50th anniversary memorial for firefighters

Members of the FDNY and family members of Members of the FDNY and family members of the the six NYC firefighters who died 50 years ago today, attend a ceremony at VIP Auto Body, where a wall collapsed after a fire in a building at the same location that was home to Sefu Soap and Fat Company. (Oct. 26, 2012) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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It was half a century ago when the knock came on the door of her home in Merrick at 3:30 a.m. and Joyce Egan knew immediately it was bad news about her New York City firefighter husband, Francis.

"Actually, I heard banging on the door and I knew what it was," she recalled Friday as she stood at the site where her husband died on Oct. 26, 1962. "They came and they told me. I was 24 years old. I had a 2-year-old son. I just shook and shook. I just remember standing there and shaking."

Egan, 74, who now lives in Riverhead, was among dozens who joined some 200 New York City firefighters Friday at the spot near Kosciuszko Bridge where six city firefighters perished when they were buried under a wall and ceiling that collapsed after they had extinguished a fire in a soap factory in Queens.

She talked as Peter Keane, who owns VIP Auto Body in Queens, helped fire officials set up in his newly renovated business for the ceremony. While doing renovation, Keane had found charred wood in the walls and began the research that discovered his business stood on ground that once housed the Sefu Soap and Fat Company on 56th Road in Maspeth.

Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano unveiled a memorial plaque with the names of the six firefighters: Egan, 29; Richard Andrews, 25, of Jamaica; Richard Gifford, 24, of Bellerose; James Marino, 29, of Corona; George Zahn, 25, of Jackson Heights; and Capt. William Russell, 43, of Wantagh.

Robert Andrews, 74, of Old Bridge, N.J., one year younger than his firefighter brother, said he remembers his parents were asleep and he opened the door to see fire officials on the porch.

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"The chief came with the chaplain. We were the first ones told," he said. "It was a shock when they came and told us, and I thought I had healed after 50 years, but this is bringing it all back, and I'm so grateful to Peter for doing this. He didn't have to."

At least seven retired firefighters who were there that night returned for the ceremony. They were unsure why the fire site had gone unrecognized for so long.

"I have family in a nearby cemetery and I come by here a lot," retired firefighter John Killcommons, 78, of Middle Village said. "I always had a tear in my eye that nothing was ever done, but here it is now."

Another retired firefighter, Thomas Ladka, 74, of Monroe, N.Y., said he was one of 22 firefighters standing in a shed adjacent to the building when the wall and ceiling came down. He and another firefighter got out before the impact. Twenty were buried. Fourteen crawled or were pulled to safety. Six died.

"I was lucky. That's what I remember the most about that night," Ladka said.

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