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Thread: Ladder 163/Engine 325 - New fire truck

  1. #1
    Registered User SeaBreeze's Avatar
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    Jan 2002

    Ladder 163/Engine 325 - New fire truck

    Queens ladder company grateful to Akron for new fire truck
    N.Y. firehouse hit by tragedy twice this year

    By David Giffels

    NEW YORK: Ladder Company 163 and Engine Company 325 share an old brick firehouse with a big red garage door in the Woodside neighborhood of Queens. It's a gritty place built in 1939, bordered by two alleys and a fence topped with razor wire.

    These days, it's decorated with a homespun display of candles and flowers and little notes of grief and affirmation, spread out on a card table on the sidewalk. Few companies were spared on Sept. 11, and Ladder 163 is no different. Two of its men died that day.

    This is home to 50 members of New York's Fire Department, 11 of them working in any given shift. And it will soon be home to a brand-new ladder truck, a 45-foot-long rig that will fill half the truck bay.

    When that truck arrives two weeks from now, it will bear a bronze plaque on the side: "A Gift from the People of Greater Akron, Ohio.''

    The $850,000 rig is the centerpiece of the Fire Truck Fund -- the community effort that raised nearly $1.4 million in the weeks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and has also provided New York with two ambulances and three police cruisers.

    Even in a city that has seen an unprecedented outpouring of good will, this gift stands out. The Fire Truck Fund is the largest single contribution to replace equipment after the attacks.

    When ladder truck 163 comes home, it will be treated like a new baby, waxed and polished until it's so clean you could eat off its red bumpers. Snapshots will be taken. Neighbors will nod their approval. It will be the pride of the "Woodside Warriors.''

    Day just beginning
    Go down the right alley, just past that shrine, to the heavy steel door with reinforced glass. Ring the buzzer. A sleepy-eyed firefighter answers. Coffee's on. Come on in.
    Bob O'Neill shuffles by, wearing navy blue shorts, a blue FDNY shirt and an old pair of black work shoes, laced loosely so he can kick them off and jump into his fire boots if the alarm sounds. His tough Irish smile is framed by a thick mustache. He's rubbing his shaved head, still waking up.

    It's 7:30 a.m. and the corners of the house are dark. There's growing activity in the kitchen and dining area, where shift Capt. Jim Donlevy is sitting down to coffee.

    The table he leans on is a slab of an old bowling alley, some 15 feet long, decorated with the Woodside Warriors logo -- the profile of an American Indian. Painted in big letters on one end is "E 325, Pride of Woodside.'' Painted on the other is "L 163, We Rise to the Occasion.''

    That same Warriors logo is on a bar-style neon sign hanging outside the dining room door.

    Newspapers are spread out on the table; mismatched coffee cups steam here and there; cereal is being poured into bowls.

    The conversation warms up on this early November morning -- inside jokes and locker-room insults; comments on the news and details of the coming day. The accents are thick, Queens and Brooklyn and Long Island. Many of these guys are Irish or Italian; perhaps half are second- or third-generation FDNY.

    They are very much a type: aggressive, wisecracking and raw. The firehouse has the bare-knuckled charm and texture and -- oddly -- warmth of a rogue fraternity.

    "These guys, they come in as individuals,'' Donlevy says. "But they get acclimated pretty quick.''

    The Woodside Warriors serve an old Irish neighborhood that has become more mixed in recent years, with Hispanic residents moving into the modest houses and apartment buildings that form the bones of Woodside. Many of the candleholders on the shrine outside the building are decorated with images of "Divino Nino Jesus'' and "El Gran Poder.'' An old Asian lady has been stopping to water the mums.

    Capt. Donlevy gets up from his coffee to give a nickel tour of the truck bay. Filling one side is 163's old rig, a 1989 model with a long ladder boom resting on top. "We Rise to the Occasion'' is painted on the boom that lifts a bucket nearly 100 feet into the air.

    "It's a tired old thing,'' Donlevy says as he opens the door to one of the tool compartments, releasing a faint memory of smoke.

    The old rig creaks when it takes corners. The suspension is shot. The boom isn't as tight as it once was, and the bucket can get rocking pretty good when the water pressure and wind kick in.

    There's an old taxicab license plate screwed to the back and Indian feathers hanging in the cab. A New York Post sports page is tucked up on the dashboard.

    The rig has had its share of breakdowns. A favorite story is the time the truck went out on a run and there was an electrical short. A call went out to dispatch:

    "We have a warehouse on fire -- and Ladder 163 on fire.''

    It was down for months after that, but returned. The truck was involved in the early stages of cleanup at the World Trade Center until it broke down and was pulled away for repair. Although most units that are replaced remain in service as spares, this one is likely to be retired permanently as soon as the Akron truck arrives.

    As much as anything else, though, the biggest complaint is that it has no air conditioning. Because the men in the rear are sitting in tight quarters against the engine housing, it can get unbearably hot inside.

