On Oct. 26, a Maspeth businessman will dedicate a plaque in memory of six New York City firemen, 50 years to the day they gave their lives on the site where he has built his livelihood.
Peter Keane, owner of VIP Auto Body at 44-03 56 Road, had often heard the rumors throughout the years.
“When I bought the place the agent told me there had been a bad fire, but I dismissed it,” he said.
Then about a year ago, as Keane was expanding his business, they ripped up an old floor where they intended to put a painting facility.
“There was charred wood that someone had just buried there — a lot of it. We found an old elevator shaft,” said Marc Eberle, an employee at VIP. “Peter knows I like to do research, so he asked me to look into it.”
Eberle went to the old microfilm at his library and pieced together a tragedy, which on Oct. 26, 1962 became one of the the deadliest days in the history of the FDNY.
The land was the site of a two-story brick building that housed the old Sefu Fat and Soap Company. Fire companies from throughout Queens responded to the call, which went to four alarms.
Men went inside just over an hour later when the fire was declared under control. Then in one horrifying instant a wall and ceiling came crashing down, burying nearly 20 men under six feet of rubble.
A frantic search and rescue effort was unable to save Capt. William Russell, Firefighter James Marino and probationary Firefighter Richard Andrews of Engine Company 325; Firefighters Richard Gifford and George Zahn of Engine Company 238; and Firefighter Francis Egan of Ladder Company 115.
Seven more men were hospitalized with their injuries.
“A few paragraphs made the front page of The New York Times,” Eberle said. “But that was the same week as the Cuban Missile Crisis, when people were afraid there would be nuclear war. After the funeral,” — which was attended by more than 3,000 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan — “it didn’t get that much attention.”
The building was razed, the charred rubble was buried on site and the land was filled in before a new building was erected on the site.
Both men were stunned by the lack not only of a memorial, but of general knowledge of the historic tragedy among those in the neighborhood.
“I went and asked real estate agents and people who have been in this neighborhood their entire lives,” Keane said. “Nothing. These men died. Some of them left wives, children — and nobody knew!”
They decided to take matters into their own hands, and since their effort became public knowledge, have heard from family and relatives from Long Island, Queens and as far away as California.
The metal plaque listing each man by name and rank will be unveiled at 1 p.m. with family members, former colleagues and FDNY brass expected to be in attendance.