A Toxic Fire, 45 Years Later: Pay Tribute to the 699 Who Battled the New York City Telephone Company Blaze

NY Daily News - February 27, 2020

by Ellen Perry Berry

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Maybe it’s finally time to recognize the 699 New York City firefighters who battled the famous New York City Telephone Company fire 45 years ago today.

Nearly 700 men fought the awful five-alarm inferno that broke out in the early morning hours of Feb. 27, 1975 at the telephone company’s switching center on Second Ave. and 13th St., what is now the Verizon Building. Some call it the worst fire before 9/11.

For those who have forgotten, the local news reports of the day will remind us. A short circuit in a basement cable vault early that morning sparked a fire of polyvinyl chloride-sheathed cable that engulfed the 11-story building in flames. That PVC cable burned throughout the early morning and into the next day, releasing cancer-causing toxins throughout the East Village.

Indeed, the smoke cloud forced the evacuation of the neighborhood; The smoke traveled all the way to Queens. According to WNYF magazine, the publication of the FDNY Foundation, motorists the following afternoon needed to put their headlights on in order to navigate the FDR drive several blocks away.

It took more than 16 hours to put the fire out. Telephone service was disrupted for more than 175,000 customers, and almost 300 firefighters were injured in the blaze that very day.

The firefighters who were there that morning described horrific conditions — blinding smoke as they descended below street level to extinguish the inferno. Some said their boots stuck to the melted, plastic encrusted floors. Firefighters were exposed to hundreds of thousands of pounds of burning polyvinyl chloride, hydrogen chloride, vinyl chloride monomer and chlorinated dioxins.

Miraculously, no one was killed at the fire. No firefighters. No telephone company workers. No civilians.

At least, not that day. That day, the fire got put out and everybody got out alive.

But as we have learned again and again from the painful lesson of 9/11 and its aftermath, we cannot count casualties on the day of a tragedy alone. Deaths can come weeks, months, even years later.

The Fire Department did attempt to track the medical history of those 699 who were exposed to the toxic inferno. A red star was stamped on the manila medical folders of those firefighters who were there.

But, while the men were identified, they weren’t offered any enhanced medical testing or long-term tracking like their 9/11 brothers and sisters years later.

Sadly, many of them developed deadly cancers later on in life. How many?

“How many guys never made it to 55? We’ll never know,” wonders Firefighter Danny Noonan, a survivor who was a 25-year-old firefighter from Ladder 3, a first-due responder that early morning.

Today, at 70, he suffers from leukemia and is a regular at Sloan Kettering as a result of his exposure. He and other survivors have been waging a campaign for years to get better medical care and, at least, recognition for those who have suffered.

“All we got was a red stamp on our medical folders,” Noonan explains. “We called it the red star of death.”

When you talk to the survivors, they say there has been a steady drip of cancer death and illness among them due to the deadly fumes emitted that day. But to this day, there isn’t even a plaque or a signpost at the site acknowledging their sacrifice and the sacrifices of their families. Take a walk down there: There’s nothing. Outside of the black smoke stains that remain above the second-floor windows, it’s like the fire never happened.

Clearly, the 699 have been overlooked and forgotten. It’s been 45 years. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to remember. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to say thank you.

Perry Berry, a reporter for the Daily News from 1980-81, is the widow of Firefighter Michael Berry, Engine 80, who joined the New York Fire Department in 1981.