FDNY Tales - Fireman Thomas J. Dougherty Ladder 1

Blustery winds swirled along the city's streets as winter reluctantly released its grip on Manhattan. It was March 31, 1877 and in the sub-cellar of number 29 North William Street a gas jet had been left on and flames began spreading across a wooden partition near the stairs that separated the cellar from a kitchen and bedroom area. As smoke became visible on the street above the fire alarm box was pulled and within a minute clanging bells sent the members of Ladder 1 scrambling to the apparatus floor.

The horse-drawn ladder truck raced from the Chambers Street firehouse and soon rolled to a stop in front of the fire building. Several excited citizens informed Foreman Riley that there were two people, Julius Frank and Elizabeth Stevens trapped in the sub-cellar, the officer turned to shout orders only to see the huge form of Thomas Dougherty making his way to the cellar entrance under the stoop. Riley knew if anyone could get into the basement it would be Dougherty, the quiet giant of a man who'd proven himself with a spectacular rescue on Pearl Street in 1871.

Dougherty took his axe and in several strong swings smashed the stoat wooden door open and disappeared into the thick smoke. Several feet down a tight hallway he was faced with another tough door that he quickly splintered. Met with a wall of severe heat and a suffocating blanket of smoke Dougherty dropped to his hands and knees and began crawling. Deeper and deeper he moved, searching blindly the super-heated smoke stinging his eyes and skin. Gagging and chocking he finally came across the forms of the unconscious couple. With little time left before he too would succumb to the noxious heat and fumes he grabbed both persons at the same time and began dragging them back towards the front entrance.

At the mouth of the narrow passage Dougherty swept the unconscious woman from the floor and displaying great strength lifted her directly overhead almost ten feet to the outstretched arms of other firemen. Bending, he pulled up the man, pressed him overhead and passed him off to safety above.

In the words of Battalion Chief Hugh Bonner from his official report to the chief of department: "I consider the rescue to be as meritorious as any that has come under my observation at fires, as it would require but a few seconds longer to entirely suffocate, and at the least hesitation on his part in effecting an entrance would certainly have proven fatal. Dougherty being a man of Herculean strength, and of great endurance, used both to good advantage, and raised the insensible bodies some eight to ten feet to those above, and remained in this position until he had accomplished his purpose, in the face of dense heat and smoke which at the time appeared unbearable."

For these tremendous rescues his name was again added to the Roll of Merit. At year's end all of the meritorious actions by members of the department were evaluated, and for the most outstanding act of heroism for 1877 Dougherty was awarded the James Gordon Bennett medal.

Having respectfully turned down promotions several times, Dougherty continued battling fires from the running boards of Ladder 1, until 6:15 P.M. February 20, 1880 when he responded to a blaze at 384 Broadway, a fire that would take his life. The 50 X 200' five-story brick commercial structure on the corner of White Street was the scene of a fast moving fire that was started by a careless gasfitter using a candle in the sub-cellar. Flames were racing through the building when Dougherty and John Cassidy also of Ladder 1 went to the roof of the building to vent. Three alarms had been transmitted when the duo stepped from the exposure onto the roof of the fire building. Shielding themselves from the tremendous radiant heat their axes flashed as the roof boards splintered.

A loud noise was heard. "STAND FAST!" cried Chief Bresnan. A moment later the building began to fall in. Dougherty and Cassidy were swallowed by the collapsing roof and disappeared into the inferno below.

At 7 O'clock the next morning firemen were finally able to enter the smoldering cauldron in search of their missing comrades. An hour later the body of Dougherty was found and gently removed. The search for Cassidy continued the entire day until dark and restarted the following morning when he was finally found. They were the second and third men lost in the line of duty in 1880. The final number of men making the supreme sacrifice that year was six, increasing the total since the start of the paid department to sixteen. (Paul Hashagen)

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Thanks, Ira Hoffman

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