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FDNY honors six firefighters lost in 1962 blaze

FDNY Chief Salvatore Cassano (l.) and FDNY Chief of Operations James Esposito (c.) place a wreath in remembrance of six of New York's Bravest who died on this spot 50 years ago. Photo by Ken Maldonado
TimesLedger Newspapers

Family, friends and firefighters spilled out of the garage at VIP Auto Body Shop in Maspeth Friday as they honored fallen heroes from half a century ago.

More than 100 city firefighters stood in solemn remembrance as city Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano unveiled a plaque commemorating the supreme sacrifice made by six firefighters on Oct. 26, 1962.

On that date, a fire broke out and a wall collapsed at the former site of the Sefu Soap and Fat Co., at 44-15 56th Road , which is now VIP Auto Body. The blaze killed Capt. William Russell and Firefighters Richard Andrews and James Marino from Engine 325; Firefighters Richard Gifford and George Zahn from Engine 238; and Firefighter Francis Egan from Ladder 115.

“Not only will the names on the wall remind us of the dangers of this job, but they will drive us to work hard because we owe it to those who came before us,” Cassano said. “These young men were taken from the department far too soon, bravely battling a fire to protect the city.”

Cassano said the tragedy was mostly lost to the public when it occurred because the Cuban Missile Crisis dominated that weekend’s headlines. After a memorial at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, the six men were lost to time.

But close to five decades later, the auto shop’s owner, Peter Keane, and manager Marc Eberle, were beginning renovations when they found charred wood. They did some research and uncovered news of the disaster.

Keane said the thought of children growing up without a father inspired him to set up a memorial.

“This is six families that lost a father, a brother, a son,” said Keane, a Bayside resident, adding that once the FDNY heard about his plans, the department took the reins in organizing and planning the memorial. “Six families had to try to put the pieces back together. I can’t even imagine that.”

Joyce Egan, whose husband Francis lost his life in the blaze, said the families left behind always memorialized their fallen loved ones, but a public memorial bringing them together was long overdue.

“Each family always had some kind of memorial in their house,” said Egan, 74. “But the only time they were ever together was at the mass at St. Pat’s. Now they will forever be remembered together.”

John Killcommons, who spent 30 years with the FDNY at Ladder 128, was there the night the fire burned, the wall collapsed and his brethren lost their lives. He said he was about 5 feet away from the men who died, but survived because he was standing in a doorway.

The veteran firefighter, who retired in 1990, looked at the plaque and saluted.

“It took me a long time to put together what happened that night and why I survived,” he said. “And every time I drive by here I have a tear in my eye.”

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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