By Peter McDermott
An Irish family was plunged into mourning last Friday, exactly a week before Christmas, when their son, 25-year-old James Bohan, was among three New York City firefighters killed when a fireball engulfed them as they were searching for an elderly woman thought to be trapped in her 10th floor Brooklyn apartment.
Bohan was a member of Ladder Company 170 in Canarsie and had been a member of the NYFD for three years. He lived with his parents, John and Margaret Bohan, natives of Counties Leitrim and Limerick, respectively, in the their Middle Village, Queens, home. Bohan and his girlfriend, Audrey Frlic, were expected to officially announce their engagement at Christmas. His elder brother, Maurice, and his grandfather Maurice Condon, who lives in Loughill, Co. Limerick, are also among his survivors.
"The Bohans are an example of the perfect Irish family," said Noel Morgan, who immigrated from County Down in 1981 and who had worked with the dead firefighter in the construction industry. "They are very special. His father, John, is a gentleman."
"I’ve never heard a father speak so highly of his sons," said Caroline Melvin, a native of Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, who lives in Woodside. "James was an exceptional person and a wonderful son."
"Since I’ve been in America I’ve met hundreds of people and I don’t think I’ve met a person as good and as straight as James Bohan," Morgan said. "He was a very obliging fella. You couldn’t say enough about him. Jimmy was a credit to his father and his mother and his upbringing."
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"Thank your for giving James to us," Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said to John and Margaret Bohan from the altar of St. Margaret’s Church in Middle Village during Bohan’s funeral on Monday. "I wish there was some way we could give him back, but we can’t."
The Bohan family was visited Friday by the mayor hours after the tragedy. He noted that the homes of all three of the firefighters were decorated for Christmas. James Bohan had spent the previous days helping his parents decorate their home. He climbed a ladder to place a white star outside a second floor window so his father wouldn’t have to do it, neighbors said. Bohan’s father works as telephone company technician and his mother is a school board secretary.
"I don’t know how they are going to cope with this, but they have each other. Audrey, though, is left without anybody," Morgan said. "To have Jimmy Bohan for three years and then overnight not to have him, I don’t know how anybody could cope with that."
But the firefighter will be missed by everybody who ever met him, Morgan said, including all of his colleagues in the construction industry. He was a graduate of the District Council of the Carpenters’ Local Technical College. "He came into the Irish scene and met all the Irish boys." The foremen who knew him reacted with disbelief and sadness to news of the tragedy, Morgan said. Even after he attained his childhood dream of becoming a firefighter, Bohan continued to work on projects, including the construction of Tailors Hall in Queens, and he continued to impress people with his warmth and generosity.
"The owners of Tailors Hall were heartbroken when they heard about his death," Morgan said.
Sad day for New York
At a news conference on Friday, the mayor said Bohan, Lt. Joseph Cavalieri and Christopher Bopp were "just among the very best. They were walking into flames to save lives.
"This is a very sad and difficult day for New York City," he said.
"They went the extra yard knowing the frailty of many elderly residents and the serious threat to life that existed." said Kevin Gallagher, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.
The three were members of the fire department’s forcible entry team, an elite unit trained for dangerous rescues. Having run up the 10 stories to the source of the fire, the apartment of 67-year-old Jacqueline Pinder, the firefighters rushed toward its open door unaware that the elderly woman had been pulled to safety by neighbors. Just at that moment, the apartment’s windows blew out and the backdraft turned the narrow brick hallway into a 1,000-degree oven, officials said. The men fell to the ground, one of them shouting "Mayday" into his radio. They were quickly overcome by smoke, and were dead within a minute, the medical examiner estimated. The intense heat had melted their oxygen masks.
The fire was started when Pinder, who remains hospitalized at Jacobi Medical Center, dropped a lit cigarette onto her couch. She spent several minutes trying to douse the flames before a 911 call was made. Serious questions, though, have being raised about why the building’s sprinkler system was switched off. The building, at 17 Vandalia Ave., was constructed with federal money for low-income elderly residents in 1983; the sprinkler system was added feature not required under city regulations. However, the building is subject to monthly inspections by the city, but some fire officers believe that the building hadn’t been inspected since as far back as 1995. The fact that valves on the roof of the first floor, which are designed to allow water through, had been painted over has led to speculation that the building may never have been properly inspected.
"It would have made a difference," said Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. However, Mayor Giuliani has pointed to the fact that the firedoor in the Pinder’s apartment had been left ajar and argued that this was a more important factor in the tragedy. Residents in buildings with firedoors often disable the automatic closing mechanism because they fear being locked out.
Much media attention, though, was also focused on the character of the three men as they being laid to rest. While Cavalieri had a leadership role within the firefighters’ confraternity, Bohan and Bopp were actively involved in the community. Bohan had delivered gifts to children in a Brooklyn hospital hours before his death. This wasn’t something that surprised his grieving friends and neighbors in Middle Village.
"From the time he was a boy, he was a real gentleman," one neighbor, Ann Jelly, told the New York Times. "He would go out of his way to help, painting and other repair work, especially with the neighbors where there was no man around the house. He and his brother both were good, good boys for this day and age."
At Bohan’s funeral, his colleagues spoke of his enthusiasm for the job and his attention to detail. Outside St. Margaret’s Church, as three helicopters hovered over the 10,000 strong crowd, and his distraught parents looked on, eight white-gloved pallbearers lifted James Bohan’s coffin onto the caisson the fire department uses only when it buries its heroes. It was then taken for burial to Mt. St. Mary’s Cemetery.