Families recall bonds broken, forged by 1978 Brooklyn fire tragedy

FDNY members pause at a memorial service at FDNY members pause at a memorial service at St. Brendan Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn for the victims of the 1978 Waldbaum's supermarket fire. (Aug. 2, 2013) Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

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In a horrific supermarket fire in Brooklyn 35 years ago, six FDNY firefighters perished -- including Harold Hastings of Hicksville.

Hastings' 13-year-old son became the "man of the house" that terrible day in 1978.

But a few months later, at a fire department Christmas party, Brian Hastings met the girl who would become his wife. Both were grieving: She, too, had lost her father -- James P. McManus -- in the blaze.

"It was a very unusual way to meet," Hastings, now 48, said Friday at a memorial Mass at St. Brendan Catholic Church in Midwood, Brooklyn. About 200 people gathered to remember loved ones lost in the fire.

"A horrible tragedy can be good," said Caroline Hastings, standing at her husband's side after the Mass. "It brought Brian and I together."

The five-alarm arson fire in Sheepshead Bay started the morning of Aug. 2, 1978. The firefighters who died -- four from Long Island -- were on the roof when it collapsed.

Hastings had been assigned to Battalion 42. Fellow firefighter McManus, of Staten Island, belonged to Ladder 153.

The other victims were Lt. James E. Cutillo, Brentwood, of Battalion 33; firefighter George S. Rice, Islip Terrace, of Ladder 153; and firefighters Charles S. Bouton, Farmingville, and William O'Connor, Brooklyn, both of Ladder 156.

Family and friends packed the church service officiated by the Rev. James Cunningham.

"I have never seen such a network of FDNY families and support," he said in his homily.

Hastings, a retired NYPD detective from Staten Island, remembered the day his father, a 16-year FDNY veteran, died.

"It was the day I became the man of the house," he said. "I had two younger sisters. Life forced me to grow up. There was no time to be a kid."

When he learned of his father's death, Hastings said, he went to a friend's house around the block.

"There was a knock on the door, and I looked out the window and saw Brian standing outside," recalled Laura Fregosi, 49, who attended kindergarten with Hastings.

"He stood there and just said 'my dad's dead.' He became a man that day. Today, his children are a legacy to their grandfather," she said at Friday's memorial.

Harold Hastings' granddaughter and grandson, Kaitlyn, 24, and Patrick, 20, both of Staten Island, have been attending the annual supermarket fire memorial since they were young.

"I feel like I have fire in my blood. This brought my parents together," Kaitlyn Hastings said.

Catherine Bouton, 69, the widow of firefighter Charles Bouton, was left to raise six children. She said support from the other victims' families "helped me get through the bad days."

Her daughter, Katie Borruso, 37, of Sayville, was 2 when her father died, but she grew up nurtured by firefighters.

"Seeing those firefighters forever giving gave me a glimpse into the kind of man my father was," she said.

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