Much like the Little Rascals they admired on television, Jim Sandas and Brian Fahey often found themselves in trouble in their Hempstead neighborhood years ago.
"If one of us was caught, the other wasn't too far behind," Sandas said. When the two Irish boys weren't busy pulling pranks, they memorized episodes of the beloved Little Rascals. Sandas even nicknamed his plump buddy after one of the rascals, Chubby.
The name stuck, and so did the friendship. As young adults, their love for thrills and the unexpected led them to join the Hempstead Fire Department in 1974 and the New York City Fire Department in 1986.
"We've been together since third grade. I thought we'd always do things together," Sandas said about East Rockaway resident Fahey, who died Sunday from injuries received while responding to a five-alarm fire at a hardware store in Astoria, Queens.
Minutes after Fahey's arrival, an explosion rocked the two-story brick hardware store. The blast sent tons of bricks and debris from a collapsed wall and ceiling crashing down onto the street, plunging Fahey through the floor into the basement. The debris trapped Fahey for hours, who shouted over the radio twice, "I'm trapped underneath the stairs. Come and get me."
Colleagues from Rescue Company 4 could not dig Fahey out in time. Two other firefighters, Harry Ford of Long Beach and John Downing of Port Jefferson, died at Elmhurst General Hospital in Queens either from the force of the blast or the heavy debris. Lt. Brendan Manning and firefighter Joseph Vosilla were also critical injured. While Manning's condition was upgraded to stable on Tuesday, Vosilla was still listed in critical condition.
A 13-year-old boy scouring behind the hardware store for spray paint told investigators Tuesday that he accidentally knocked over a gasoline canister, sending fuel sliding toward a basement hot-water heater, officials said. Investigators, who are questioning the Queens boy and his 15-year-old friend, suspect that as the gasoline neared the hot-water heater, the pilot light ignited the vapors and caused the powerful explosion.
Fire officials said the tragic Father's Day deaths could have been prevented if the 128-year-old building had a sprinkler system. "If there's a sprinkler in that basement these firefighters would be alive," New York Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen said Monday.
Fahey, 46, lived on Garfield Place with his wife, Mary. The couple had three sons, Brandon, 8, and 3 1/2-year-old twins Patrick and James. His sister, Sharon, lives in upstate New York and his parents reside in Connecticut.
"His family was everything. He worked several jobs to give them whatever they wanted," said childhood friend and Hempstead Fire Department Chief Lester Arsell.
Neighbor Rick Cardus described Fahey as a loving father and jolly neighbor. "He was always smiling and laughing. I remember him working hard on his house, building another room before the twins were born."
The Fahey family declined to speak to The Herald, but released a statement: "Today is a tragic day not only for the Fahey family, but for the entire city of New York. Our sincerest condolences go out to the Ford family and the Downing family. We ask all New Yorkers to keep Lt. Manning and Firefighter Vosilla in their prayers."
A 14-year veteran of the FDNY, Fahey in April 2000 joined the elite Queens group that specializes in rescuing trapped victims last April. Fahey also served as an instructor at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy. He trained every volunteer firefighter in the county for the past eight years about taming fires and surviving them.
Nothing, however, could have prepared Fahey for Sunday's blast, according to Michael K. Gilroy, superintendent of the Nassau County Fire Service Academy.
"Brian was a firefighter's firefighter, who gave of himself to protect the residents of New York City and then to offer his skills as a volunteer in his home community," Gilroy said. "And as if that were not enough, Brian shared his knowledge and skills by teaching firefighters throughout Nassau County."
Arsell said he spent last Saturday with cigar-loving Fahey at a fire chief's convention in Syracuse. Although Fahey attended to sell boats to fire departments, he spent much of his time inspecting training material and new firefighter equipment.
"He was always looking to improve the department," Arsell said.
Fahey's passion for his job -- the rush, the thrill -- was a subject he discussed with friends and colleagues. But the risks were not.
"We never talked about them. Everybody knows the risks. When 98 percent of the people are running one way, and you're running the other way, you just know," Arsell said.
Although family responsibilities and age tamed their prankster days, Sandas -- now a Massapequa resident -- said he and "Chubby" still enjoyed each other's company. Trading backyards for Manhattan eateries, the best friends had a penchant for fine dining.
"He would always pick a restaurant with white tablecloths," Sandas said.
Sandas' wife, Donna, said, "Brian always had to have the best and be the best."
"He was the best," Jim Sandas quickly added.
Fahey's wake was Tuesday and Wednesday at Perry Funeral Home in Lynbrook. The Hempstead Fire Department also held a service Wednesday evening. The funeral is today, Thursday, at 1 p.m. at St. Raymond's Martyr R.C. Church in East Rockaway.
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