Firefighters and their families gathered in the Midwood section of Brooklyn today for a special Mass to mark the 35th anniversary of a fire at a Waldbaums supermarket in the area that killed six firemen.
On August 2, 1978, a five-alarm fire tore through a grocery store on Ocean Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, causing the structure's roof to collapse, killing the six firemen who fell through.
Officials say the store's secondary, ornamental ceiling had concealed the seriousness of the fire.
The six fatalities were Lieutenant James Cutillo of Battalion 33, Harold F. Hastings of Battalion 42, Charles Bouton and William O'Connor of Ladder Company 156 and James McManus and George Rice of Ladder Company 153.
Another 36 people were injured in the fire.
The victims' family members who gathered at the yearly Mass at St. Brendan's Church on Ocean Avenue today said the pain of that day still lingers.
Two retired firefighters who survived the blaze, Donald King and Thomas Higgins, were among the attendees.
"Every day, I remember everybody that died in that fire," King said. "I found a way to get out. I jumped through the cockloft, landed on the floor below, and Tommy Higgins, of all people, led me through the store."
"I walked over to aisle two, found one of the guys of my company on all fours, helped him out, walked out together and realized what happened. A morning I'll never forget," Higgins said.
Christine Pagliaroli, Hastings' daughter, said her family was getting ready to go on vacation when they received the tragic news.
"He didn't belong on the roof but he volunteered because that was the kind of a person he was. It was also his time to be off, but he was helping out because it was a big fire," Pagliaroli said. "He was supposed to be leave that morning. Our family was packed and ready to go to Walt Disney World for our first time. So he volunteered to stay, he called my mom and said, 'It's a big fire, I have to stay.' And, he never came home."
That day, the FDNY learned hard lessons about knowing how a burning building was constructed. The roof of the supermarket was made with beams set in triangles known as trusses.
"If a truss in a roof gives way, it causes multiple trusses to go and collapse, and that's what happened that day. It really brought awareness of truss construction," said Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano.
Remembering the firefighters who died that August 2nd is the main reason for the annual memorial service. But survivors also said grieving together has given way to celebrating lives well lived and sacrificed together, and the comfort of that companionship has only grown.