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Heroes of Ground Zero

FDNY - A History:


1648 - in the beginning
In 1648, New Amsterdam Governor Peter Stuyvesant appointed four fire wardens to patrol the area between the streets, inspect chimneys to be sure they had been swept properly, and to enforce the ban on wooden chimneys. Fire fighting and city politics have been intertwined ever since Stuyvesant shrewdly split these warden appointments between two Dutchmen and two Englishmen.

1657 - the "Prowlers"
In 1657, a log cabin fire prompted New Amsterdam's Dutch colonists to establish a group of eight night watchmen, whose duty was to wander the streets after dark, looking for fires or suspicious individuals. Officially, the watchmen were called the "Rattle Watch" because of the wooden rattles they carried to sound a fire alarm, but the town's people simply referred to them as the "Prowlers." When the "Prowlers" rattled their alarms, everyone was supposed to come out and help fight the fire. At the time, this was done with a bucket. In fact, until 1731 the lone means of extinguishing fires was with water conveyed via a leather bucket, and in 1659, the city obtained 250 such leather fire buckets.

1664 - from New Amsterdam to New York
In 1664, the English took over New Amsterdam, renaming it New York. The "Prowlers" were replaced by the "Night Watch," four men with bells who announced the time and the weather each hour, in addition to searching for fires in a similar manner as the "Rattle Watch." The city received its first two fire engines in December of 1731. Designed by Richard Newsham, "Engine 1" and "Engine 2" were small, wooden, and heavy. Carried by fire fighters to the scene of a fire, they worked by means of a seesaw hand pump. Without a suction hose, the engines had to be filled with water by bucket.

1736 - the first firehouse
The city's first firehouse was built in 1736 in front of City Hall on Broad Street. And on December 16, 1737, the colony's General Assembly created the New York Fire Volunteer Fire Department, appointing 30 men who would remain on call in exchange for exemption from jury and militia duty. The city's first official firemen were required to be "able, discreet, and sober men who shall be known as Firemen of the City of New York, to be ready for service by night and by day and be diligent, industrious and vigilant." Anyone who neglected to answer a fire alarm was fined 12 shillings. The new force of 35 men was in charge of defending 1200 homes and nearly 9000 people from fire.

1741 - saving Trinity Church
Within four years of the department's establishment, the force faced its first real test. Inside the fort, in the governor's house, a fire was discovered on noon, March 18, 1741, and the two engines hastened to the scene. Nevertheless, they were too late and too outmatched by the fire, and all of the buildings within the fort burned down. Over the next few days, a succession of fires led to rumors of an arson plot. Suspects were arrested - some were even executed - yet the mystery was never completely solved. Still, the adversity led to 14 additional members being assigned to the fire department, and a year later the force added another apparatus: an American-made brass hand pumper. By 1753, the department had four engines, all of which were needed that February to fight a fire in the Free School House on Broadway, which abutted Trinity Church. Embers drifted to the church steeple, and the engines' water streams hardly reached the roof, but, eventually, the firefighters were able to save the church.

1776 - fire during wartime
After George Washington and the Continental Army retreated northward through Manhattan in late August of 1776, nearly the entire fire department enlisted and evacuated the city with him. Six days later, fire broke out in the Fighting Cocks Tavern, yet no alarm was heard as all the city's bells had been melted down into munitions. By the time it went out, the fire had consumed 500 buildings, almost one quarter of the city.

1786 - fdny is born
When the firefighters returned home from war, their equipment was trashed and the department underwent a period of renewal. Engine 1 adopted the name Hudson Engine Company No. 1 - initiating the custom of officially naming companies - and on February 15, 1786, the Common Council passed an ordinance establishing a brand new department with 300 men divided among 15 engine and two ladder companies. Several years later, in 1789, the Fire Department of the City of New York was formally incorporated by the State Legislature, obtaining the right to raise funds for itself and for the widows and orphans of firemen.

1800 - moving toward modernity
As the city grew, the department expanded and progressed. Fire plugs, predecessors of the fire hydrant, began being installed in lower Manhattan in 1807. In 1827, the first fire engine carried by a horse was used to fight a fire and additional help was sought for the first time, from Brooklyn, to help fight a fire. The fire engines continued to be pulled by the firefighters themselves, until a cholera epidemic in 1832 depleted the department's manpower, forcing them to start relying on horses.

