Recalling the Waldbaum’s fire of ’78 - City salutes the firefighters who gave all protecting the public

The Brooklyn Paper

It was more of a family reunion than a memorial.

That’s how many described Saturday’s marking of Brooklyn’s infamous Waldbaum’s fire that took the lives of six beloved firefighters back in 1978 – 30 years to the date.

Gathering together at Engine Company 206 in Borough Park, relatives and friends – or should we say extended families – followed a procession of bagpipers in silence to St. Brendan’s Catholic Church, 1525 East 12th Street near Avenue O for a yearly mass honoring the lives of Firefighters William O’Connor, George Rice, James McManus, James Cutillo, Harold Hastings, and Charles Bouton.

Yet time was on everyone’s minds, with attendees knowing full well that 30 years have passed since the fire took place.

The children of the fallen firefighters have children of their own. Some of the widows left to mourn have moved away – some as far as Florida.

Yet still they trekked back to Brooklyn to bond with a family forged in tragedy.

On that fateful day, firefighters from nearly a half-dozen fire companies converged onto Ocean Avenue between Avenues Y and Z to put out a raging 8:40 a.m. fire.

The supermarket was undergoing a renovation when the fire began.

Battling the flames, as well as the summer heat, the six firefighters fell to their deaths as the roof collapsed underneath them.

Officials said that in addition to the six who died, 34 firefighters were injured as they battled back the flames.

August 2, 1978 was the darkest day the FDNY had ever faced until September 11, 2001.

While a would-be arsonist was found and tried, his conviction was overturned on appeal years later. He was acquitted during a second trial.

The horror of the Waldbaum’s fire is still talked about in certain circles of Sheepshead Bay, where residents honored those lost by renaming the corner of Ocean Avenue and Avenue Z “Fireman’s Corner” back in 1998.

A plaque honoring the six firefighters was put on the Staples office supply store where the six city heroes died.

“The memories are a little fuzzy in some ways,” Monsignor and FDNY chaplain John Delendick said during his sermon – his fifteenth for the victims of the Waldbaum’s fire. “It is an opportunity to keep them alive.”

Future masses were necessary, he explained, not only for the families of the victims, but for the new members of the ever changing, ever growing FDNY.

The new firefighters, or “probies,” who had never met the six who died, needed to learn the lessons that day taught an organization steeped in history and tradition, he said.

“The children and grandchildren of these men deserve to hear their stories,” he said, adding that the yearly mass should continue for another 30 years.


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