October 26, 1962
Fire Department City of New York (FDNY)
Number of Line-of-Duty Deaths:
On Friday evening, October 26, 1962, a fire broke out at the Sefu Soap and Fat Company in Maspeth, Queens. The two-story brick building, which stood on 56th Road, measured 73-by-50-feet and housed large tanks used for rendering fat to make soap.
The fire was reported shortly after 9:00 pm, bringing firefighters to the scene. A firefighter on the first-arriving ladder company recalls the heavy fire they encountered at the scene.
Winds fanned the flames and the fire quickly escalated to four alarms, bringing more resources to the scene. For almost two hours, firefighters battled the intense heat and smoke created by the burning fat and chemicals. The fire was declared under control at around 10:50 pm.
But then, without warning, the right-side wall began to buckle. A cry went up from the loading dock but was cut short by the crash. In an instant, twenty firefighters were buried under six feet of debris that had been the wall in front of them. Some of the firefighters closest to the wall were saved by a corrugated metal shed adjacent to the building, while the firefighters furthest away took the brunt of the wall as it fell.
Command sounded a fifth alarm, bringing more equipment and firefighters to the scene to help with the rescue and recovery efforts. Trucks brought lumber in to shore up the building in order to help firefighters free their trapped comrades.
After the collapse, some firefighters crawled or were helped to safety—but six firefighters died as a result of their injuries. Injured firefighters were brought to Elmhurst General Hospital.
Fire Code Violations in Commercial Buildings
Ironically, the business was in the process of moving to a new location because of its fire code violations. The business was still making soap at the time of the fire but had already begun the process of dismantling their equipment.
Just days after the fire, five people were subpoenaed to provide details of the events leading up to this fatal fire. Officials learned that the soap company had hired a local gas station to help them cut the tanks free so they could be moved to their new location in New Jersey. But the service station was not authorized by the fire department to provide that type of service—and the worker who was hired did not have the required license to use an acetylene torch. And as the worker used the torch to dismantle the tanks, he noticed two small fires, which he put out with buckets of water less than an hour before the fire was reported. It is not known whether the subsequent fire resulted from the smaller fires still smoldering or if there was another that initially went undiscovered.
At the time, the fire commissioner noted that fire code violations in commercial structures in the city were a serious concern. Rather than correct the fire code violations in their existing locations, many businesses were choosing to move their facilities elsewhere.
Overshadowed by the Cold War
While this tragic day for the families of the six FDNY firefighters changed lives for so many, it came at a perilous time in our nation’s history. Just days before the fire, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation, revealing that missiles had been discovered in Cuba and that the U.S. had sent ships to create a naval blockade. The harrowing days of the Cuban Missile Crisis was ultimately resolved via diplomacy, after intense negotiations between the United States and Russia.
Unfortunately for the families and the department, the story of what happened in Queens was eclipsed by this looming threat of nuclear war. Their story and their sacrifice were lost to history, as families quietly remembered their loss.
Taking Time to Remember – Fifty Years Later
In 2012, Peter Keane of VIP Auto Body—which now occupies the original Sefu Soap and Fat Company site—discovered some debris while doing renovations to his property. While the original building had been destroyed, charred pieces of the soap factory were found buried in its foundation.
After making this discovery, Peter wanted to know more about what happened there. He asked his general manager, Marc Eberle, and his friend, FDNY member Michael Sarro for help. Both went to work, digging through microfilm to uncover information about the fire and the firefighters who died on the property.
Knowing that the fiftieth anniversary of this fire was approaching—and that there was no physical memorial to these firefighters—Peter felt compelled to honor their memory. Through his initiative, on October 26, 2012, a plaque dedication was held on site to memorialize these heroes and to ensure that future generations would remember their sacrifice.
The Fire Commissioner, members of the FDNY, and retired members who were on the scene that night gathered to remember Captain William F. Russell and Firefighters Richard Andrews, Francis X. Egan, Richard P. Gifford, James M. Marino, and George J. Zahn. These firefighters will now be remembered for what they sacrificed for the Maspeth community so many years ago.