    For all the adornments on the lumbering old rig, though, one stands out -- the gold-lettered plaque over the grille: "In memory of FF John Downing.''

    A year of losses

    Ladder 163, which hadn't lost a man since 1962, has suffered two heavy blows this year. When Sept. 11 hit, the company was still mourning the loss of Downing. He was killed in the "Father's Day fire,'' a June 17 warehouse blaze in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, considered at the time one of the deadliest incidents in FDNY history. Three men died and two were badly injured.
    Downing and O'Neill grew up in this Woodside neighborhood, Irish kids who ran the streets together. They both joined the Fire Department in 1989.

    "He was a big hunk of a guy that liked to break chops,'' O'Neill says, sitting in the early sunlight on the bumper of 325's rig.

    The morning of June 17, the two passed each other at shift change. O'Neill teased his friend. "Have a nice Father's Day. I'm goin' home. You?''

    Within hours, Downing lay dead after part of the building collapsed.

    "Father's Day, I cried like a little baby. I dreamt about him for weeks and weeks,'' O'Neill says. "These other two, it hasn't even hit me yet.''

    Tributes to Downing's memory pepper the house. A green "Downing St.'' sign is suspended in a hallway near one of the two brass fire poles. His wooden coat hanger, bearing his name, is propped on the wall of the upstairs weight room. Photographs and newspaper clippings fill a dining room bulletin board.

    And upstairs in the locker room, a threadbare yellow chair sits empty in a corner. On the windowsill behind it, a half-smoked cigar is resting on the bent-down rim of a coffee can. A handwritten note is taped to the chair:

    "Please don't remove the cigar or place personal things on chair. They were John's, and this is where he spent many long hours studying. Thank you.''

    Still haunted by Downing's memory, O'Neill has been to dozens of funerals, trying to process it all. Two months after Sept. 11, he was looking at an Internet site about the 343 lost firefighters and spotted the name of a guy he knew.

    "I got a pain in the heart.'' He curses angrily. "I didn't even know he was dead.''

    Donlevy says there's been no closure to the numbing losses at the World Trade Center.

    "It's in the present,'' he says. "It's not in the past yet.''

    The two members of Ladder 163 who died at the trade center -- Scott Larsen and Tom Gambino -- were serving with other companies on Sept. 11. Ladder 163 responded to the call that day, but got delayed at the tunnel into Manhattan.

    "That 15 minutes saved everybody's lives,'' O'Neill says.

    Gambino -- "Gambo'' -- was an 18-year veteran of the department and had 17 years with Ladder 163. He was in the midst of a transfer; on Sept. 10, he was assigned to a rescue company that got caught in the collapse. He left a wife and two sons.

    Larsen, who was training with another company, died the day his wife was due to deliver their fourth child. His son, August, was born Sept. 13.

    When the Akron truck arrives, it will bear a new plaque with the names of all three men.

    The truck will represent a bond with a community in Northeast Ohio, once a foreign place to many of these native New Yorkers, but now the home of friends.

    As O'Neill finishes the tale of Sept. 11, Scott Grubert passes through the truck bay, pulling out a cigarette. He nods hello.

    "These guys are from Akron, Ohio. Their town is buyin' our new rig for us,'' Donlevy says.

    "No kiddin'?'' Grubert says. He immediately offers a handshake. "Thanks.''

    Donlevy opens an invitation to any visitor who may want to stop by and see the truck in its new home.

    "We'll take care of 'em,'' he says, smiling. "We'll feed 'em a good lunch.''

  2. #2
    Registered User SeaBreeze's Avatar
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    Jan 2002
    Chow's on!

    Kevin Sconzo is holding a big metal spatula, pushing around a mess of sausages and peppers on a restaurant-size stainless steel griddle. Thirteen great slabs of crusty bread are sitting on plates on the table, and the kitchen is warm and fragrant. Bad Company's Feel Like Makin' Love is on the firehouse radio and someone shrieks out the chorus.

    One of the guys goes over to the freezer and opens the door. A fox jumps out. The guy cusses and jerks back, and Grubert busts up laughing.

    It's a booby-trap, a fox pelt on a string. Grubert, a tough, muscular guy with a mustache and buzz cut, holds it up like a trophy.

    Lt. Billy Regan is sitting at the bowling alley table, reading glasses perched on his nose, leaning back with his New York Post and a fat cigar between his fingers. He looks up from his paper.

    "Akron,'' he says. "Near Canton, isn't it?''

    The visitors from Ohio are impressed. Regan puffs on his cigar and smiles proudly.

    "Goodyear, right? You guys make tires.''

    He nods his head smugly and saunters out of the dining room.

    "He's like a genius,'' one of the firemen says. "Guy knows everything.''

    The station house loudspeaker comes on. "Chow's on! Chow's on! Come and get it!''

    The plates with the buns are snatched up.

    "Don't be shy,'' Sconzo says.

