The Line Of Duty...
Queens Mourns Bravest,
Prays For 'Miracle'
By LIZ GOFF
Firefighters gathered outside Ladder Co.
163 in Woodside this week, sharing memories and grief over the death of Firefighter John
Downing, one of three Queens Bravest killed in a blast at an Astoria hardware store on
Firefighters battle blaze after explosion at Astoria Hardware
Tribune Photo By Michael Von Der Lieth
Firefighters Brian Fahey and Harry
Ford of Queens Rescue 4 also perished in the blaze at Long Island Paint Supply, at 12-22
Police in Astoria are probing the cause of
the fire and the possibility of charges in the incident. Investigators now believe
that the blaze might have been accidental, as initially reported. The probe is now focused
on two teens who have told police they were scrawling graffiti on the wall of the hardware
store, spotted gasoline and spilled it letting it seep underneath the door of the
The gasoline is believed to have set off a
series of deadly consequences. Fumes played havoc with lethal materials in the basement
fumes that ignited when a hot water heater sparked as it turned on.
Memorial flowers and black and blue bunting adorn Rescue Co.4
Tribune Photo By Dee Richard
The first units arrived at 2:20 p.m.,
and in five minutes firefighters called a second alarm, officials said. Four minutes
later, they called a fourth alarm then a fifth. Thirteen minutes later the building
exploded, trapping firefighters inside, blowing others outside, and sending a wall
crashing onto Astoria Boulevard. Brian Fahey was trapped beneath a staircase inside the
basement, where officials said "waves of flames" were engulfing the structure.
Ford and Downing were crushed underneath the wall that collapsed along with Firefighter
Joseph Vosilla of Ladder Co. 116 in Long Island City.
Rescue efforts were in vain for Fahey, Ford
and Downing. Vosilla was rushed to Elmhurst Hospital Center with grave injuries. Doctors
operated on the Long Island City resident to stabilize his condition, but other lifesaving
surgery had to wait until Tuesday, June 19, when Vosillos condition stabilized
enough to let doctors perform the required surgery.
The bunting is hung and the
flags are at half-staff in Woodside, as the city prepared to bury its Bravest. And in Long
Island City, a neighborhood holds its breath and prays for a miracle.
He could have been a
contender. When the young man with the bright Irish smile made his career choice, he could
have signed with a major league baseball team as a pitcher, or signed-on with the New York
City Fire Department.
Firefighter John Downing
"He was scouted by the
majors," said Msgr. Timothy Finnerty of St. Sebastians R.C. Church in Woodside
Downings family parish.
"He was a fabulous pitcher, with a
dynamic fastball." Finnerty said Downing was a tremendous athlete. "He could
have gone to the pros," Finnerty said.
Downing was born in Woodside on Jan. 15,
1961, one of seven children of Irish-American parents who set down roots in the Queens
Finnerty said Downing, like his brothers
and sisters, was baptized at St. Sebastians. He attended the parish elementary
school, received communion and was confirmed at St. Sebastians. Downing went on to
attend St. Francis Prep in Fresh Meadows.
"John was a fine, fine man,"
Finnerty said. "He was married at St. Sebastians. His mother, Josephine, is a
daily participant at mass here." Finnerty said Downings father passed away five
years ago, and that his mother remained at the family home.
"Its too bad we have to have a
tragedy to appreciate the greatness and goodness of our firefighters," Finnerty said.
"Look around," he said, "New
York City is alive. The hotels are full of tourists, the restaurants are bustling. The
city is safe, clean, beautiful.
"I think of the men who provide the
services that make this possible, and I wonder why we dont thank them each
Finnerty said the citys firefighters
are "silent heroes" who respond when the alarm sounds, without question.
"They dont ask if this is a good guy or a bad guy they just respond.
"If anything good comes out of this
terrible tragedy, I hope it is our realization of the goodness of people like John
Three neighborhood women approached
firefighters outside Downings Engine Co. 163 this week, offering condolences and
expressing shock over Downings death the man fondly admired in Woodside as
the "Gentle Giant."
One woman glanced at the men and, in a
whisper, asked, "Is there anything sadder than the wail of bagpipes mourning a
One of the men replied, "Yes, mourning
Finnerty said he will remember Downing for
his "intelligence, bravery, his Irish way.
"The whole community is in
mourning," he added. "John was the cream that rises to the top."
"Pray for them,"
was all the firefighter said as he walked solemnly into the chilly darkness of the house
on Queens Boulevard.
It was 2:20 a.m. on June 18 12 hours
after firefighters from Queens elite Rescue 4 headed out the door to a fire at the
hardware store in Astoria. Among those who responded was Harry Ford.
