By Steve Mosco
The 1960s were a decade of transition — the political landscape shifted dramatically with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, The Beatles took everyone on a magical mystery tour and the Cuban missile crisis led many to gravely prepare for the end of the world.
On Oct. 26, 1962, just as Kennedy was receiving word of a compromise from the Soviet Union to end the crisis, six firefighters with the FDNY were starting their shifts as they had numerous times before. They said goodbye to loved ones and left to serve the city.
Capt. William Russell with Engine 325 in Woodside dropped his two sons off at a barbershop in Wantagh, L.I. One of his sons, Peter Russell, recalled saying goodbye and telling his father he would see him tomorrow.
“Unfortunately, we never did see him again,” he said.
Russell’s father was one of six firefighters who died that night battling a blaze at Sefu Soap and Fat Co., at 44-15 56th Road in Maspeth, when a brick wall came crashing down on them.
Killed in the line of duty that night with Russell, 43, were Firefighters Richard Andrews, 25, of Jamaica; James Marino, 29, of Corona; Richard Gifford, 24, of Bellerose; George Zahn, 25, of Jackson Heights; and Francis Egan, 29, of Merrick, L.I.
That weekend, the missile crisis dominated the headlines. Aside from front page stories in the local daily papers, the loss of six of the city’s Bravest was relegated to sidebars, snippets and news briefs.
Fast-forward close to five decades after that night. Marc Eberle, general manager of VIP Auto Body, which stands on the same piece of land where the fire burned, was beginning renovations with the shop’s owner, Peter Keane.
First, they found charred wood, then further excavations revealed a long-abandoned elevator shaft with more debris and evidence of a fire.
“When Peter bought the building, they told him something had happened here, but we never knew the extent,” said Eberle. “We decided to do some research.”
A friend of Keane’s with the FDNY helped piece together the 50-year-old mystery.
The first firefighters had arrived at the Sefu Soap and Fat Co. at about 9 p.m. — the rendered fat and soap inside the two-story building had created huge flames, thick smoke and intense heat. It was declared a four-alarm blaze and the Bravest got it under control by 10:30 p.m. As crews were working inside of the gutted building, part of the second floor came crashing down, causing a brick wall to collapse on the firefighters.
“Losing six firefighters at once is a major news event, but with the missile crisis these men did not get the acknowledgment they deserved,” said Eberle. “We decided that these men deserved some kind of memorial.”
So on Oct. 26, 2012, at 1 p.m., 50 years to the day of the Maspeth fire, a memorial service will be held at VIP Auto and a plaque will be placed on the grounds commemorating the six men and their sacrifice.
Many of their surviving comrades and relatives are expected to attend, including Peter Russell, who said the memories of that night still burn vivid and bright.
“I remember coming downstairs and the living room was filled with firemen,” recalled Russell, who was 15 and had to break the news to his younger brother and sisters. “That night I stayed in the TV room, which was next to my parents’ room. I could hear my mom crying, I went in and held her in my arms. She asked me what she was going to do now that Dad is gone. That’s a big question when you’re 15.”
Eberle said memorializing the men honors all firefighters who run into burning buildings while everyone else is running out. But more specifically, it is meant to honor the families, the men and the day their world ended in crisis.
“This is really a minor thing, but we feel it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.