2016-06-22 / Front Page

Remembering Father’s Day Firefighters, 15 Years Later

By Liz Goff
Family, friends and fellow firefighters gathered last week to pay tribute to three firefighters killed in an explosion at an Astoria hardware store 15 years ago.

The explosion at Long Island Hardware, located at the corner of 14th Street and Astoria Boulevard, set off a five-alarm inferno that rocked the neighborhood and changed forever the lives of eight children left fatherless on Father’s Day, June 17, 2001.

Firefighter Harry Ford, 50, of Rescue Co, 4, Firefighter John Downing, 40, of Ladder Co. 163, and Firefighter Brian Fahey, 46, also of Rescue 4 were among dozens of firefighters who responded to the chemical-fueled blaze that started in the basement of the hardware store.

Investigators later determined the blaze was started by two teenagers who broke into the store to search for discarded cans of spray paint in the rear of the building. A 13-year-old accidentally knocked over a container containing gasoline that spilled down a ramp and was ignited by the pilot light on a basement water heater.

Prosecutors later determined that the teens would not be charged in the deadly inferno, because they bore no criminal responsibility for their actions.

The intensity of the blaze caused the building to buckle and set off an explosion that blew firefightbvers out into the street, raining fiery hot bricks and rubble over the men.

Ford and Downing were buried alive as they stood battling the blaze outside the building, desperately trying to pry open basement windows to reach Fahey, wh0 was on the first floor of the hardware store when the building exploded.

The force of the blast sucked Fahey down to the basement, where he made a frantic radio call for help screaming, “Mayday, Mayday…Come get me,”” in the moments before he was silenced by the intense heat and smoke-fed blackness.

Dozens of firefighters fell to their knees outside the rubble, digging with their bare hands to reach Fahey. Off-duty firefighters rushed to the scene to help with the rescue, but all efforts were in vain.

As with so many tragedies, one miracle occurred in the aftermath of the explosion when rescuers pulled Firefighter Joseph Vosilla from the rubble.

Vosilla, of since-closed Engine Co. 261 in Dutch Kills, suffered severe, massive internal injuries that led doctors to doubt his chances of survival. Vosilla’s injuries were so severe that a priest administered last rites twice while he was undergoing emergency surgery.

Rescuers and firefighters from Engine 261 and Ladder 116 spent countless hours at the hospital comforting family members who held vigil at Vosilla’s bedside.

Vosilla fought a long and hard to recover, but was unable to walk when he was released from the hospital months later. The determined Queens native never gave up, and on Easter Sunday, 2002, Vosilla took some first steps, dubbed his “Easter Miracle.”

“It feels like it just happened yesterday,” a firefighter said. “Everything has changed so much, but you can’t help seeing things the way they were that day. So many lives changed forever in a minute,” the firefighter said.

FDNY Battalion Chief Lawrence Stack was in his office In Brooklyn on the morning of September 11, 2001, completing paperwork on a fire, months earlier, that claimed the lives of three firefighters – the Astoria Father’s Day fire.

Stack was interrupted by reports that a commercial airliner had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. He, like 342 other doomed firefighters, raced to the scene to help with evacuation efforts.

Stark was guiding people out of the Marriot World Trade Center, when wreckage from the first airliner suddenly collapsed into the building lobby, a fire official said. “His coat was pinned under the wreckage and he was trapped, the official said. “But he wriggled out of the coat and went back to helping people.”

Stark suddenly screamed at several fighters to get out of the building, the official said. “It’s clear that he saw the north tower collapsing.” “He was on his way out of the building when he stopped to help an injured man,” the official said. “He was last seen kneeling next to the man as the tower collapsed around him.”

Stack’s coat was recovered three months later, but his remains were so damaged that they have never been identified.

Stack’s wife, Theresa recently recalled how her husband made a donation to a blood drive in March 2006, and that the donation was put in cold storage. Theresa Stack and her two Firefighter sons tracked down the donation and buried a vial of her husband’s blood on June 17, at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island.

“It has been 10 years since we buried a firefighter killed at the World Trade Center,” the official said. “It’s so tragic that the remains of so many victims still can’t be identified.

“The Stark family had a personal reason for choosing June 17 for the burial,” the fire official said. “But it didn’t escape anyone that June 17 was, ironically, also the 15th anniversary of the Father’s Day fire, or that the names Harry Ford, John Downing and Brian Fahey were foremost on Chief Stark’s mind when he learned of the terrorist attacks.”

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