Firefighter Harry Ford
Ford called his wife, Denise, at home
just before the alarm came in. His sons, ages 12 and 10, wishes him a Happy Fathers
Day. It was the last time they would speak.
"He was the kind of guy you would go
to for help if you were in trouble," said fellow firefighters. "He was a pitbull
determined and dedicated."
Harry Ford was the recipient of countless
awards and citations for bravery during his 27-year FDNY career, but one incident that led
to a citation stands above the rest.
Ford responded to a Queens blaze in 1979.
"He went in and didnt come out," firefighters said. "When other
firefighters went in to get him, they found him huddled against a wall, unconscious,
without his oxygen mask.
When they pulled him away from the wall,
the firefighters were startled to see a small girl underneath Ford, his mask on her tiny
face. When Ford regained consciousness, he told officials that he felt he was not going to
get out of the building. "So he put his mask on the girl and covered her body with
his, to shield her from the fire.
"That girl is alive today because
Harry Ford was willing to sacrifice his only chance for survival to save her," the
firefighters said. "That was his way."
Brian Fahey touched the
lives of almost every volunteer firefighter in Nassau County including Tribune
Classified Manager Don Young.
Young recalled Faheys dedication to
training the volunteers, and described him as a "great guy who would go the extra
mile to get things done the right way."
Firefighter Brian Fahey
Young saw Fahey just last week, as
the 14-year FDNY veteran prepared to instruct a class of volunteers on the ways to stay
safe and protect others during a blaze. Officials at the Nassau County Fire
Services Academy said that almost every firefighter in the county knew Fahey. "They
all sat through his eight-week course," the officials said.
Faheys death was perhaps the most
difficult for firefighters at Rescue 4 to accept. They listened on Sunday afternoon, as
Fahey called a repeated "Mayday" over their radios, telling whoever was
listening that he was tossed to the basement of the store during the blast. "Im
trapped under the stairs," he said. "Please come get me." Rescue was
impossible, as firefighters listened to Faheys pleas for help.
A deep sorrow fills the Rescue 4
headquarters this week, as firefighters prepare to bury two more of their comrades.
Members of the elite unit have lost four comrades in line-of-duty deaths since 1992, and
they have witnessed one miracle the recovery of Marty McTergue who was nearly
burned to death, but who fought back to survive.
Firefighters at Ladder Co.
116 in Dutch Kills are praying for a miracle prayers that are being echoed by
residents of the Long Island City enclave.
Vosilla is described as a "hometown
boy" by 261 Lt. James ODonnell. "He is the mayor of Long Island
He played softball lots of softball,
ODonnell said. "He must have played on teams sponsored by every tavern in the
neighborhood." Youngsters at local schools who know "Vossy" are praying for
his recovery, as well. He has received dozens of drawings and get-well greetings from
local schoolchildren who have stopped by the hospital.
Vosilla was crushed by the wall that
collapsed onto 14th Street during the June 17 blaze. He was rushed to Elmhurst Hospital
Center where doctors stabilized his condition enough to perform preliminary surgery. He
was strong enough, on June 19, to undergo additional surgery but its still
touch-and-go, doctors said. He suffered among other injuries a crushed
pelvis, crushed diaphragm, ruptured bladder, perforated bowel, crushed lung and heart
"Were praying for a miracle for
Vossy," said Dutch Kills Civic Association President Bob Wilson.
"Along with other firefighters at 261/116, he is a part of our family."
Vosilla was working on his day off on June
7, filling in for another firefighter who wanted to spend some time with his children on
Fathers Day. He remains in very critical condition at Elmhurst.
"Well keep praying for his
miracle," Wilson said.
Theirs is not a
"normal" job, like "nine to five-ers," said Thomas De Parma,
discussing city firefighters.
DeParma, a Queens trustee of the Uniformed
Firefighters Association, told the Tribune in an exclusive interview that, unlike
other professions, tragedy does not allow the job of firefighters to "shut
down." Members of units and companies where tragedy strikes must grieve and hurry
back to work, DeParma said. "But were a family and we extended family members
jump in to take away some of the burden from the house members in mourning."
DePalma said that firefighters from
companies throughout the city have shown up at Rescue 4, Ladder 163, and Ladder 116 on
their own time, volunteering their services to allow members of those houses to attend
funerals and in the case of Joseph Vosilla, to sit vigil at the bedside of their
"Its just something that
firefighters do," DeParma said. "Its tradition, and its one of the
ways we help each other to continue to go into burning buildings, not knowing what awaits
"Its just what we do."