By Stephen McKinley
They were New York’s bravest and boldest and they died in the line of duty.
The three firefighters killed Sunday in a savage fire and explosion in Astoria, Queens, were all Irish Americans and were experienced firefighters whose loss has devastated their families, colleagues and the Irish-American community in New York City and beyond.
Brian Fahey and Harry Ford of Rescue Company 4, and John Downing of Ladder Company 163, died Sunday at the Long Island General Supply Company hardware store on Astoria Boulevard.
Less than 30 minutes after answering the fire call at 2:30 p.m., Ford, 50, of Long Beach, and Downing, 40, of Port Jefferson Station, were killed by the explosion, and Fahey, 46, of East Rockaway, was trapped in the inferno, dying before fellow firefighters could reach him two hours after the store had erupted.
The Father’s Day tragedy has left three widows and eight children without their fathers, all of whom were veterans with the Fire Department. They had a combined service time of 52 years.
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Ford, with his wife, Denise, was the father of three: Janna, 24, Harry, 12, and Gerard, 10. He had been cited nine times for acts of bravery in his 27-year career. He was the Uniformed Firefighters Association delegate for his Company.
John Downing would have been flying to Ireland with his wife, Anne, for a vacation on Monday — instead, grieving relatives from Kilkeel, Co. Down, Anne’s home, will fly to New York for the funeral. Downing, an 11-year veteran, leaves two children, Joanne, 7, and Michael, 3.
Brian Fahey was a 14-year veteran with the Fire Department, and married to Mary. Together, they had three children: Brendan, 8, and 3-year-old twins Patrick and James. He had a reputation as a skilled instructor.
At Rescue Company 4 on Queens Boulevard in Woodside on Tuesday, stunned colleagues stood around and comforted each other next to a table of wreaths and flowers sent in sympathy. Lt. Kevin Dowdell knew the three men as well as anyone. He had spent long hours, days, and years working and serving side by side with them.
"Brian Fahey was the Emerald Society delegate here, as well as the Holy Name delegate," he said. "[Fahey and Ford] were both actively involved in the Emerald Society and in the community. This fire house is a big Irish house and a big bagpipe-band house."
Many of the firefighters at Company 4 are members of the New York Fire Department Emerald Society Pipe Band.
"Harry was the senior man in this company," Dowdell said. "He had his chair in the kitchen at the head of the table. They were great lovers of Irish music, and there was always a row over what they’d listen to. The younger guys wanted Dropkick Murphy and Black 47 and Seanchai, and the older guys would be saying, ‘put on the Chieftains.’ "
Fighting back tears, Dowdell continued, "John [Downing] would have been flying to Ireland yesterday. Traditionally, when a guy goes on vacation, he buys the meal for the guys for that day before he leaves. On Father’s Day, he bought the meal for his guys."
Downing, whose parents came from Kerry, had been studying for a lieutenant’s examination on Sunday when the fire call came in.
By 2:30, he, Fahey and Ford were with their colleagues at the site of the blaze at 12-20 Astoria Blvd.
Just before 3, deputy chief Arthur Messbauer was about to give the order to sound a second alarm for the fire that was now burning fiercely. Ford and Downing were with Firefighter Joseph Vosilla, who is even now still critically injured, on one side of the building, and Fahey had made it inside, where he headed for the basement.
Unknown to the firefighters, there was a large quantity of flammable liquids and propane gas stored in the basement, which Fire Department officials think may have caused the detonation.
Just before the second alarm was sounded, the building exploded, throwing debris and firefighters in every direction, crushing Ford and Downing to death under a collapsing side wall, and hurling Fahey into the blazing basement.
"I’m trapped under the stairs. Please come and get me," Fahey radioed his colleagues. But by the time they reached the big man who Dowdell said had "loved to teach," it was too late.
By then, the fire had been classified as five alarms, the highest level of emergency in the Fire Department, and long after the grieving had begun, the fire was only brought under control at 3 a.m. on Monday.
Firefighter Vosilla of Ladder Company 116 underwent emergency surgery at Elmhurst Hospital Center, and is still in a critical condition.
At Rescue Company 4 in Woodside, colleagues of the dead men consoled each other and shared anecdotes about their deceased comrades. They remembered Fahey’s love of teaching.
"For as big a guy as he was," said one firefighter who declined to be named, "he was a confined space instructor."
Firefighter William Murphy told reporters: "I’d try to do something 10 times and I couldn’t get it. He’d sit down with you for five minutes and then you’d have it."
Lt. Dowdell agreed. He had been at his son’s graduation and was heading in to the station early to relieve Fahey because it was Father’s Day. On the way, he was already checking the news on various radio stations for an update on the fire.
When he reached Fire Company 4’s station house, he saw the fire marshal standing outside and knew the news was bad.
"I said to him, ‘I was hoping not to see you guys,’ " Dowdell said. "We knew at that point that Harry had perished, and possibly one other."
Meanwhile, duty continued to call the men of Rescue Company 4, although other fire companies have been stepping in to lend a hand.
"Rescue 3 from the Bronx today, and Rescue 2 from Brooklyn last night — they’ve been helping us out. That will go on all through the week," Dowdell said.
In the station house kitchen, colleagues of the dead sat and remembered their fallen colleagues, some sitting in complete silence, surrounded by gifts of food brought in sympathy from the neighborhood.
"We’ve had calls from all over the U.S. The guys are holding up pretty good, they’re stepping up unbelievably." But Dowdell cried again when he remembered that the family had wanted to see if Fahey’s green beret that he wore on the St Patrick’s Day march was in his locker.
"They found his Emerald Society T-shirt as well," he said.
Tragedy struck Rescue Company 4 before, as recently as 1995. On Oct. 8 of that year, the company answered a three alarm-fire call at an apartment building in Long Island City. While Firefighter Peter McLaughlin was searching a fourth floor apartment for survivors, the fire came through a ceiling and claimed his life.
Funeral arrangements for the three firefighters have still to be finalized. The Beacon Tavern in Queens had planned a golf outing next Saturday, June 23 — now owner Gerry Conway has asked that the outing to Clearview golf course be turned into a benefit for the families of the fallen.
In the station house of Rescue Company 4, a small laminated card had been stuck to the wall by the workbench. With a green border, and illustrated by a Celtic Cross, the words on the card seemed to speak in consolation to the grieving firefighters: "Grieve not nor speak of me with tears, but laugh and talk of me as though I were beside you. I loved you so, ’twas heaven here with you."