By 1835, New York had over 250,000 inhabitants and 1500 firemen. That December, during a bitter cold spell, a fire broke out in a five-story warehouse at 25 Merchant Street. Fifty buildings were aflame by the time the blaze was discovered, and the whole department was alerted. Forty-nine engines, five hose carts, and six hook and ladders trudged through the snow to what would be known as the Great Fire of 1835. The river was frozen solid, so firefighters were forced to make ice-fishing-style holes in the ice. Working through the night and into the next day, firemen from New York, Brooklyn, Newark, Philadelphia, and elsewhere made a stand at Wall Street, using Navy explosives to create a firebreak that finally ended the blaze after 674 buildings had burned.

1836 - politics as usual
Since its creation, the volunteer firefighting force had become more and more enmeshed in city politics. Seven New York mayors had been firemen, as had William "Boss" Tweed, legendary leader of the Tammany Hall political machine, who swindled the city out of between 75 and 200 million dollars. New Yorkers began complaining; between embezzlement within the department and feuds between rival engines (who would at times literally fight for control of a fire hydrant), they weren't receiving adequate protection from the volunteer force.

Chief Engineer James Gulick, who defied Tammany Hall by refusing to let politics influence his management of the fire department, created a Hydrant Company to monitor the water plugs and end the custom of hiding them under buckets until the favored company arrived at a fire. Yet Tammany Hall seized the Great Fire of 1835 as an opportunity to oust Gulick from power. Even though it had been his plan that had saved Wall Street from flames, Gulick was blamed for the blaze. Hearings were held in early 1836, and Gulick received the news that he had been voted out of office while on the scene of another fire. He simply turned his hat around, and walked away. As the firemen heard the news, they did the same, and when the fire re-ignited, the firefighters refused to put out the flames without Gulick. Despite pleas from the mayor, the firemen would not resume work until Gulick returned to temporarily lead the force.

After the blaze was put out, the firemen demanded Gulick's permanent reinstatement, and when it wasn't granted, 800 of them marched on City Hall, handing in their resignations. Bitterness over the event lingered on the force for years, and contributed to the street brawling between rival fire companies.

1865 - the volunteers' last hurrah
The force continued to develop: The department's first double-decker, Philadelphia style engine was employed in 1840, and the city's first telegraph-operated alarm system was implemented in 1851; the city had been divided into eight districts, and the number of bell rings corresponded to the district in which the fire was located. Yet tensions persisted as introducing the use of steam-powered engines was suggested around 1846; the firemen particularly disliked that steam engines would require much less manpower. The insurance companies, outspoken in their disapproval of the volunteer department, supported the use of steam engines, and also created the Fire Patrol, a paid salvage company, in 1854. Finally, on January 16, 1865, "The Act to create a Metropolitan Fire District and establish a Fire Department therein" was introduced in Albany, which would merge the departments of Manhattan and the Eastern and Western Districts of Brooklyn under a governor-appointed Board of Metropolitan Fire Commissioners. It was passed and signed by the governor, and new commissioners were appointed May 3. Mayor C. Godfrey Gunther, Chief John Decker, and the City Alderman tried to forbid the new department from taking control, but the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the paid department that June.

The transition of departments was ongoing that July when volunteer firemen were summoned to Barnum's American Museum, a popular entertainment attraction that featured everything from an aquarium and exotic animals to wax figures and circus "freaks". As the department worked to extinguish the blaze, the axe work of fireman John Denham allegedly saved the crowd from a Bengal tiger that had jumped from a second floor window. Then, as the story goes, Denham calmly entered the burning building and returned, carrying one of Barnum's star attractions, the 400-pound "Fat Lady".

Although the first division of the professional force, Metropolitan Steam Fire Engine Company Number 1, began service on July 31, 1865 at 4 Centre Street, it took until December to completely implement the paid department. The force's jurisdiction extended up to 87th Street, while volunteers still protected northern Manhattan.

1869 - a new department takes charge
The new department quickly established its command. Thirty-three engine and twelve ladder companies were added between September and December, new steamers were purchased, and the first organized firefighting instruction, an Officers School, was formed in 1869. This led to the broader School of Instruction in 1883, and, ultimately, to the formation of the Fire College in 1910. Also in 1869, the James Gordon Bennett Medal, the department's first official award for valor, was endowed, and first awarded in 1870 to Assistant Foreman Minthorne Tompkins for his ladder-top rescue of a woman from a burning building. Then, in 1870, the department became a municipally controlled organization; the mayor, instead of the governor, would appoint the fire commissioners. The Metropolitan Fire Department was now the Fire Department of the City of New York.

