He's heaven's little 'fireman'

Boy, 5, dies of cancer after he lost dad in blaze


Michael Downing with his mother, Anne, at dad's funeral in June 2001.

John Downing

"Heaven must have its youngest firefighter."
That was the heartbreaking epitaph yesterday for 5-year-old Michael Downing, who lost his brave battle with cancer this week - two years after losing his hero firefighter dad in the 2001 Father's Day blaze in Queens.

"This is so unfair," said Firefighter Bob O'Neill, a family friend.

Michael, whose short life was filled with more tragedy than any child should ever have to bear, first complained of pain during a plaque dedication at his dad's firehouse a year after the fire that killed three Bravest.

He was soon diagnosed with neuroblastoma and died Monday at his family's Long Island home following months of painful treatments.

The morning after her brother died, Joanne Downing, 9, got out of bed and wrote him a letter. The little girl had gone through the same grim, but life-affirming ritual when her father died on the day everyone celebrates their dads.

"Michael: Amazing, tough, sweet, cute, cool, friendly. My brother. Love, Joanne," she wrote, slipping the note yesterday into his casket.

Hundreds of grief-stricken mourners filed past that casket yesterday at a Woodside, Queens, funeral home as they tried to comfort Anne Downing, who has been left to cope with the premature loss of her husband and her only son.

"No words can express the depths of sorrow and pain this family has endured," said Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. "Through it all, Anne and her family have been incredibly heroic. The entire Fire Department is awed and inspired by her."

Friends said Anne Downing remained strong during all the hospital trips, and spent every moment possible with Michael while trying also to support Joanne - her partner in the crushing double loss.

An immigrant from Kilkeel in County Down, Ireland, Anne Downing has been drawing strength from her large family and Catholic faith, as well as her extended family of firefighters and cops, friend say.

"He was a young boy, had his life cut short but the family has a strong religious background and is keeping the faith," said O'Neill of Ladder Co. 163, Downing's firehouse in Woodside. "Heaven must have its youngest firefighter."

Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, who was among Michael's many hospital visitors, will sing at the boy's funeral tomorrow morning.

Hundreds of firefighters and police officers have donated blood in Michael's name to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he underwent countless transfusions and operations.

Neuroblastoma, typically a childhood cancer, attacks the nervous system. With Michael, the cancer began in his spine, spread to his liver, lungs, brain and settled in the bones of his legs and feet.

He was just 3 when he was diagnosed a year after his 40-year-old father and two other firefighters died in a five-alarm blaze and explosion at a hardware store that was improperly storing propane tanks and paint.

Downing and Rescue 4 Firefighter Harry Ford, 50, died when the store's roof crashed around them. Firefighter Brian Fahey, 46, died after being trapped in the basement.

The Downing family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to:

The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Neuroblastoma Cancer Research Center, Department of Pediatrics, MSKCC, 1275 York Ave., New York, NY 10021, and The New York City Firefighters Burn Center Foundation, 21 Asch Loop, The Bronx, NY 10475.

Tomorrow's funeral Mass will begin at 10:30 a.m. at St. Sebastian's Church, at 58th St. and Roosevelt Ave. in Woodside.

Originally published on October 23, 2003