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'We lost two good firefighters'

V.S. Fire Department commemorates 40th anniversary of the temple fire tragedy

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Sunday was a day of remembrance for the Valley Stream Fire Department, as its members commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Temple Gates of Zion synagogue fire, which claimed the lives of two of their own — Michael Moran and John Tate Jr. — in one of worst tragedies in the department’s history.

About three dozen firefighters, Valley Streamers and officials from neighboring communities crowded in front of the temple to pay their respects to Tate and Moran, who, after battling the Thanksgiving-morning blaze in 1979, later died from their injuries they suffered when the building’s ceiling collapsed on them. A prayer was also read in recognition of the 12 other firefighters who were injured in the fire.

“It was a big loss for the department,” Valley Stream Fire Chief Jason Croak said, and acknowledged that while he was not alive to experience the tragedy firsthand, many of the department’s older members had related stories about the two men to him. On Sunday he posthumously promoted Tate and Moran to the rank of chief.

“A lot of the guys were very close with Chief Tate and Chief Moran,” he said. “Some almost family-wise, and from what I hear we lost two great firefighters.”

 

Responding to the call

Many who survived the fire say they are still haunted by vivid memories of that morning.

While most Valley Streamers were still asleep — before a day that would be spent bonding with family and eating turkey, stuffing, pies and more — the high-pitched, piercing trill of the Plectron radios of dozens of Valley Stream firefighters roused them from their sleep at about 3:30 a.m., and they headed out. 

Former Chief Robert James Boyce — whose home, at the time, was directly behind the temple — recalled in a Facebook post that when the call came in, he rushed to get dressed and was the first at the scene, where he donned his firefighting turnout gear he typically carried in his car trunk.

Boyce had spent the previous night with family at a New York Rangers game (they lost to Winnipeg 6-4) he wrote, and when he arrived, the temple doors were open, with “a good amount of smoke coming from the building.”

Soon, Engine No. 1 arrived with his fellow firefighters. He grabbed the 2-and-a-half-inch nozzle, and together they extended hoses. The path to the temple sanctuary, where the fire was believed to have started, was long for the 2-and-a-half, Boyce recounted, but backing him up was Moran, “my best friend,” he wrote.

They were battling the fire above the temple altar, but “something told me we were moving in too deep, too fast,” he wrote. As smoke continued to build, he went to retrieve oxygen masks for himself and Moran, but before he could return, he heard what he described as a loud whooshing sound.

He returned to find the temple roof had collapsed on his fellow members. He saw them crawling out of the rubble, some badly burned. Boyce found Moran still in the sanctuary, burned and gravely injured. He called for a stretcher, and Moran was rushed to Nassau County Medical Center (now Nassau University Medical Center).

Boyce recalled Moran telling him that he thought he would die in that temple, and how painful the treatment for his burns was. Sixteen days later he succumbed to his injuries. He was 23 years old.

Tate died eight days after the fire at age 28 due to his burns. The two were among five Valley Stream firefighters in the department’s history who were killed in the line of duty.

 

Living with the pain

The 12 other firefighters who were in the building when the ceiling collapsed suffered injuries that still affect many of them today. 

Brian Ferrucci, a 50-year member of Rescue Company No. 1, said he suffered second- and third-degree burns to the back of his head, his right ear and his right hand. During the incident, his right glove came off, and his hand caught fire. When he was pulled out of the rubble after the roof collapse, other firefighters used their hose to stop him from burning alive.

“That was one of the scariest experiences of my life,” he said. “I didn’t think I would make it out of the hospital.”

Although Ferrucci had to endure four months of physical therapy to heal after the fire, he said, the hardest part about the temple fire was dealing with the death of his two school friends: Moran and Tate.

“While I was in the hospital, I couldn’t even get out in time to attend their funerals,” Ferrucci said. “Moran and Tate were two great guys ... This was one of the biggest tragedies in Valley Stream Fire Department history.”

 

Lessons learned

The death of Moran and Tate came as a shock to many in fire departments across Nassau County.

According to 54-year firefighter and former chief Ron Garofalo, also from Rescue Company, ever since the temple fire, departments across the county have developed new ways to protect those in the fire services.

At the time of the temple fire, rubber gloves were used to help protect firefighters’ hands. When the rubber was exposed to heat, however, it would become sticky, making it harder to hold items and perform rescues during a fire. Now, departments use special fire retardant materials for their gloves, Garofalo said.

Additionally, the boots the firefighters used proved inadequate during the temple fire. They only reached up to their knees, Garofalo said, and were too low to protect a firefighter’s legs. Now fire departments use boots that reach up to firefighters’ thighs.

Area departments have also incorporated fire retardant hoods into their gear, which help protect the face and ears during rescues.

“So many injuries in the temple fire could have been prevented if we had those things,” Garofalo said.

To address the chaos that ensued after the temple roof collapsed, fire departments in Nassau County adopted a standard identification tag system that requires all firefighters to hand in a name tag before entering a burning building. Prior to the temple fire, there was no way of knowing how many and which firefighters had entered a building.

For Garofalo, the hardest part about the immediate aftermath of the temple fire, he said, were those critical moments after the collapse, worrying if everyone had gotten out. The biggest long-term effect, though, was dealing with the death of his lieutenant, Tate.

“Tate was a smart man, who was very knowledgeable about fires . . . He was the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back,” Garofalo said with emotion in his voice. “This was one of the worst fires that I’ve ever seen and the deaths really affected me.”

After the memorial service on Sunday, attendedees celebrated a Mass at Holy Name of Mary Church where Mayor Ed Fare made a speech to honor Tate and Moran.

Fare joined the Fire Department the year after the blaze. He views the fire as not just a tragedy, but as a lesson that should never be forgotten.

“The sacrifices — mental, physical and emotional — made by everyone that day were not made in vain, [because] critical life-saving lessons were learned from that awful scene,” he said. “Advances in firefighting have become part of new protocols . . . We can honor their memories by ensuring the safety of future generations of firefighters.”