Ten years later, the Fire Commissioner divided the title of Fireman into three grades, based on length of service and each fireman's assigned section of the city. A fireman who had devoted less than two years of service was considered Third Grade, assigned above 43rd Street, and paid $800 a year. A fireman with more than two years, but less than four years, of service was assigned to a company below 43rd Street, and paid $900 annually. Firemen with more than four years of experience would go to a company south of 43rd Street, and earn $1000 a year.

Of course, during this period the force wasn't just developing departmentally. In 1866, the Board of Fire Commissioners began paying the owners of the steam salvage tug "John Fuller" a yearly fee to operate it as a fireboat on an as-needed basis. In 1877, several new breathing devices were tested for use in smoke-filled buildings. Ladder technology improved, and the department adopted more stringent fire codes for buildings after a disastrous blaze at the Brooklyn Theater killed nearly 300 people. During the Blizzard of 1888, deep snow prevented firefighters from delivering their engines to two multi-alarm fires on time. The department had to borrow spike hitches from local breweries and horse-drawn trolley car companies that would allow for four or five horses to be attached to the engines and the trucks, which had proven too great a weight for one or two horses to drag through the snow effectively. The department soon outfitted its apparatus to accommodate more horsepower.

1898 - towering infernos
The year 1898 ushered in a new era of firefighting. On midnight of January 1, 1898, Greater New York was formed by uniting the five boroughs, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. The Board of Fire Commissioners was replaced by a single Commissioner, John J. Scannell, who had been head of the Board since 1894 and was appointed by Mayor R.A. Van Wyck. All of the area's volunteer departments were to be replaced by the FDNY, and Chief Hugh Bonner assumed control of three paid departments: New York, Brooklyn, and Long Island; 121 engines, 46 trucks, one horse wagon, and a water tower; in all, 309 square miles of firefighting territory.

Brooklyn alone had almost a million people, making it the third largest city in the country at the time it merged with New York. So at the turn of the century, the population of New York City was 3.4 million, placing it second only to London among the world's most populous cities. More of the city was beginning to depend on gas and electricity, and as elevators came into use, buildings started growing taller, raising concerns amongst the city's fire chiefs about the department's ability to combat blazes and protect residents of these new skyscrapers. In December of 1898, a fire spread from next-door into the top of the 16-story Home Life Building. Firefighters were able to save the building, but several of the upper floors burnt out.

A year later, a stray match ignited an awful blaze in the seven-story Windsor Hotel on Fifth Avenue during the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Flames and smoke smashed through the glass windows on Fifth Avenue, as the parade froze and the crowd's collective jaws dropped. Firefighters slowly fought through the growing horde of standstill-gawkers, and were able to rescue a number of people before the front wall collapsed, killing 45.

1904 - perils of a modern metropolis
A series of waterfront disasters culminated in 1904, when a Lutheran congregation from Manhattan chartered the pleasure-cruise ship The General Slocum to steam up the East River to the Bronx for a Sunday School picnic. As the ship passed Randall's Island, a fire broke out within the cabin; yet instead of brining the boat to shore, the captain continued upstream and firefighters were unable to battle the blaze, as 1031 of 1400 passengers perished. For nearly a hundred years, it remained the worst disaster in New York history.

The city was becoming a more dangerous place. And while fire chiefs called for more safety measures, more lives would have to be lost before serious changes were made. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in a scrap bin on the eighth floor of the Asch Building. Around 700 young women, immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, were working on the top three floors of this ten-story building in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company's clothing factory when the fire spread to cans of machine oil and exploded. Most of those working on the eighth floor were able to escape on a freight elevator, and many on the tenth floor broke onto the roof through a skylight. Scores of others, however, fled for the fire escape, which soon overcrowded, buckled, and broke, tossing workers to the street below.

The doors to the interior stairwell were locked, in accordance with a policy to prevent theft, so the only way out was through the elevator, manned by a boy named Joseph Zito. Zito made five trips to the ninth floor, carrying 25 to 30 women down at a time. Nevertheless, desperate, smoke-choked workers jumped from windows and tried sliding down the elevator cables to safety. By the time the first fire companies arrived, they were forced to park away from the building to avoid running over the bodies. Later, over thirty corpses were found in the elevator shaft. Three men had even tried forming a human bridge from an eighth floor window across to the next building, providing an escape route across their backs for a few women before the men lost their grip and fell to the pavement.

