Frank J. Nastro Sr. stared at the scores of what seemed to be peaceful dead people lying on the floor after a devastating fire at the Happy Land Social Club in the early morning hours of March 25, 1990.
“They all could have been sleeping,” Nastro remembered years later about the eerie scene.
Nastro was an assistant chief with the FDNY and one of the first senior commanders to arrive at the burned-out club that horrible morning in the West Farms section of the Bronx. At first,Nastro and other firefighters thought there were only two fatalities. But as additional calls came in, the toll hiked to 24 and then rose to an unthinkable 87 souls, mostly immigrants from Central America. The victims' cause of death was determined to be smoke inhalation and asphyxiation.
Nastro, of Lynbrook, died Feb. 12 at age 88. The cause of death was congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Elise Rosenberry, of Albany.
Nastro stayed at the Bronx fire scene, directing firefighters to offer decency and respect as they removed shrouded corpses from the two-story structure on Southern Boulevard and laid them out on the sidewalk before transferring them to mortuary vehicles. Happy Land is the site of the greatest loss of life in a New York City fire since the Triangle Shirt Waist blaze killed 146 garment workers in 1911.
Over the years, Nastro traveled around the country to speak to firefighter groups about the tragedy, until he retired from the FDNY in 1994. He even published an article about the catastrophe in a firefighting journal.
[Julio Gonzalez, a Cuban immigrant, was convicted in 1991 of second-degree murder for the arson fire deaths at the club and sentenced to life. He died in prison of a heart attack in 2016.]
“None were burned,” Nastro wrote of the victims in the article in Fire Engineering. “The only indication of fire was the darkened skin and clothing where the soot fragments had settled.”
Born in Brooklyn, where he grew up in the Bay Ridge section, Nastro was the product of an Italian family that traced its roots to the Naples area, Rosenberry said. As a vigorous, athletic young man, Nastro played football in high school and for the U.S. Marine Corps, which he joined during the Korean War era, his daughter said. He was selected for a special Marine football team that toured various military bases as a morale-building exercise, she said.
After leaving the military in 1956, Nastro coached football at St. Francis Prep in Queens, leading the team to numerous championships. He joined the FDNY in 1957, rising through the ranks to the position of assistant chief. Nastro married Doris McMahon in February 1954 and in 1961 the couple moved to Lynbrook. There the couple raised four children. While working with the FDNY, Nastro found time to return to school at St. John’s University, where he earned a degree in athletic administration in 1973, according to a death notice in Newsday.
In retirement, Nastro and his wife traveled in Europe and lived part-time in their second home in Florida, Rosenberry said.
Although Nastro witnessed his share of tragedies as a firefighter, the Happy Land fire was certainly the worst, his daughter said. The experience put Nastro in demand on the firefighter speaking circuit, but at home he was more reserved about the tragedy.
“He wasn’t the kind of person who would dwell on it,” Rosenberry recalled. “He obviously was very affected by it, but it was also part of his job and he was able to move on.”
Nastro knew first responders would be affected by the great loss of life at Happy Land. To spare them the psychological trauma of handling so many dead, he divided the body removal task among different shifts of firefighters, his daughter said.
In addition to Elise Rosenberry and her husband, Doug, survivors include daughter Laura Nastro of Long Beach; sons Paul Nastro of Rockville Centre and Frank Nastro Jr. and his wife, Nancy, of Oceanside; brother Daniel and his wife, Margaret, of New Jersey; sister-in-law Maureen McMahon; and numerous grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Doris Nastro died in January 2018.
A funeral Mass was celebrated Feb. 18 at Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Church in Lynbrook. Interment was in Calverton National Cemetery.