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10,000 firefighters salute Bravest after Astoria fire

A sea of blue and white hats bobbed under the trestles of the No. 7 train for three hours Friday as 10,000 firefighters paid their respects to the third and final comrade laid to rest following last week’s deadly explosion in an Astoria hardware store.

Even the clattering No. 7 train stood still as a procession bore John Downing’s coffin to and from St. Sebastian’s Roman Catholic Church on Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside, creating a solemn silence punctuated only by the steady toll of the church bell.

Downing, a 40-year-old Woodside native and father of two, was killed on Father’s Day when an explosion in the Long Island General Supply store in Astoria buried the firefighter beneath the rubble of a collapsed outer wall. He leaves behind a wife, Anne, and two children, Joanne, 7 and Michael, 3.

Two other firefighters killed in the explosion, Harry Ford and Brian Fahey, were buried in funeral services held the previous day on Long Island.

“The city of New York has a long history of great things and terrible tragedies, and I believe this is one of the worst the city has ever endured,” Mayor Rudy Giuliani said as he addressed the mourners.

The fire could have started when two teenagers playing behind the store knocked over a container of gasoline, which trickled into the basement and may have been ignited by the pilot light of a water heater, investigators said.

Downing took his final ride on the rig of Ladder Company 163, where he served for 11 years, in a casket flanked by 10 comrades, who lifted him atop their shoulders and brought him through the gilded doors of the same church where he had been married and baptized.

New York’s Bravest were joined by comrades from Florida, California and countless places in between, who were drawn to New York by a sense of kinship they said unites firefighters regardless of where they serve.

“It can any one of us,” said Creed McCelland, a member of the Honor Guard for the Orlando, Fla. Fire Department. “That’s why you see so many firefighters here today. Everyone comes to see everyone and to grieve for their fallen brothers.”

Behind the blue police barricades set up along Roosevelt Avenue, residents of Woodside and surrounding communities gathered to honor a man who risked and ultimately lost his life while working to protect the community.

“The fact that he’s a young guy with young kids — it’s just heartbreaking,” said Sinead Doyle, a Woodside resident who watched the funeral with her sister and their children from behind police barricades on Roosevelt Avenue. ‘It’s just heartbreaking that three men had to die. It was an empty building. It’s senseless.”

At Downing’s wake, held last Wednesday and Thursday at the Kennedy Roth Funeral Home on 58th Street, family and friends gathered to cast a parting gaze on the fallen firefighter, who was laid out in an open casket surrounded by a wedding picture and photograph of his children, a stuffed bunny, his fireman’s cap and a can of Pepsi.

The Astoria fire was not Downing’s first occasion to receive media attention. Posted on a board only feet away from his coffin was a 1992 cover of the Daily News, which showed Downing rescuing passengers from U.S. Air Flight 405 after it skidded off the runway and into the East River.

Other bulletin boards set up around the funeral home featured pictures of Downing clowning around with his children and fixing up his home, activities for which he was well known around the firehouse.

In one photograph Downing stood with his feet taped to cans of paint, lifting him high enough to paint the entire ceiling without the hassle of constantly moving a ladder. Another showed him dressed up as Santa Clause reaching the rooftop with a more high-tech maneuver than flying reindeer — lifted in the basket of a Fire Department cherry picker.

The boards also showed how Downing’s daughter Joanne struggled to cope with her father’s death through letters and drawings.

“I wish you didn’t have to die,” Joanne wrote in a letter to her father. “Don’t worry God will help you. I hope you can help me too. I’m sorry for all the things I did. You did so much for me and Michael and Mom.”

Firefighters who attended the wake fondly recalled a compassionate comrade typically seen studying for the lieutenant’s exam while puffing away at a cigar, a collection of which he maintained for the company in a humidor stored at his desk.

“He’s a good human being, a great firefighter and a caring person,” said John Heaphy, a retired firefighter who formerly served as the union delegate in Ladder Company 163. “There aren’t enough words to express my love for that boy.”

The brotherhood felt among firemen continues even through death. For the days immediately following the tragedy, firefighters from Ladder 163 tended to even the most mundane details of funeral preparation, like picking up dry cleaning and setting bottles of water outside the funeral home, to help Downing’s family cope in their hour of greatest need.

As Lt. Robert Cadieux put it, “everyone is still helping John like he’s still here.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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