The fire itself only took twenty minutes to extinguish, but the department had arrived too late to save 146 workers. According to Fire Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, the fire "demonstrated forcibly the contention of the Fire Department that, while a building might be fireproof, the contents are not." Numerous fire safety laws were added in reaction to the tragedy, and in 1912 a Fire Prevention Bureau was established. The incident was also an important instigator of the labor union movement. In fact, in 1917, FDNY members organized the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which replaced the grueling 20-hour shifts firemen were working at the time with a two platoon system that divided twelve hour shifts among the company.

Meanwhile, the dangers of the 20th Century metropolis turned out to be more than just skyscrapers and poor fire-exits. In January of 1912, a fire spread through the dumbwaiter elevator system of the Equitable Building on Pine Street. Eight companies fought the fire for a half an hour before Chief John Kenlon ordered everyone out of the building. Additional companies arrived from Brooklyn, and while firefighters attempted to rescue people stranded on the roof, the building collapsed, dooming the victims on the roof as well as two firemen. Meanwhile, it took an hour and a half and fifteen saw blades to cut through the steel bars that sealed three men in the building's basement. By the time they were released, one of the men had submitted to the smoke.

1915 - Rescue 1 to the rescue
Incidents like this - and a subway fire January 8, 1915 that injured hundreds when the tunnel filled with smoke - resulted in the creation of Rescue Company 1 on January 18, 1915. The country's first heavy rescue unit, Rescue 1 was outfitted with the most advanced equipment available, like Draeger Smoke Helmets and tools to release victims trapped beneath heavy debris. The unit was instrumental in controlling such disasters as a 1916 ammonia fire in the cellar of the Park and Tilford Company, a 1917 explosion of hydrogen gas aboard a submarine in the Brooklyn Naval yard that threatened to destroy the entire fleet, and the 1932 explosion in a Ritz Tower Hotel basement paint room that left eight firemen dead and another eight seriously injured.

As if the hazards of chemical fires weren't enough, New York got its first taste of another sort of menace in 1920 when a wagon filled with 100 pounds of dynamite exploded outside Morgan Bank on Wall Street, killing 38 people and injuring hundreds more. Blamed on anarchists, no arrests were ever made.

The United States had entered the global stage, and as the country entered World War II, 1832 FDNY members joined the armed forces. To help account for this, a civilian Auxiliary Corps was formed that responded on FDNY apparatus, lending support by stretching hose, operating deck pipes, and performing other miscellaneous tasks. On July 28, 1945, a B-25 Bomber, blinded by foggy conditions crashed into the 78th and 79th floor of the Empire State Building, causing three separate fires within the building and killing fourteen people. That same year, The Fireman's Medal of Supreme Sacrifice was endowed by the Uniformed Firemen's Association to be awarded annually to the families of FDNY members who die in the line of duty. By 1948, a fire alarm was transmitted every nine minutes, with an actual fire occurring every twelve minutes.

1951 - fighting fires and urban decay
The modern FDNY had come a long way from the days of toting leather water buckets to four-story blazes. In fact, in 1954, the department began devoting an entire day each year to the inspection of its many and varied apparatus, called Apparatus Field Inspection Duty.

Yet, the number of fires continued to increase. As always, there was the potential for catastrophe. In June 25, 1958, the freighter Nebraska and the tanker Empress Bay - carrying 280,000 gallons of gasoline - collided shortly after midnight and caught fire directly under the Manhattan Bridge, spilling oil and igniting the entire East River between Piers 29 and 31. Regular use of the river could not resume until noon on the 27th.

On a December morning in 1960, another tragic collision took place when a United Airlines four-engine DC-8 jet with 84 people aboard and a TWA four-engine Super Constellation with 44 people aboard crashed over Staten Island. The TWA plane landed in an empty field on Staten Island, but the other plane continued in the air for another ten miles, finally careening into the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, killing six people on the ground, tearing apart multiple buildings, and setting several fires. Hardly a week later, a fire in the Brooklyn Navy Yard aboard the aircraft carrier the U.S. Constellation, one of the largest ships ever built, required over 600 firefighters to be extinguished.

