October 17, 1966
Fire Department City of New York (FDNY)
Number of Line-of-Duty Deaths:
One of New York City’s and FDNY’s deadliest fires broke out in the Flatiron District at the American Art Galleries on East 22nd Street, just off Broadway, on October 17, 1966. In addition to the art gallery, the building also housed a lamp company on the third floor and residential space on the fourth floor. Just after 9:30 pm, residents smelled smoke. After further investigation, they found smoke coming from the skylight of the building’s two-story extension. A fire was burning in the cellar of the gallery, where the art dealer maintained a supply of paint, lacquer, and finished frames.
When units arrived on the scene, the volume of heat and smoke the firefighters encountered made accessing the structure from the 22nd Street address impossible. So, firefighters relocated to the Wonder Drug Store at 6 East 23rd Street, which backed up to the art dealer and adjoined the building via the gallery’s two-story extension.
- During a renovation in 1961, the art dealer had removed a load-bearing wall to expand their cellar storage area 35 feet under the drug store.
- This left only the wooden beams and planking to support the 5-inch concrete and terrazzo floor of the store above.
Only light smoke was visible as firefighters entered the drug store and made their way to the back of the store. For just over an hour, they battled the blaze—unaware that the fire raged directly below the terrazzo floor on which they were standing. But weakened by the fire, the wooden beams and planks below soon gave way, causing a portion of drug store’s first floor to collapse into the cellar and taking ten firefighters with it. Two more firefighters were killed in the resulting flashover.
The fire reached 5 alarms, bringing more firefighters and apparatus to the scene. Members of the FDNY extinguished the fire and dug for fourteen hours to recover their fallen brothers from the rubble.
Firefighters from across the U.S.—and as far away as the United Kingdom—paid their respects to the families of the 12 fallen heroes and to the members of the FDNY. Ten thousand firefighters lined Fifth Avenue as firefighters were memorialized at St. Thomas Episcopal Church and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Until the attacks of September 11, 2001, this fire was the largest loss of members for the FDNY in history. Every level of the department was impacted, as the fallen included a deputy chief, battalion chief, two company officers, seven firefighters, and one probationary firefighter—all lost in this one incident. Impacts of the fire resonated throughout the department and continues to shape the department today.
Each year, the FDNY and family members honor these firefighters in a ceremony at the site of the fire and with Memorial Masses. To honor those who were killed and to support firefighter training and education, the FDNY Foundation created a special 23rd Street Fire Legacy Fund.