and electrician, left behind his wife, daughter Joanne, 14, and son, Michael, who died at the age of 5 in 2003 from neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer. Anne and Joanne Downing now live in Port Jefferson Station, L.I.

The former Woodside resident graduated with an accounting degree from St. John’s University and had been studying to be a lieutenant before he died. He was inquisitive about everything and always wanted to learn more about business, Harrington said.

“He was always trying to figure out the stock market in the firehouse,” Harrington said.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at agustafson@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

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