The Wonder Drug or 23rd Street Fire of 1966

Reply Wed 17 Oct, 2012 09:39 am
Today is October 17. It's been 46 years; yet, I still recall that one day when 12 firefighters were killed, (the greatest number ever lost at one time, prior to the events of 9/11).

At the time, home was an apartment on E.20th Street btwn. B'way and Park Avenue South. Life in the area was at times chaotic, at times serene. Usually it was just life moving along at it's own pace with no major calamities. Then it changed.

Up on 23rd Street, 3 blocks directly to our north was a little drug store, Wonder Drug. I went in there fairly often, picking up prescriptions for Mother or getting some Charms candy (was it the square shape which intrigued me?) or just talking with some of the workers there.

Anywhos, everything changes and in one night it did. A fire began on 22nd Street and spread out and up into Wonder Drug. By morning there were 12 dead men who had given there all to try and dispose of a blaze in order to protect property and in turn, and more importantly, to protect lives. I for one will never forget it. Perhaps part of my remembering hinges on the fact that the anniversary of my father's death was coming along then (October 18) and the media covered the annual remembrance of the fire for several years, newspapers in particular would do articles, complete with photos on the 18th. The Daily News on the 10th anniversary did their centerfold (which was a staple of theirs for years, several photos, sometimes mostly related to one event), anyway, in 1976, they had it as "Remembering The Day We All Died Just A Little" (not sure what I did with that newspaper piece), which was a true statement (at least for many New Yorkers).

I know this may not mean a lot to many here (or anywhere for that matter); but it still means something to me, even 46 years later.

Okay. Enough of that, time for my links.


The fire has been out for 40 years now, but its memory still burns.

It is Oct. 17, 1966, and Vinny Dunn, a 31-year-old lieutenant in the Fire Department, is sprinting east on 23rd Street to get his orders on working the rear of a burning building on East 22nd.

He reaches a chief who orders him and his engine company into an adjacent building. Then the chief turns and orders another young lieutenant, Joseph Priore, to have his company pull a hose line into the Wonder Drug store on 23rd Street, which backed up to the burning building. Lieutenant Priore and the men of Engine 18 disappear inside, never to be seen alive again. They were lost in a floor collapse, which killed 12 firefighters, including the commander who ordered the men in, Deputy Chief Thomas A. Reilly.

Among them, the dead men left 12 widows and 32 children. It took 14 hours to dig out the dead. Until Sept. 11, 2001, it was the heaviest loss of life in the Fire Department’s history. A lengthy inquiry showed that a cellar wall had been moved, leaving the drugstore’s five-inch-thick terrazzo floor unsupported and vulnerable to collapse.

Today, the department will remember the dead in a ceremony at noon at East 23rd Street and Broadway.

Vincent J. Dunn, a smart and talkative man who rose through the department’s ranks to deputy chief, has spent the intervening years learning all he could about load-bearing walls and joists, about how buildings work and why they fail.

What he has learned he has summed up in two sentences in his book, “Safety and Survival on the Fireground” (Fire Engineering, 1992): “There are no new lessons to be learned from a firefighter’s death or injury. The cause of a tragedy is usually an old lesson we have not learned or have forgotten along the way.”

To some extent, Mr. Dunn and others say, the Fire Department faces the same problems it did in 1966. An anniversary not only recalls the dead, but also reminds the living of hard lessons that come from collapses and illegal construction like those that killed firefighters in 1998 and 2005.

To keep those lessons fresh, Mr. Dunn has written magazine articles and books. A decade before 9/11, he wrote an article warning that it was only a matter of time before a fire in a skyscraper led to a catastrophic loss of life.

Now 71 and retired, he lectures across the nation, and he served as an adviser to the National Institute of Standards and Technology on the fire and collapse of the World Trade Center.

Still, he has been unable to answer the bigger questions at the heart of his life’s work. Why had Chief Reilly turned to him first? What if he, not his friend Joe Priore, had been sent inside 6 East 23rd Street?

“Had he reversed those orders, we would have been dead,” Mr. Dunn said last week in the sun room of his home in Douglaston, Queens. “For some reason. ...” he began. He left the thought unfinished.

His is costly wisdom, gleaned from seeing firefighters killed and injured in buildings that have been improperly built and renovated, even after the 23rd Street fire, when the city vowed to protect its firefighters better by improving the information given to them about renovations, among other things.

Firefighters periodically inspect buildings near their firehouses, and the information they collect is entered into a database. They cannot enter private dwellings, though, and often illegal construction goes unnoticed.

If a glance at recent fatalities is any indication, firefighters sometimes lack an accurate picture of the building they are entering. In 1998, Capt. Scott LaPiedra and Lt. James W. Blackmore died after being trapped under a falling floor in a Brooklyn building where a bearing wall had been improperly moved, leaving the few remaining supports to burn quickly. Three other firefighters were injured, and the city, which owned the building, ultimately paid millions in settlements.

In January 2005, illegal partitions in a burning Bronx apartment cut off access to a fire escape, forcing four firefighters trapped inside to jump from a window. Two, Lt. Curtis W. Meyran and Firefighter John G. Bellew, died. The building owners and tenants were later charged with the deaths.

In August, Lt. Howard J. Carpluk Jr. and Firefighter Michael C. Reilly were killed after a floor collapsed in a Bronx building that a fire official said is being investigated for improper construction.

