2017-06-21 / Front Page

Remembering Father’s Day Firefighters

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 16 years ago.

The explosion at Long Island Hardware, then 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 firefighters 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.

An odd silence filled local neighborhoods on the evening of the fire. People came from throughout the area, and as far as New Jersey, to visit the site and pray for the fallen firefighters. “It was like a sadness fell on the neighborhood,” Astoria resident Tomas Savas said. Thinking back, it was like a prelude to September 11.”

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 in the aftermath of the blaze.

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.

Firefighters at Rescue 4 hung a sign at their Queens Boulevard firehouse on the evening of the Astoria inferno that stated simply, “Pray For Them.”

“That’s why we return to Astoria each year,” one firefighter said. “There are far fewer people at this service each year. But those of us who go back do so to remember Harry Ford, Brian Fahey and John Downing, and to pray for them.”

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