NYC Throw Back Thursday 1966: The Deadly 23rd Street Fire Destroys a Building Next to Flatiron

This image of 23rd Street and Broadway is viewable in Times Square on the Membit app. Membit is a new augmented reality app that gives you a way to share the past with the present and a way to share the present with the future. It’s so new it isn’t even in the App Store yet, it’s in beta. If you would like to try it out before everyone else, click here.

On October 17, 1966 a devastating fire claimed the lives of 12 firefighters, the most dead after 9/11, in what is called today “The 23rd Street Fire.”

At 9:30pm that evening a fire was reported in the cellar of an art dealer at 7 West 22nd Street, one block south of the Flatiron Building. Although no one knows exactly how the fire started, the basement was filled with highly flammable paints and supplies which caught fire quickly. When the first wave of firefighter’s responded they realized they couldn’t get to the fire through the art dealer’s ground floor entrance because of the thick smoke and intense heat so they went around the corner to the Wonder Drug on 23rd Street.

The 23rd Street Fire just as the flame was finally going out. Source The New York Times. 

But the Wonder Drug and the art dealer shared the same basement. After a recent renovation the supporting cellar wall was moved north toward 23rd Street so the art dealer would have more storage space. That put the burning art supplies right under the drugstore floor.

At 10:40 the firefighters on the scene entered through Wonder Drug and moved toward the back of the drugstore. The floor quickly collapsed as a violent backdraft took the supporting cellar wall out. The fire fighters fell into the inferno with only one man, John Donovan, saved from the fall.

wonder-drug-store-23-street-fireThe Wonder Drug facade the day after the fire. It was inside this drugstore where 12 firefighters lost their lives when the floor collapsed into the basement of a neighboring art dealer. Source: NYFD.Com 

Donovan told the New York Times:

“‘I was in the back of the drugstore, fighting the fire, when all of a sudden, I felt the blast. Then a hole in the floor just opened up. Some of my buddies pulled me out and now my other buddies are still down there.’”

Two other firefighters lost their lives when they were hit by a wall of flame on the first floor of the drug store.

In all 40 trucks and nearly 200 fireman were called on to fight the fire which raged on until 3:30AM. A rescue operation for the 10 missing men in the basement went on until 2AM but by later in the morning it was clear that they were lost.

firefighter-funeral-st-patricks-nycThe firefighter’s funerals outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on October 20, 1966. Source NYFD.com

Mayor Lindsey himself showed up on the scene by 1 AM and stayed through the morning. He even went into the Wonder Drug as they were trying to save the fireman who had fallen through to the basement. Mayor Lindsey told the Times, “It’s terrible in there. The heat and smoke are unbearable.”

fdny-plaque-23-street-fireThe plaque honoring the firefighters who lost their lives in the fire is hanging on the high rise that replaced the network of buildings on the corner of 23rd Street. 

On the 40th Anniversary of the fire, Manny Fernandez then driver for Engine 18, told the Times that he stayed outside the building which was protocol for an engine driver, but after the collapse he went in the Wonder Drug on his hands and knees. But the heat prevented from moving any further.

The Times reported, “Now 75, retired and living in Jackson Heights, Queens, Mr. Fernandez still weeps when he recalls the dead.”

Next, read about NYC’s Great Fire of 1845 and the recent, devastating fire at the Cathedral of St. Sava.

 Membit, Today in NYC History

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