More than 80 years after he died in the line of duty, a Queens firefighter was finally recognized by the FDNY during a Tuesday ceremony at department headquarters in Brooklyn.
At the brief but poignant event, department officials unveiled a plaque honoring firefighter Thomas F. O’Brien to commemorate his death in October 1935 while fighting a fire in Manhattan. O’Brien, a widower with six children, had been living in Richmond Hills when he died at 48.
For years, the FDNY wouldn’t recognize O’Brien’s death as having been in the line of duty. But after his grandson Arthur O’Brien, 68, of New Jersey, hired retired Nassau County Surrogate Edward W. McCarty III to do an investigation and commence litigation, the FDNY agreed add the deceased firefighter’s name to its memorial wall, which includes the names of more than 1,150 other firefighters who died in the line of duty.
“Relieved” was how Arthur O’Brien described his feeling after the ceremony, which capped a more than six-year quest to get his grandfather honored. Joining him at the ceremony were his grandfather’s great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
“It is like a fruition of a dream,” said O’Brien’s sister Betty Seibold of Massapequa Park. “My brother has been working on this for so long and we had times we weren’t really sure it was going to happen. . . . This is just something that is wonderful.”
During the ceremony, Arthur O’Brien thanked not only McCarty, who practices law at the Lake Success firm of Vishnick McGovern Milizio, LLP, but former city medical examiner Michael Baden who did a recent analysis of the original autopsy results and Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association for help in talking with FDNY officials.
Thomas O’Brien died on Oct. 28, 1935, hours after he suffered injuries in a fire at 349 W. 26th St. in Manhattan. He apparently was struck on the head by falling debris. For decades, O’Brien’s death wasn’t considered a line-of-duty fatality. But an investigation by McCarty chronicled last year in Newsday uncovered an autopsy report from 1935 which stated O’Brien died from a fractured skull and brain injuries suffered during the fire.
The autopsy determined that O’Brien had a fractured rear skull with a 6-inch-long break, with some blood clotting on the brain. The autopsy also revealed that O’Brien had ingested high levels of alcohol, apparently to self-medicate for the pain, but Baden said that probably would not have killed him.
After the FDNY at first rebuffed family efforts for a line-of- duty death determination, McCarty filed a state court action to challenge the department last year. The matter was settled earlier this year with the FDNY not admitting any wrongdoing.
Two of fireman O’Brien’s great- great-grandchildren — Elizabeth Compton of Massapequa and Laney Seibold of Merrick — attended the ceremony.
“It’s awesome,” said Compton of the dedication. “It is very nice to see it go up there.”