On October 17th 1966, Manhattan Box 598 was struck at 21:36 hours for the report of a building fire at 7 East 22nd Street, an art dealer in a four story brownstone. On arrival, the heat and smoke was so intense companies could not make entry through the art dealer, and so attempted to make entry by way of the abutted building 6 East 23rd Street, The Wonder Drug store.
Crews were dealing with a very intense and spreading fire. With companies operating above the fire, little indication of a catastrophic collapse was present. Suddenly, a 16×35 foot section of the floor collapsed at around 22:39 hours causing ten firefighters to fall into the burning cellar. Two other firefighters on the first floor were killed in a burst of heat.
Firefighters evacuated immediately, except for some whom were trapped on the roof with direct flame impingement. Hand lines from the ground and a truck company ladder was able to rescue the group in time. Rescue operation ensued long into the morning. Several evacuations were ordered, and further collapses occurred. Aside from 9/11, this was the largest single line of duty death event in the FDNY’s history.
Stored in the basement of the art dealer were large quantities of highly flammable lacquer, paint, and finished wood frames. The first floor was supported by 3″ x 14″ wood beams. 3/4″ wood planking atop these beams was covered with five inches of concrete finished with terrazzo and insulated against all heat to the firefighters operating above. As part of a recent project, a common cellar under the two buildings was renovated, removing a load-bearing dividing wall that had supported the floor above. The cellar of the art dealer extended under the drug store illegally from this renovation.
The fire burned unknowingly in the Wonder Drug basement for over an hour when it finally collapsed. It took 14 hours to locate all downed firefighters in the rubble; the cause of the fire is unknown.
Building Construction Insights
- Location of Fire Origin: Cellar of 7 East 22 St.
- Location of Collapse: First floor of Exposure 3 building: 6 East 23 St. “The Wonder Drug Store.”
Fire Building Construction:
- 7 East 22 St: a brownstone, 20 x 60 brick and joist, four story residence.
- The cellar, where the fire started, and first floor were occupied by an art dealer.
- The cellar extended under the first floor of Wonder Drug for approximately 35 feet.
Collapse Building Construction:
- 6 East 23 St: a five story, 45 x 100 commercial building, brick & joist construction.
- The rear, 16 x 35 foot, section of the first floor collapsed into the cellar occupied by 7 East 22 St.
- The rear and side walls butted up to a 3-story white brick commercial building to the West at 3940-948 Broadway and to a 5-story brown brick building to the North at 6 East 23rd Street
(1) The fire building, 7 East 22 St, had a two story extension which abutted the rear of 6 East 23 St.
(2) The Cellar of 7 East 22 St extended under the first floor of 6 East 23 St for approximately 35 feet.
(3) The floor construction of 6 East 23 St was 3″ x 14″ wood beams topped by 3/4″ wood planking. On top of this, five inches of concrete with a terrazzo finish was added.
The firefighters in exposure 3, (6 East 23 St), killed in the collapse did not know they were operating directly over the cellar fire in 7 East 22 St. The five inch concrete terrazzo floor acted as an insulator.
It concealed the severe fire and heat below. The 3 inch x 14 inch floor beams spaced 16 inches on center were reduced in size and strength by the fire.
The first sign of weakness was the sudden collapse of a 15 x 35 foot section, which plunged the ten firefighters to their deaths. Two other firefighters were killed on the first floor by a ball of flame.
The 5-alarm fire wasthe single worst loss of New York City firefighters in the line of duty prior to Sept. 11, 2001.
Twelve members of every rank, from a probationary firefighter to a deputy chief, made the Supreme Sacrifice when the ground floor of the Wonder Drug store collapsed. The fire originated in a basement storage area, which was concealed by a four-inch thick cinderblock wall, illegally constructed by the building’s previous owner.
- DC Thomas A Reilly, Division .3
- BC Walter J Higgins, Battalion. 7
- Lt John J Finley, Ladder 7
- Lt Joseph Priore, Engine 18
- Fr John G Berry, Ladder 7
- Fr James V Galanaugh, Engine 18
- Fr Rudolph F Kaminsky, Ladder 7
- Fr Joseph Kelly, Engine 18
- Fr Carl Lee Ladder, 7
- Fr William F McCarron, Division 3
- Fr Daniel L Rey, Engine 18
- Fr Bernard A Tepper, Engine 18
- NYFD.com Insights and Photos HERE
- FDNY Remembers the 23rd Street Fire on its 45th Anniversary, HERE
FDNY – Remembering the “23rd Street Fire” October 17, 1966, Facebook Page, HERE
Personal Account: http://nyfd.com/history/23rd_street/box598.pdf
New York Times (2006): Oct. 17, 1966, When 12 Firemen Died HERE