Luckily, technology was working on the behalf of the FDNY, as several important firefighting tools were developed in the post-War years. In 1964, the department received the first Mack "aerialscope," Tower Ladder 1, and began using rotary power saws to cut through metal, concrete, and wood to slice ventilation holes in roofs. A year later, they received the Super-Pumper, capable of delivering 10,000 gallons of water per minute. In 1966, the department began using High-Expansion Foam (Hi-Ex), and in the '70s, flame-resistant bunker clothing was adopted, as was a new, self-contained breathing apparatus. Also, in 1972 Rescue 1 and Rescue 2 each received a Hurst Tool, more widely known as the Jaws of Life.

Still, fires across the city increased. While there had been 61,644 fires in 1961, by 1970 the figure had risen to 127,249. The city's infrastructure of buildings was aging, and New York was experiencing numerous financial problems. Much of the city's wealthier class was moving to the suburbs (between 1970 and 1980, 824,000 residents left New York, easily the largest loss ever sustained over a ten-year period by a city in this country). In 1965, there were 4000 known vacant buildings, and a growing number of vacant building fires that diverted the force's attention from fires in occupied buildings.

1968 - turbulent times
Meanwhile, the social upheaval of the '60s was affecting the department. On April 4, 1968, the day of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, looting and arson raged through areas of Harlem and Brooklyn. Fire Commissioner Robert Lowery declared "a fire emergency" on April 5 and the civil unrest continued for several days. Broken bottles and stones were thrown at responding firefighters and their apparatus, and according to a radio report three months later, 56 firemen had been hospitalized as a result of injuries inflicted by attacks from residents. Eventually, responding fire companies were escorted by police cars, and in 1969, the department initiated design changes to apparatus that would allow for "crew cabs" enabling all firemen to ride safely inside the trucks.

On March 6, 1970, two members of the Weathermen, a radical offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, were making bombs in the basement of a Greenwich Village building when one was accidentally detonated, setting off a chain reaction of explosions that essentially leveled the building and ignited a gas main. Six days later, bombs exploded in the skyscraper offices of Mobil Oil, IBM, and GTE. Between 1965 and 1970, a total of 465 bombs were placed in the city; 98 of them never exploded, but bombs continued to be a problem throughout the 1970s. In June of 1970, piles of uncollected garbage were collecting along Sutter Avenue in Brownsville. When two men took the trash and built an enormous pile of garbage in the middle of the street, police arrested the men, spurring riot that resulted in the firebombing of a police car and numerous rubbish fires around the area.

1981 - with the 80s, comes levity
Things calmed down a bit by the 1980s. In 1981, the department qualified Rescue Company 4 as its Hazardous Material Unit, and members of the company received specialized training at the National Fire Academy. Hazardous Materials Company 1 was formed in 1984 and stationed with Engine 288 in Maspeth, Queens. In 1982, the FDNY firemen became firefighters, as a Federal Court judge ruled to change the department's physical exam so that women would be able to join the force. A new test was approved, and that fall 11 women passed the new physical exam, graduated from the Training School, and were assigned around the city. In 1983, Rescue Companies 1 and 2 were officially designated as in-water firefighting teams with the capability of using SCUBA gear to perform underwater search and rescue missions. The Emergency Medical Service was created in the early 1970s, and the late 1980s, firefighters began responding to EMS calls. On March 17, 1996, EMS officially merged with the FDNY.

1993 - trade center tragedies
On February 26, 1993, a terrorist-planted car bomb on parking level B-2 underneath the World Trade Center's Visa Hotel blew a giant hole in the Twin Towers' substructure, and caused a partial collapse of the PATH train station. FDNY members responded in what was at the time the largest mobilization of apparatus in the department's history. People were stranded in elevators high up in the towers, while others were trapped under debris in the building's basement. Five people were killed and over a thousand were injured, many by smoke inhalation, including forty-four firefighters.

Sadly, this first attack on the World Trade Center was only a hint at the tragic consequences of domestic terrorism. On September 11, 2001, terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into Building 1, the World Trade Center's north tower, followed sixteen minutes later by United Airlines Flight 175's collision with the south tower. Nearly 3,000 people were killed, including 343 firefighters who were making rescue attempts within the towers at the time of their collapse. Some hope was found the next day as six firefithers were recovered, alive, from the rubble, but the disaster was by far the most catastrophic event in the history of the FDNY. Nevertheless, the department pressed on, performing grueling recovery tours at the site of the disaster for months afterwards. Meanwhile, the Fire Academy increased its class sizes, usually no more 150, graduating over 300 new probational firefighters every three months since the attacks.

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