A December to Forget?

Box 191 stands as a memorial to the five Buffalo Firefighters who were killed in a propane explosion on December 27, 1983

A year ago I wrote an article titled “A December to Remember” to remind us of our obligation to be better story tellers, for prosperity’s sake — and for safety’s sake. Earlier today, Chicago and the rest of the fire service buried the first of two firefighters killed in the line of duty on the 100th anniversary of the Chicago Stockyard Fire that killed 21 firefighters.

Given recent events and all the heartache they’ve brought, I’m not sure that December is a month to remember but instead, it’s one we’d like to forget.

Last night I had the privilege of joining some 50 firefighters and civilians as they stood in the cold at the corner of Grosvenor and North Division Streets in the City of Buffalo to remember an event that claimed the lives of five of Buffalo’s bravest. Surrounded by those drawn to the small memorial erected at the site, Division Chief Don McFeeley stood in the center of the intersection and retold the story of that fateful night when a propane tank exploded inside a warehouse — shattering windows, throwing debris and burning buildings across twelve city blocks.

Two civilians were also killed in the explosion that tossed and crushed the first responding Engines 1 and 32, and Ladder 5 like they were Tonka toys. He told how fate spared the crew of Ladder 2 responding from downtown as they got hung up on snowbank as they turned a corner a few blocks from the scene. Rescue 1 and Engine 3 inadvertently turned down a wrong street a block away from the blast, saving their crews from almost certain death.

Standing next to Chief McFeeley was Chief (Ret.) Jack Supple, whose brother Harvey was the first chief on location. We were standing in the exact spot in the street where Harvey was standing when he radioed for a second alarm assignment after being impaled by a piece of debris sticking out of his neck, causing a near fatal wound.

The year was 1983 and some of the firefighters present at the brief and informal ceremony last night were not even born, let alone in the fire department when the explosion happened. I was 19 at the time but remember it like it was yesterday.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview one of the firefighters who was there that fateful night. Pat Coghlan was a lieutenant on Engine 33 which responded on the fourth alarm. He recounted that experience and the deep impact it left on him on my Firefighter Storytellers radio show broadcast live from the Buffalo Fire Historical Museum. A young firefighter named Mike Lombardo was on his crew that night. Mike went on to be commissioner of the Buffalo Fire Department and just retired as a battalion chief earlier this month. Mike wrote a firsthand account of the incident titled: The Explosion for Firehouse.com in 2002.

Pat Coghlan was there at the ceremony last night as he has been every year since the explosion, along with his family and widows of the slain firefighters. It was an honor to honor those fallen brothers in front of alarm box 191 — flanked by flowers, flags and a marker reminding us that we have an obligation to remember that Buffalo Firefighters Michael Austin, Michael Catanzaro, Matthew Colpoys, James Lickfield and Anthony Waskielewicz answered their last alarm at that spot.

At exactly 8:23pm last evening, a Buffalo Fire Department dispatcher transmitted Box 191: “Twenty-seven years ago on this date, December 27th 1983, at 20:23 hours, five of our brothers responded to their last alarm. We invite all members of the department and all those monitoring this announcement to observe a moment of silence in their memory, and in the memory of all who have died in the line of duty.”

Despite these darkest days, the brotherhood of the fire service perseveres stronger than ever as we look forward with hope for the brighter days that only a new year can bring.

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