By Brian McDonald
In February 1972, the fire department promoted Bill to captain and assigned him to Engine 59 in Harlem. At dinnertime, his first day in Engine 59, a newly minted Captain Feehan walked into the kitchen of the fire station to see the members of his company, burly veteran firefighters, sitting naked around the table. Totally. No boots, no pants, no shirts, no underwear. Birthday suits. The first thing that came to Bill’s mind was that it wasn’t a pretty show he was watching. He then realized that this was an inflection point. How he reacted would set the tone for how they perceived him as their superior. He decided that the best action was inaction. Without so much as a second glance, he filled his plate, sat down and began to eat his dinner. When he was done, he left the table and went up to his office, never saying a word.
Bill might have passed the engine company initiation, but as far as the 59 engine men were concerned, the new captain was a ladder guy until proven otherwise. In this case, there would be many opportunities for him to do so.
It is commonly believed that in Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, when a helicopter-mounted television camera captured a massive fire at a public school a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, Howard Cosell announced to his television audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, The Bronx is burning. As writer Joe Flood once remarked, that would have been a great quote if he had actually said it. As is often the case with pithy phrases, such as “Houston, we’ve got a problem” or “Play it again, Sam,” Cosell never said those words. He wondered aloud how many alarms the fire had ( five). accurately captured the reality of the moment. Throughout the 1970s, in n vast sections of the Bronx, fires and abandonments have consumed more than 95% of the housing stock.
In his book Strong at Heart, Tom Von Essen describes his time working at Ladder 42 in the South Bronx. His fire station was so busy, writes the future fire marshal, that dispatchers reminded drivers on platforms not to stop at other fires in the way of those they were responding to. In the 1970s, his fire station received twenty to thirty calls a night, an incredible and exhausting
Number. Yet the sentence does not tell the whole story. The Bronx wasn’t the only New York neighborhood to burn. Across the city, fire statistics during the 1970s, an era known in the FDNY as the “war years,” were staggering. In the 1950s, the annual average of fire alarms was about sixty thousand. By 1975, that number had exploded to four hundred thousand. The flames engulfed the south
Bronx, Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side and Harlem in Manhattan. Arson was the culprit we were talking about. And while it was true that fire insurance policies were sometimes worth more than properties, and some slum-mongers ripped off anything of value, like appliances, telephones, and copper wiring, buildings before drilling holes in the roofs to spread the fire. then burning them themselves, arson was not the main reason for the devastation. In fact, it only accounted for a very small percentage of the fires. In his marvelous book The Fires: How a Computer Formula Burned Down New York City—and Determined the Future of American Cities, author Joe Flood details the closing of fire stations in New York’s inner-city neighborhoods and the city’s dependency to a misguided computer. -generated strategy—designed by the military think tank RAND Corporation—to predict fires and assign manpower. Following RAND’s computer models, Commissioner O’Hagan closed nearly fifty fire stations in all. When you add in the fact that the city’s infrastructure was crumbling due to neglect and lack of funds to repair it – some estimate that more than a quarter of fire hydrants were not working – it doesn’t No wonder the fires took over.
Why the city was on fire, however, mattered little to the firefighters in the trenches. In Engine 59’s first response area, lightning-fast flames were consuming interior structures. Yet time and again, in fire after fire, the engine company ran hoses through burning buildings and up stairs. The fires happened so fast, the joke went, that all you needed were sneakers and a raincoat to be a firefighter in Harlem back then. For Engine 59, the fight was personal. They’ve fought so many difficult fires in five-story buildings, fires that always seemed to start in the same hard-to-reach place in the building, that the company came up with a motto: “Five stories and five rooms deep.” . .” They would go wherever the fire took them. After the first fires Bill fought with the 59 engine, he was convinced he would never get out of the place alive.
About the Author
Brian McDonald is a journalist and author of six nonfiction books, including “My Father’s Gun: One Family. Three Badges. One Hundred Years in the NYPD” and “Last Call at Elaines.” He teaches undergraduate journalism and has written for The New York Times, New York Post and other publications. He lives in New York.
“Five Stories Higher: The Heroic Family Story of Four Generations in the FDNY”
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
© 2022 by Brian McDonald