If you’ve ever considered yourself a “buff” on a subject (film buff, Civil War buff, oral history buff), you can attribute that term to the buff-colored uniforms worn by firefighting enthusiasts who volunteered for New York City’s firehouses during the 1920s. Dan Andrews, a buff for the FDNY during the 1960s, and his long-time friend, Manny Fernandez, who drove engines at the same firehouse, came to our Lower Manhattan StoryBooth to remember their days on the job, the firefighters they so admired, and one fire they want never to be forgotten.
“It was a time in New York City when firehouse doors were always open,” Dan recalled with nostalgia. “They were a real part of the community.” Dan and Manny shared fond memories of touring New Yorkers and their children around the engines and providing them with fire safety tips. They also remembered working under the guidance of what Dan remembers as “a great group of men. It was like a brotherhood. We would go down there every night, pal around. We had a great admiration for them.”
On the night of October 17th, 1966, Manny was preparing himself some peppers and eggs in the firehouse kitchen when he heard the ringing of the bell that in those days signified a fire. At the sound of that bell, the firefighters (“firemen” back then) would “jump into their boots and get ready to roll” and Manny would drive the engine to the scene. Their destination on that night was East 23rd Street, just outside a shop called Wonder Drug.
There wasn’t much smoke when they arrived. “It was just like a hazy pool room,” Manny recalled. So the men of Engine 18 entered the building. Following protocol, Manny stayed outside to tend to the engine. But after hearing a loud “BOOM,” he decided to enter Wonder Drug to investigate. Inside the store, he crawled on all fours, searching for the men through a cloud of smoke. He remembers the sound of perfume bottles popping. “I ducked down and started yelling ’18! 18!’ I couldn’t get any response.”
The “boom” Manny heard was the floor of the building collapsing. When it did, 12 of his fellow firefighters were killed. It was the largest loss of life for the FDNY until the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. “I just couldn’t believe it,” Manny said. When he returned to the firehouse, the perished firefighters’ extra gear and clothes were hanging up. “When I saw them, I would talk to them, like they were still there, like they were just near me. But later on that night, when I realized … I said that they’ll never be forgotten.”
The day after the fire, hundreds of off-duty firefighters gathered in Madison Square Park where they all removed their helmets. Dan remembered one of the officers saying, “Today we all died a little.” Four days later, 10,000 firefighters lined 5th Avenue and watched as firetrucks carried coffins to their respective services. Firefighters came to pay tribute from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska and San Francisco. Every year since what has become known as The 23rd Street Fire, a memorial service is held. Dan and Manny are always there to remember.