Shop owner to honor firefighters killed in 1962

Peter Keane, owner of V.I.P. Auto Body, poses

Peter Keane, owner of V.I.P. Auto Body, poses for a portrait close to the location where came across burned wood and a collapsed elevator shaft - remnants of the old soap factory destroyed in the inferno - during construction at his Maspeth auto body shop. (Sept. 19, 2012) (Credit: Charles Eckert)

For more than 20 years, Peter Keane ran his auto body shop in Maspeth, Queens, without realizing it was the site of one of New York City's deadliest fires, which claimed the lives of six firefighters.

The businessman only learned of the five-alarm blaze recently while renovating the building. He came across charred wood and a collapsed elevator shaft -- remnants of the old soap factory destroyed in the Oct. 26, 1962, inferno.

Keane said he was surprised that no one in the area knew of the fire when he asked around.

"We have to do something for them," he said of the firefighters who died in the line of duty, including two from Long Island.

Keane, 50, of Bayside, plans to remind others of the first responders' ultimate sacrifice by putting up a plaque and marking the 50th anniversary of the blaze.

His V.I.P. Auto Body shop has been at the site since 1990 and he bought the building in 2007.

When he came across evidence of the fire, he called a friend at the FDNY who helped him with the research. They were both stunned at the results.

"There are a few fires . . . that are pretty well-known and spoken about," said firefighter Michael Sarro, Keane's friend. "It's definitely one of them for sure."

The first firefighters arrived at the Sefu Soap and Fat Co., 44-15 56th Rd., about 9 p.m. Rendered fat and soap inside the two-story building had created huge flames, thick smoke and intense heat.

As crews battled the blaze, a metal roof came crashing down, causing a brick side wall to collapse on top of 20 firefighters. Fellow firefighters were able to dig out 14 of the injured men, but the others were buried under 6 feet of debris and could not be saved.

Killed were Capt. William Russell, 43, of Wantagh; and firefighters Richard Andrews, 25, of Jamaica; James Marino, 29, of Corona; Richard Gifford, 24, of Bellerose; George Zahn, 25, of Jackson Heights, and Francis Egan, 29, of Merrick.

New York Mayor Robert Wagner, who rushed to the scene, called it a "terrible tragedy." More than 3,000 firemen from as far away as Montreal later paid their respects in a funeral procession down Fifth Avenue.

Earlier that day, a factory worker using an acetylene torch to cut up old machinery had accidentally started a couple of small fires. The employee thought he'd put them out but they continued to smolder, igniting the blaze hours later, investigators said.

Tom Russell, who was 10 when his father died, said an annual memorial service was held for the six firefighters for about 20 years. But with fewer firefighters around who had known them, the observances faded.

Russell, who has a brother and two sisters, said his father had been with the department for 20 years.

"My father . . . wouldn't send his men to do anything he wouldn't do himself, so he went in with them," he said of the tragic fire.

Informed of Keane's plan to install a memorial plaque at the site, Russell said, "It's a really nice idea."

Keane has ordered the plaque with the names of the firefighters inscribed and plans to mount it at the entrance of his building. He's working with the fire department to organize a dedication ceremony.

FDNY officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Firefighter Matt Desjardin said he was gratified to hear about Keane's plan.

"That's a stand-up act by Mr. Keane," he said.

The 13-year veteran of Engine Company 325 in Woodside, which lost three men in the 1962 fire, said the victims of that night are memorialized with markers at the firehouse.

"It's our tradition to remember those who gave their lives," he said. "It's the right thing for those in the community to remember as well."

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