On Oct. 26, 1962, six New York City firemen were killed in a four-alarm blaze on 56th Road in Maspeth.
Overshadowed that weekend by the Cuban Missile Crisis, “The Maspeth Fire” became all but forgotten over the years by almost all except the families of those who were lost, and their brethren who were there that horrifying night.
But hundreds, including widows, then-small children and FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano were on hand on Friday — 50 years to the date — as Peter Keane made sure Maspeth would never forget their sacrifice.
Cassano, following a moving ceremony, unveiled a plaque that Keane commissioned himself and affixed to his VIP Auto Body shop on 56th Road, at the site of the old Sefu Fat and Soap Company.
Capt. William Russell, 43, Firefighter James Marino, 24, and probationary firefighter Richard Andrews, 23, served with Engine Company 325. Firefighter Francis Egan, 29, was with Ladder 115, while firefighters George Zahn, 25, and Richard Gifford, 24, worked on Engine 238.
“They came because they always do,” said the Rev. Msgr. John Delendick, an FDNY chaplain.
All three FDNY units were on hand for Friday’s ceremonies.
“We’re here to remember six men who were taken from their families much too soon,” Cassano said. “Plaques like these are not just names on a wall, but a reminder of how dangerous this job can be.”
Keane and his employee Marc Eberle began to piece together the property’s somber secret last year while expanding the business. They uncovered burned wood and debris that had been left there.
“The building had been razed and the charred rubble buried,” said FDNY Chief of Operations James Esposito. “The nation was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then time had taken its toll on memories and local history.”
“Other people would have moved on,” Cassano said. “But not Peter ... He made sure the people of Maspeth will always remember the sacrifice made on this site.”
Keane received a prolonged standing ovation from all in attendance, including eight firefighters who were there 50 years ago. Some were among nearly 20 who were buried under rubble when a wall and ceiling gave way.
Robert Andrews came from Old Bridge, NJ to honor his kid brother, who had served only a few months before giving his life.
“He wanted to be a fireman from the time he got out of the Army,” Andrews said. “It must have been in his blood, because we’re all pharmacists in my family.”
He said it was hard coming back, seeing again where his brother died. But he had no end of praise for Keane and Eberle.
“I was the last one they found,” he said. “To think that they would do all that digging just to find us. That [Keane] would pay for that plaque himself ...”
He was moved again by the arrival of Jack Killcomons of Middle Village, who that night served with Ladder 128, and who, like every firefighter still standing that night, partook in the rescue effort.
“He pulled my brother out,” Andrews said.
Killcommons lost four friends in the fire, having joined the department in 1960 with Marino, Gifford, Zahn and Egan.
“We were replacing guys who served in World War II,” he said
He retired after 30 years, but has driven past the site frequently over the last half century. His unit had been the first on the scene.
“It was fully engulfed when we got here,” he said. “I always went by here with a tear in my eye because there was never a memorial to those guys.”
Tom Kershis considers himself and his family lucky. His late father, Frank, had been on Engine 325 that night and likely was with Russell, Marino and Andrews when the building collapsed.
“I fell asleep on my father’s bed that night, which I did a lot when he was working,” Kershis said. “The only phone in our house was next to his bed — an old rotary phone. I remember waking up, and I guess my mother had seen something on the news.”
She could get no straight answers.
“Then someone said ‘Ann, he’s not dead, but you might want to get to Elmhurst Hospital.’... His helmet was an accordion. He had a huge gash on the back of his head and a broken collar bone.”
The injuries Kershis sustained got him assigned to light duty within the FDNY for the next 30 years.
“He was glad he still had the job,” Kershis said.
Kershis’ brother, John, is an FDNY captain assigned in the Bronx. Andrews’ nephew followed his late uncle into the department and serves on a fire boat.
Killcommons, like Cassano before him, addressed the tradition of the FDNY being a family during the ceremony. And speaking to the families of his fallen comrades, he said that while the story is new to the public again, it is not the case within the firefighting community.
“You were never forgotten” he said.