Savage Flatbush Blaze, Tenant Death, Raise Questions About Effects of FDNY Staffing Cuts

NY Daily News - February 24, 2011

by Michael Daly

"She was just trapped. She couldn't get out. She was so alone. She was all by herself, calling for help..."

The words came from Linda Harris Wednesday morning. Tears were streaming from under her sunglasses. She cradled a bouquet of purple and yellow flowers she had brought to the scene of Saturday's fire on E. 29th St. in Brooklyn in the City of New York, where too many engine companies that once had five firefighters now have four and where there is talk of closing 20 firehouses.

"Oh my God, the most genteel Southern woman. She was a true Southern lady..."

Harris was speaking of Mary Feagin, 62, who perished in her sixth-floor apartment. Feagin came to Brooklyn from South Carolina and she taught for 32 years, until her retirement in December, working with special needs children at PS/IS 323. Harris is the principal there.

"She just dedicated her life to children with special needs. Gentle and kind and never a harsh word. The kids could depend on her for everything..."

Harris offered the ultimate Brooklyn compliment.

"She did her job."

Harris had come to leave the flowers as a tribute.

"This is the smallest token compared to what she is, what she was. What she did and gave as a person."

Still, she recoiled at the thought of placing them in the grim ash and debris out front.

"Everything is burnt out. It's not her. She was so vibrant."

Harris stepped closer, then back.

"I can't see me putting them there. I just can't."

Tears kept streaming down Harris' cheeks, glistening in the morning sun.

"I never thought I would be so emotional."

Harris' next thought was of how Feagin would calm her when she felt the pressures of being a principal.

"She would come to me when I was upset and be so kind. I would be going, 'This paperwork, why wasn't it done?' and she would say, 'Now, Mrs. Harris...'"

True gentility had always worked its magic.

"I would smile and say, 'Okay, Ms. Feagin, I hear you...'"

Harris gazed up at the charred windows to Feagin's apartment.

"You think the home you live in is the safest place. Then, in seconds...We are all so vulnerable."

Harris could see eerily perfect blue sky where the roof had been burned away.

"The ferociousness of this fire."

She thought of how Saturday night had been by her home, how it must have been here.

"The winds were howling..."

The wind was indeed the major force that made the fire so hellish, turning it into a huge blowtorch. A delay due to a momentary dispatch mixup may have also been a factor.

The reduced manpower - from five to four - in each of the first two engines to arrive may or may not have been critical, but two extra pairs of hands sure could have helped. One firefighter came close to losing his life, radioing, "Mayday! Mayday!" before a ladder reached him.

What nobody can rightly dispute is that in fires every moment is critical. Cutbacks and shutdowns will surely mean moments lost at future fires. Firefighters of every rank who, like Feagin, do their job, rightly worry this will translate into lives lost.

Among the firefighters outside the building yesterday was FDNY Chief John Postel, who is with the Office of Emergency Management. Harris asked if perhaps he could take the flowers up to her friend's apartment.

"6E," she said.

Postel agreed and went inside with the bouquet whose colors were as vibrant as Feagin.

"There's a nice bookcase there," Postel said when he reappeared. "I put them on it."