FDNY reflects on Father’s Day blaze

Mary Fahey (l.-r.), Ann Downing and Denise Ford, widows of three firefighters who died in a five-alarm blaze in Astoria 10 years ago, attended a memorial mass for their husbands in Woodside this weekend. Photo by Steven Malecki
By Rebecca Henely

For the firefighters of Ladder 163 and Rescue 4, this year is not only the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, but another tragedy that took members of their crew.

The FDNY held a memorial mass Saturday at St. Sebastian’s Church, at 39-60 57th St. in Woodside, in honor of the three men who died during the Astoria Father’s Day Fire June 17, 2001.

On the afternoon 10 years ago, two teenage boys accidentally caused an explosion in the basement of a hardware store at 12-22 Astoria Blvd., setting off a five-alarm fire that kept FDNY crews working all that evening and into the next morning.

Three of the firefighters, 40-year-old John Downing of Ladder 163, at 41-24 51st St. in Woodside, and 50-year-old Harry Ford and 46-year-old Brian Fahey of Rescue 4, at 37-20 29th St. in Astoria, were killed after the ground floor collapsed into the basement, where they were working.

“John, Brian and Harry were the cream of the crop, the best of the best,” FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said in a statement. “They all served this department, this city, with distinction. We were lucky to have them.”

The families of the three firefighters — all of whom left behind wives and children — attended the mass as did dozens of firefighters. Meanwhile, at the site of the fire a memorial was set up for Downing, Ford and Fahey with black and purple bunting and three wreaths.

“It’s a beautiful gift to see them remembered like this today,” said Mary Fahey, Brian Fahey’s widow, in a statement. Fahey is also survived by his three sons: Brendan, Patrick and James.

Although the tragedy occurred less than three months before 9/11, the community made a point to honor the men’s sacrifice. In 2003, Astoria Boulevard between 12th and 14th streets was co-named for the firefighters. Three signs on the post for Astoria Boulevard and 14th Street read “Firefighter John Downing Way,” “Firefighter Brian Fahey Way” and “Firefighter Harry Ford Way.”

“These men embodied professionalism, dedication and commitment,” Chief of Department Edward Kilduff said in a statement. “We’ll always remember their smiles and their spirit.”

Downing is survived by his wife Anne, his daughter Joanne and his son Michael. Ford is survived by his wife Denise, his daughter Janna and his two sons Harry and Gerard.

“It means a lot to my family that so many people turned out today,” Denise Ford said in a statement.

A day after the ceremony, a fire occurred on Father’s Day in the second floor of an apartment at 60-05 44th Ave. in Woodside around 4:50 a.m., not far from where the ceremony was held and in the vicinity of Ladder 163 in Woodside, where Downing used to work. FDNY spokesman Steve Ritea said one civilian was injured in the fire and transported to Elmhurst. The fire came under control at 5:23 a.m.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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