    They all sit down to eat. Behind them on one wall is a big "Welcome Back'' poster for Brendan Manning, a lieutenant badly injured in the Father's Day fire and due to return soon. On the opposite wall is a long list of memorial services for some of the firefighters lost in the World Trade Center attacks.

    A few minutes into lunch, a buzzer sounds. Brush fire. The guys from 163 jump up and hurry out to the garage. Green plastic plate covers are passed around and set over the abandoned meals.

    The rest of the men continue eating for a short time until another call comes in. Structure fire. Ladder 163 returns and pauses on the street, waiting for 325 to follow.

    "We're s'posed to be outta service'' one says. Their siren isn't working, and they've been waiting for a mechanic to come.

    "Drive slow,'' someone suggests.

    They pile into the rig and set off toward the fire. Tommy LeDuc, sitting in the compartment behind the cab, leans out the window and does his best to divert traffic with hand signals.

    "This is embarrassin','' he says. "We got no siren.''

    By the time they arrive on the scene, 163 is inside the house. New York is one of only a handful of fire departments in the country that use an interior attack style of firefighting. Instead of pouring water in from the outside, they go inside a structure and fight the fire at its source. It's a big-city technique that helps keep fires from spreading between close-together buildings. It requires a lot of manpower, and half a dozen units have responded to what turns out to be a minor blaze.

    As 163 continues to mop up at the house fire, 325 returns to the station. Plates are microwaved. Everyone sits back down to eat.

    But the alarm buzzes again. "Engine!''

    "We're supposed to be outta service,'' the complaint rings out again. Someone grabs a megaphone this time, hoping the built-in siren might help. He gets a good razzing for his trouble.

    This one's a rescue call; a woman down in a parking lot. On the way, 325 gets another call. Downed wires. Another unit responds to the first call, and 325 heads down a ramshackle residential street to the address.

    "Oh, yeah, that's a real emergency,'' Regan says. "Telephone wires.''

    The rest of the company stands around cracking jokes as Sconzo and LeDuc pull the wires down and cut them with a pair of pliers.

    On the way back to the firehouse, LeDuc starts talking about Sept. 11. The son of a New York cop, he went to college and ran a fishing charter for a few years before taking the civil service exam and joining the Fire Department.

    "What affected me was the Father's Day fire,'' he says. "You don't think it could happen, and then -- this.'' He throws up his hands. "It's kinda scary, y'know? It makes you look at life differently. I been on four years. I seen a lotta (crap) in four years. After Sept. 11, my grandfather called. He was cryin'. He fought in World War II. He says, `I thought my generation dealt with this.' ''

    Finally, nearly two hours after lunch was served, everyone sits back down at the table.

    "Busy day in Woodside,'' LeDuc says.

    Regan ambles in with his cigar.

    "Da Zips -- da Akron Zips. Right? Right?''

    He smiles broadly.

    More tragedy

    Three days after this visit, an American Airlines jet crashed in Queens, just after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport. Ladder 163 responded. Bob O'Neill was on his way to another funeral when he heard the news.

    "Grim would be a good description,'' he said of that day.

    The company put in three stints at the crash scene, in a neighborhood that had already lost many firefighters in September. If fate allows, it will be the old ladder rig's last major tragedy.

    The new Akron truck that arrives here next month can expect 10 or 11 years of hard service. It will go to trash fires and false alarms, to infernos and houses black with smoke.

    Those Indian feathers will probably find their way into the cab. Bob O'Neill's worn leather helmet will be tucked into the passenger compartment next to hose nozzles and air tanks. Bets will be made on who puts in the first dent. The high-tech air conditioning will be the talk of the summer.

    In the dead of night, the alarm will sound, and the men of Ladder 163 will bolt from their beds, descend the stairs and slide down the brass poles, pulling on their heavy coats as they jump into the cab. They will ride that truck into the dark, and they will trust it as they trust each other, as they trusted Larsen and Gambino and Downing.

    They will trust it with their lives.

    David Giffels' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at 330-996-3572 or at

  3. #3

    Exclamation����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� Looking for an email-address


    can you help - I received an email by Mark Meihoefer of FDNY L-163, but missed his email-address.
    I need it to answer several questions he wanted to be answered.

    Regards, Michael Tropp Hamburg, Germany

    Please contact me: (private) (on duty)

  4. #4
    I just wanted to give a shout out to the Woodside Warriors. I am from a small town near Akron. When 9/11 happened I wanted to do something, anything, to help. Then I heard of the Firetruck Fund. It was the best way I could think of to fight back, to not let those terrorist bastads win. I can say without hesitation that the $20 I gave to the Firetruck Fund was the best money I EVER spent.

    Never forget Woodside, if you ever need anything: Akron has your back.


  5. #5

    Smile����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� Very moving story.

    That is probably one of the more moving stories i have heard about 9/11. Lets not forget our fallen brothers!!!

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