“Unless you stop going into buildings, it’s going to keep happening,” said William J. McLaughlin, a lawyer and former New York City firefighter.

Though the investigation into the cause of the August fire is not complete, it seems, in some aspects, similar to the 1966 disaster.

In that fire 40 years ago, a fire was reported just after 9:30 p.m. in a building at 7 East 22nd Street, near Broadway, where an art dealer stored highly flammable lacquer and other paint supplies in the cellar, according to the Fire Department’s report.

The smoke was so thick and the heat so intense that the first firefighters to arrive had difficulty entering the building. Fire officers sent crews around the corner to 23rd Street to see if they could enter through the drugstore.

What fire crews did not know was that the East 22nd Street building shared a cellar with the Wonder Drug store. And in a recent renovation, the dividing cellar wall had been pushed north toward 23rd Street, giving the art dealer more storage space and shrinking the cellar under the drugstore. The art dealer’s supplies were now stored beneath the drugstore.

Only a small amount of smoke was wafting out of the drugstore when firefighters went inside. But around 10:40 p.m., as they walked to the back of the store, the floor collapsed with a huge noise, sending 10 firefighters to the burning cellar below. Two others were killed in a flashover of fire on the first floor.

Manny Fernandez, then the driver for Engine 18, had stayed outside the building, following protocol. After the collapse, he tried crawling inside on his hands and knees, he said, but the heat was too much.

Now 75, retired and living in Jackson Heights, Queens, Mr. Fernandez still weeps when he recalls the dead.

Forty years after losing her husband, Marie Reilly, 84, said she could remember it all as if it were yesterday and still struggles to make sense of it: “It’s just one of those things. Who knows.” She never remarried.

In addition to Lieutenant Priore, 42, Engine 18 lost Fireman James V. Galanaugh, 27; Fireman Joseph Kelly, 35; Fireman Bernard A. Tepper, 41; and Daniel L. Rey, 26, a probationary fireman.

From Ladder Company 7, Lt. John J. Finley, 54; Fireman John G. Berry, 31; Fireman Rudolph F. Kaminsky, 33; and Fireman Carl Lee, 29, all died. Also killed were two commanding officers, Deputy Chief Reilly and Battalion Chief Walter J. Higgins, 46, and a chief’s aide, William F. McCarren, 44.

Of the 32 children left behind, only one went on to become a New York City firefighter: Joe Finley, the son of Black Jack Finley, as the Ladder 7 lieutenant was known. A grandson of Lieutenant Finley, Brian, is now a firefighter in Ladder 7 on East 29th Street, and every day when he comes to work, he passes a bronze plaque with his grandfather’s name hanging just outside the front door.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Today is the anniversary of the 23rd Street Fire that took place on October 17, 1966. Firefighters from the FDNY responded to a fire at 7 East 22nd Street entered a building at 6 East 23rd Street as part of an effort to fight the fire.

Twelve members of every rank, from a probationary Firefighter to a Deputy Chief, made the Supreme Sacrifice when the ground floor of the 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.

It was the largest loss of life in the department's history until the collapse and murders at the World Trade Center in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. R.I.P.


NEW YORK, NY – The alarm came in at Box-598 at 2136 hrs and before the shift was over, 12 Firefighters would be dead in the deadliest building collapse in the history of the FDNY aside from the 9-11 Tragedy. The fire started innocently enough in a four story Brown Stone at #7 East 22nd Street. 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.

There was little evidence smoke and even smaller evidence of fire on the main floor of the drug store at #6 East 23rd Street. On the floor are very experienced fire officers. A Deputy Chief, a Battalion Chief as well as two Lieutenants in charge of two Companies began to hack away at the walls as well as bringing in two hose lines to gain access to the fire. All at once with a thundering crash, a 20-by-5 foot section of the floor gave way. A resulting burst of flames rolled along the ceiling of the drugstore and flared out into the street. Ten men were at the rear of the drugstore attacking the wall that abutted the brownstone to the South fell into the fire below and perished. Two other Firefighters were trapped by the burst of flames caused by the collapse of the floor and were incineratedon the main floor of the drugstore.

The men that were killed are listed as:
Deputy Chief Thomas A. Reilly – Division 3
Battalion Chief Walter J. Higgins – Battalion 7
Lieutenant John J. Finley – Ladder Company 7
Lieutenant Joseph Priore – Engine Company 18 (Covering)
Firefighter John G. Berry – Ladder Company 7
Firefighter Rudolph F. Kaminsky – Ladder Company 7
Firefighter Carl Lee – Ladder Company 7
Firefighter James V. Galanaugh – Engine Company 18
Probationary Firefighter Joseph Kelly II – Engine Company 18
Firefighter William McCarron – Aide to Chief Reilly
Firefighter Bernard A. Tepper – Engine Company 18
Probationary Firefighter Daniel L. Rey – Engine Company 18

Here is a first hand account of the blaze by Firefighter Joseph D’Albert – Engine Company 24, from the 2nd issue of WNYF Magazine 1973: http://www.nyfd.com/history/23rd_street/box598.pdf
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Reply Wed 17 Oct, 2012 09:42 am
Reply Wed 17 Oct, 2012 07:18 pm
Same - very sad
Reply Wed 17 Oct, 2012 07:35 pm
and very very frightening
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