Active and retired FDNY members gathered at Headquarters on Feb. 27 to mark the 40th anniversary of the Telephone Company fire.
“This fire reminds us all of the real dangers of the job,” said Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, who was among the firefighters who responded to the fire.
Chief of Department James Leonard, whose father worked as a switch operator, said “I’ve never seen smoke like that, conditions were brutal. It tested the skills, training and ability of all members responding that day.”
The FDNY was called Second Avenue and 13th Street at 12:25 a.m. on Feb. 27, 1975.
The fire was at the New York Telephone Company’s main switching centers, housed in an 11-story building constructed in 1924. It started in a large cable vault located in the cellar that contained 488 telephone cables, with anywhere from 400 to 2,700 pairs of lines and covered in either lead or polyethylene.
Firefighters encountered numerous structural obstacles when battling the fire, including a partition in the building made of steel and wire glass used to protect the switching equipment from dust, as well as windows made of wire glass in heavy metal frames that were sealed shut and covered in sheets of Lexan plastic or metal screens. On top of that, heavy, acrid smoke poured from the building and around 30,000 square feet on each floor was covered in wires that glowed and radiated tremendous heat.
“It was hard to find the exact location of the fire due to the thick smoke,” retired Firefighter Dan Noonan, Ladder 3, said. “There was zero visibility.”
The fire knocked out phone service, including 911, to more than 173,000 homes and businesses.
It escalated to five alarms, and 700 firefighters from 72 units rotated to fight the fire for more than 16 hours before it was placed under control just before 5 p.m. Nearly 300 of those firefighters were injured.
While no firefighters were killed at the fire, many suffered long-term health effects from their exposure to the smoke.
“Because of this landmark fire, we knew we had to do better,” Dr. Kerry Kelly, FDNY’s Chief Medical Officer said. “We needed to get it right.”
She said the long-term health effects of the fire, including cancer and other diseases, inspired the FDNY’s Medical Office to create the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program after 9/11 to better treat both active and retired members.
“We strive to do more,” Dr. David Prezant, FDNY’s Chief Medical Officer, said. “We now know the dangers and are focused on prevention.”
Everyone attending the commemoration lauded the heroism of the members who responded that day, many of whom were in attendance.
Firefighter Noonan said, “The valor was in the finest traditions of the Fire Department.”