Firefighter Recalls Deadly Elkins Paper Co. Blaze 60 Years Later

NY Daily News - February 14, 2018


Sixty years ago, Firefighter Donald Blaskovich left a theatre where “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” was staged to witness an all-too-real living hell.

The 85-year-old FDNY retiree, a member of the now defunct Engine Company 13, is the last firefighter alive to have fought the deadly blaze at the Elkins Paper Company on Wooster St. near West Houston St. on Feb. 14, 1958, in a part of the city once dubbed “Hell’s 100 Acres.”

It was a heartbreaking Valentine’s Day for the FDNY: Two firefighters and four fire patrol officers — New York Board of Fire Underwriters employees whose job was to run into burning commercial buildings to salvage as much equipment and property as they could — were killed when the building collapsed.

The FDNY and the families of the fallen firefighters and fire officers will be marking the anniversary with a memorial service Wednesday at Ladder 20 on Lafayette St.

“I couldn’t believe the floors had collapsed,” said Blaskovich, who was one year out of the FDNY Academy when he was dispatched to the fire that frigid Friday night. Howling winds brought temperatures down to 4 degrees and a massive storm covered the city in 9 inches of snow.

“There was smoke coming out of the buildings and going down the street,” Blaskovich said, speaking from his home in Rockport, Mass. “I wouldn’t say there were a lot of flames, but there was a whole lot of smoke. We were right across the street from the building and we were enveloped in smoke.”

“I was on the water cannon,” he said. “I focused my water toward the windows that were no longer there. I just kept pouring the water on. I don’t remember how long I was doing it because of the excitement of the fire and knowing that men got killed.”

The shift started routinely enough, he said.

Back then, firefighters were required to do daily Broadway theater inspections to make sure the hot lights wouldn’t set the curtains on fire, and that fire extinguishers were in place.

That night, Blaskovich was assigned to the Music Box Theater on W. 45th St. to do a safety check for William Inge’s “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.”

After taking the subway back from the show, he was immediately re-routed to Wooster St., where the fire was raging since 6:30 p.m.

"When I got there it was going full blast," Blaskovich said.

The six-story building had collapsed in on itself just moments before Blaskovich got there. Firefighters at the scene remembered hearing a loud rumbling moments before the floors began pancaking down on itself.

Firefighter Bernard Blumenthal, 31, of Ladder 20 and Firefighter William Schmid, 35, of Ladder 1 were venting the roof when the ceiling met the basement.

Fire Patrol Sergeant Michael McGee, 37, and Fire Patrol Officers Louis Brusati, 32, James Devine, 33, and Michael Tracy, 25, were inside the building when they were killed by falling debris.

Blaskovich came on the job just after Blumenthal, who was assigned to his fire station at Engine 13/Ladder 20 on Lafayette St.