Three veteran firefighters killed in Astoria explosion

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Three firefighters were killed and 59 people injured after a 75-year-old Astoria hardware store caught fire early Sunday afternoon, setting off a deadly explosion and sending a wall of debris down on the men battling the blaze below.

Firefighters Harry Ford, 50, of Rescue Company 4, John J. Downing, 40, of Ladder Company 163, and Brian Fahey, 46, of Rescue Company 4, were killed in the Father’s Day explosion, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said. They left eight children behind.

Two firefighters were critically injured in the five-alarm fire.

Long Island General Supply at 12-22 Astoria Blvd. and the three apartments above the family-owned store, which was closed Sunday, caught fire just after 2 p.m., witnesses said. Two of the three apartments were occupied at the time, but the residents were safely evacuated, officials said.

Fire marshals believe two teenagers — ages 13 and 15 — playing behind the building may have tipped over an open can of gasoline, spilling the flammable liquid into the hardware store’s basement, Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen said Tuesday.

Investigators think a water heater in the basement may have sparked the fire by igniting the gasoline, but the cause still was not officially known, he said.

“The father was the person who was out in the street flagging the first arriving ambulance. He told the first officers ... that’s how the fire began,” Von Essen said during a City Hall news conference.

Fire officials are treating the incident as an accident.

At 2:15 p.m. Sunday while firefighters were inside the two-story building battling the flames, the explosion tore through the building, shaking surrounding homes at the intersection of Astoria Boulevard and 28th Street, witnesses said.

The explosion demolished the building’s front wall, sending bricks, metal and debris flying out onto the street. Two firefighters were buried in the rubble and several passers-by on the street were cut and bruised by flying matter, witnesses said.

Injured in the blast were 50 firefighters, five police officers, two EMS workers and two civilians, Giuliani said.

“This was one of the worst tragedies that we’ve had at least in a very long time in New York City,” Giuliani said Sunday night following the explosion.

Von Essen said 30 or 40 firefighters initially responded to what appeared to be a routine fire and many of them were inside the building when it blew.

“They described a small explosion and maybe popping noises, then later a tremendous explosion that rocked people on the first floor so hard they actually hit the ceiling,” Von Essen said.

Giuliani said Firefighter Fahey was inside the building when it exploded. The floor dropped out, burying Fahey below. He maintained radio contact with colleagues for several hours and directed them to him, but later succumbed, Von Essen said.

Ford and Downing were outside opening windows to vent the building when the blast occurred, the commissioner said. Von Essen said by the time crews were able to reach the men trapped beneath the rubble they had died.

Seventy-five fire units responded to the scene with 350 firefighters. Officials said the explosion was set off by canisters of propane, paint and varnishes stored in the shop’s basement.

Shamine Pragg, who lives directly above the hardware store, watched from the street as the store and her home exploded, thrusting one firefighter from the building out into the street.

“Three went in and one flew out,” said Pragg. She saw the firefighter thrown from the building land on the street and then be buried by flying debris, including a steel gate.

Firefighters Joseph Vosilla and Brendan Manning were taken to area hospitals in critical condition, fire officials said. Vosilla was taken to Elmhurst Hospital and underwent surgery, while Manning was sent to New York Hospital, where he was treated for multiple fractures and burns, fire officials said.

Many of the injured were treated in the streets surrounding the explosion, carried off to waiting ambulances and first aid sites set up at the location. They were transported to Elmhurst Hospital, Cornell Medical Center, Jacobi Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital, the mayor said.

Neighbors familiar with the old-fashioned hardware store said it had bins of nails lining the walls and was stocked with janitorial supplies, such as paints, solvents and other flammable chemicals.

The Gordons’ family-owned shop had just been inspected two weeks ago, said Spencer Gordon. Fire officials said those inspections involved only fire extinguishers.

The two-story building was reduced to a one-story wreck with interior walls exposed, a sunken black tar roof and a second-floor mattress thrown from its frame. Dark brown smoke still fumed from the building’s windows late into Sunday afternoon.

For hours the streets surrounding the corner of Astoria Boulevard and 18th Street were blocked off to traffic and lined with fire trucks and support crews.

The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army were on hand supplying water to the firefighters, while other FDNY staff members brought in tanks of oxygen for those still fighting the flames.

“It shows you what a difficult job this is,” said City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) as he watched the rescue efforts Sunday. “These firefighters came from their homes on Father’s Day, risking their lives. This is a wake-up to everyone, a reminder why these firefighters are called ‘the bravest.’”

Ford left behind his wife Denise and their three children: Janna O’Brien, 24, Harry, 12, and Gerard, 10. Downing is survived by his wife Anne, daughter Joanne, 7, and son Michael, 3. Fahey left his wife, Mary and their three sons, Brendan, 8, and 3-1/2-year-old twins Patrick and James.

A second and third generation of the Gordon family took over the hardware store’s operation after founder Alec died earlier this month.

Vallone said Randall and Spencer Gordon, the father and son who now run the store, which was demolished in the explosion, were shattered by the fire and loss of life.

— Dustin Brown contributed to this story.

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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