Two firefighters die as floor collapses at East Side deli fire
By Gene Warner, Brian Meyer and Pete Simon
News Staff Reporters
Updated: August 24, 2009, 5:50 PM
Two Buffalo firefighters were killed in an early-morning fire at a deli on Genesee Street on the city's East Side, the department's worst loss of life in the last 26 years.
The dead were identified as Lt. Charles W. "Chip" McCarthy Jr., 45, of Rescue 1, and Firefighter Jonathan S. Croom, 34, of Ladder 7.
The deaths were confirmed at about 9:50 a.m. by the Rev. Derren L. Young, Erie County Medical Center trauma chaplain. The bodies were taken out of the building on gurneys draped with American flags.
Reports from the scene indicated the two firefighters may have fallen through the first floor while searching for a civilian victim. Earlier reports that someone was trapped inside were not confirmed, and some officials questioned whether a third person had been trapped.
"It's a very tragic day for the city of Buffalo," Mayor Byron W. Brown said during a noon news conference. "Our hearts are broken right now."
McCarthy leaves behind his wife, three children and a 6-month-old grandchild. Croom leaves behind a 9-month-old child and a fiancee. A few years ago, Croom himself lost a young child.
Fire Commissioner Michael S. Lombardo fought back tears during the news conference, saying he knew both men and described them as "tremendous firefighters" who both received honors for their work in the past.
"This is a family, and we lost two members of our family," Lombardo said.
Firefighters responded to a 3:49 a.m. alarm at 1815 Genesee St., one block west of Bailey Avenue. The building housed Super Speedy Deli.
As many as 400 firefighters responded to the scene over the course of the morning. Grief was etched on the faces of dozens of off-duty firefighters who stood near the still-burning building, most dressed in shorts and blue Buffalo Fire Department T-shirts or sweatshirts.
It's very difficult when anybody loses a loved one, and especially so when they serve our community as police or firefighters, Young told reporters.
"They're ministers to our community," he said. "To lose them, I can't explain … We need much praying for all the families and everyone involved. But for the grace of God, it could have been any of them."
It was an agonizing wait for friends and co-workers of the fallen firefighters. Many of them stood near the burned-out building, arms folded, heads down, waiting for word.
Just before firefighters re-entered the building, a group of civilians believed to be family members were being comforted by fire and police officials as they gathered near the scene.
Shortly before 9:30 a.m., those families were ushered closer to the fire scene at the same time that firefighters donned their helmets and began entering the building.
About 10 minutes later, firefighters, off-duty firefighters and civilians standing inside the police cordon took off their helmets or hats, in respect to the fallen firefighters.
"They're traumatized by the whole event, as we all would be," Young said of the families. "We just lift them up and tell them God still loves them."
"This underscores how difficult and dangerous the work is that our firefighters do," Mayor Brown said at the scene. "Every day they go to work, they're heroes."
The building is almost directly across the street from Wende Street, where Buffalo Firefighter Mark P. Reed lost his right leg battling an arson fire in June 2007. Reed also suffered a skull fracture, seven broken ribs, a punctured lung and a brain bleed when a brick chimney toppled on his head and body.
The two firefighters' deaths represent the first multiple loss of life in the Buffalo Fire Department since five firefighters and two civilians were killed in a propane explosion on North Division Street in December 1983.
After dawn, a legion of top city officials converged on the scene, including Brown, top fire officials, Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson and Deputy Commissioners Daniel Derenda and Byron Lockwood.
Fire Division Chief Donald McFeely told reporters, "We've gone through this many times and you never get used to it. But you have a job to do."
Black smoke was still pouring out the top of the brick building after 8 a.m. today, more than four hours after the fire was reported. At about 8:45 a.m., flames rekindled on the second floor of the burned-out brick building, bringing a second ladder, from Truck 14, to join the firefighters from Truck 6, who were already pouring water on the fire.
Officials had no comment this morning on the cause of the fire. A man who lives in a building that adjoins the burned-out deli said he was jolted awake by the sound of alarms.
Ehmed Mallahi said based on what he observed shortly after the fire broke out, he thinks the building was unoccupied at the time.
"It's a shame they risked lives, because I don't think there was anyone in there at the time," said Mallahi, who added that he owned the structure that burned down up until about a year ago.
However, another neighbor who lived upstairs from the deli, Hamood Abdulla, said he heard what appeared to a burglar alarm. He went outside, didn't see anything, called the owner and later smelled smoke. That's when he called 911.
Meanwhile, a passerby came by and yelled, "Does anybody need help?" according to Abdulla.
"Somebody from inside said, "Help me,'" he added. "He kept saying, "Help me.'"
While those reports appeared to conflict, it's possible both accounts are accurate, that a civilian — possibly a burglar — was inside the building but fled before firefighters arrived at the scene.
Crews began a methodical piece-by-piece demolition of the building today, said city inspections chief James Comerford. Employing what is called "progressive" demolition will allow crews to continue checking for an additional body in the event a third person perished in the blaze, Comerford said. The demolition will likely take a couple of days.
Dedicated to the memory of Lt. Charles 'Chip' McCarthy and Firefighter Jonathan Croom
I knew Lt. Charles “Chip” McCarthy he was an acquaintance. I wish I could say that he was more but I cannot. The picture of him was typical and people who knew him in passing, as a friend, or family member surely cannot remember him without that trademark smile. He was a jovial and gregarious person. The world will be a sadder place without him.
Lt. Charles “Chip” McCarthy and Firefighter Jonathan Croom