Please see the update at the bottom if you’ve already read this post.
When I hear about fires like the two recent ones in the Bronx killing and injuring so many and leaving so many homeless, some events of the 50s and 60s come immediately to mind. So does the sense of community I seem to have always had.
It was perhaps about 50 years ago, just before Christmas, when tragedy struck on West 83rd Street. Across Broadway, diagonally, the Northwest corner, #235 I believe. An awful fire. When it was all over, the top floor looked completely destroyed, you could see the sky, and the water damage to the lower floors was extensive. Families lost everything and Christmas was coming. I don’t recall knowing a single resident of the building.
As occurred recently, community gathered. It seems to me, that as big and crowded as we were, and remain, there was and can be a sense of community. Neighbors needed everything and the block association and Holy Trinity and so many others rallied. There were mountains of clothing and so much else laid out in the church school gymnasium. It was a marvelous sight borne out of tragedy. Thankfully there was no loss of life at 235 but the memories both frightening and heartwarming are permanent.
The other vivid fire memory about which I have previously written (see the blog post titled Engine Company 56) is the blaze on Wooster Street in lower Manhattan which began on Valentine’s Day 1958. The collapsing building killed 2 firefighters and 4 members of the Fire Patrol.
It was two weeks later that my dad (on the right in the photo) and I helped lead a busload of fire buffs from Baltimore on a tour which included the Wooster Street site. I will never forget that two weeks after this disaster there were still charged lines running into the basement and the smell of charred timbers still hung in the air. I was nine.
I guess I owe my community spirit mostly to my dad and his participation at the Red Cross and with the fire department.
In fifth and sixth grades I was a triple ’A’ lieutenant helping younger children cross Broadway at 82nd Street and doing other things. In sixth grade I was also captain of the library squad. I do recall the library squad venue as a large closet which afforded my co-captain and me with privacy from time to time. I was awarded a dictionary at graduation for that service. It was inscribed by Mrs. Miller. My co-captain got the “medal”.
1/7/17 In one of those strange life moments, a day after publishing this post, I found myself monitoring the Queens FDNY dispatchers’ communications at box 3146. Where? and Why? you might ask. The building next door was suffering a 2 alarm blaze.
At first, when all the equipment began arriving I could not tell if it was my building or somewhere else on the block; the address was not reported while I was listening just the box number. I stuck my head out the apartment door several times but smelled no smoke. Still, I know the dangers and was ready to leave if need be.
Of course, I posted on facebook. My cousin replied, “You are your father’s son”.
This was scary, when the address was reported I calmed down some but even two days later the local fire companies’ sirens bring a different feeling. Living in a “multiple dwelling” on the twelfth floor you have to think about fire safety. My father said he would never live above nine because the FDNY ladders were 100′ and would not reach higher. I knew when I moved here that it was a violation of his rules but I did it anyway, the view is great.
I’m not moving because there was a fire next door nor because there is some trauma left but I’ll be ready like my dad would have been.