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On a chilly Friday afternoon just before Christmas 1986, Donny Herbert kissed his young wife, Linda, on the forehead, bear hugged his three toddler sons, and set off for his first-ever shift as a Buffalo firefighter. For the twenty-five-year-old Seneca Street kid, this was one of the proudest days of his life. Donny might not have gone to college, but he was the first member of his family to join the department. The written and physical tests, months of limbo waiting for a slot, eight difficult weeks at the Buffalo Fire Department Training Academyall of it had led to this moment. Donny intentionally took his time putting on his official uniformnavy blue button-down shirt, navy blue pants, black dress shoes. He packed his '84 Chevette hatchback with his personal set of BFD turnout gear and waved good-bye.
"Good luck," Linda called from the front-porch doorway of their rickety Spaulding Street duplex, the shouting of the children drowning her out. Don Jr., a happy-go-lucky St. Agatha's kindergartner, was particularly amped up. "Daddy's gonna ride on the fire trucks!" he yelled as his younger brothers, Tommy and Patrick, parroted him, the three youngsters popping up and down like a set of firing pistons.
In a few days Donny would start an official four-day tour as a member of the department's second platoon, which meant a rotating schedule consisting of two nine-hour day shifts (eight A.M. to five P.M.) and two fifteen-hour evening shifts (five P.M. to eight a.M.), followed by four days off in a row. He was being thrown into the mix midcycle, starting with an overnight stint. Donny was assigned to Ladder 6, housed along with Engine 21 on the corner of Best Street and Earl Place in one of the worst of Buffalo's East Side neighborhoods. No matter; Donny looked forward to life at that firehouse, a two-story hilltop outpost of red brick. "The Hill," as it was known in the department, was more than a century old and located one block east of War Memorial Stadium, an unused concrete monolith nicknamed "the Rockpile." Donny embraced his new career with his usual enthusiasm, setting out for work more than an hour early. Donny had made roughly the same money, around twenty thousand dollars a year, at his old job, as a machinist at a Ryder manufacturing plant. But cutting steel and fashioning parts was brutally tedious work and not what Donny saw himself doing for the rest of his life.
As Linda turned to go back inside, she, too, was excited for Donny, though she realized suddenly that his being gone all night would take some getting used to. One thing she was not, however, was worried.
About fifteen minutes later, Linda was debating the expediency of fish sticks versus Hamburger Helper when a Channel 7 Eyewitness News bulletin flashed across the bottom of the television screen: St. Mary's Church on Buffalo's East Side was ablaze and had just gone to a third alarm. Outside, Linda could hear sirens. If fire trucks from South Buffalo were heading over, then this could be a five-alarm fire, she thought. Linda had absorbed a fair amount of information about the department during the past two months while Donny was at the academy. Now she was getting her first real lesson in what it was like to be a fireman's wife.
Built of timber and limestone by German immigrants and consecrated in 1859, St. Mary's Redemptorist Roman Catholic Church was, in a city noteworthy for its architecture, a remarkably beautiful structure. Though hardly a cavernous cathedral at just 186 feet long and 81 feet wide, the church nevertheless became a striking component of the ever-rising nineteenth-century Buffalo skyline. Indeed, St. Mary's 240-foot steeple tower on the corner of Broadway and Pine Streets was for many years one of the highest points in the city. During the neighborhood's own high point, just after World War II, St. Mary's claimed thousands of parishioners, many of them working-class or poor. They looked to the gray stone edifice of St. Mary's, with its magnificent stained-glass panels and towering copper spire, as a fortress of comfort and refuge. Weekly Wednesday night novenas drew thousands of Catholics from around the city. Devout visitors often described an almost uncanny spiritual warmth emanating from inside. Regardless of whether any of them ever realized it, the church was believed to be sitting on particularly hallowed ground: the exact birthplace of Monsignor Nelson H. Baker, once vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and the region's most revered spiritual figure. By the time of his death in 1936 at age ninety-four, Father Baker had garnered worldwide attention over tales of unexplained "miracles" and mysterious healings. Long after Father Baker's death, dozens of stories of miraculous medical recoveries were linked to his answered prayers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, as families of German and Polish descent migrated in droves farther eastward to the suburbs of Cheektowaga and West Seneca, St. Mary's was reborn as a spiritual hub for black Catholics and the black community overall. But by the 1970s, the church had fallen into disrepair, much like the neighborhood itself, corroded by debilitating poverty, crime, and neglect. In June 1981, Bishop Edward Head decided to officially shut down the church, its regular parishioners by then numbering fewer than a hundred. The building and adjoining property were subsequently sold to a private developer, who announced demolition plans.
An effort was undertaken by concerned community members to stave off the wrecking ball. St. Mary's received one temporary reprieve after another as politicians and volunteers fought to save it, eventually convincing the city to grant the church official landmark status. Meanwhile, the abandoned complex, which consisted of the church, a convent/orphanage, and a rectory, as well as a completely gutted three-story trade school, became a nesting ground for vagrants and winos who circumvented fences and welded-shut doors in increasingly creative fashion. As the weather turned colder, the unauthorized inhabitants set trash-can fires to stay warm at night. By morning the flames would relent, leaving a putrid, smoky stew of ash and blackened garbage. On Friday, December 19, 1986, one such discarded fire refused to merely smolder.
At approximately 2:45 p.m., a passerby noticed smoke pouring out the back of St. Mary's Church and pulled the alarm box across the street. Right on the fringe of downtown Buffalo in an area teeming with degenerates and hoodlums, the fire alarm box on Broadway and Pine was always going off. The call initially warranted an abbreviated response unit, a couple of four-man engine companies and a ladder truck. A crew from Engine 1 on South Division and Ellicott, a few blocks away, arrived on the scene first. Firefighters realized within minutes that this was no false alarm.
The fire had spread from the empty brick school building behind St. Mary's into the church itself, traveling quickly across superheated air pockets between the ceiling and roof. Soaring dark orange flames ignited the rafters of the church. Once it met that wide-open area, the fire became impossible to contain. A row of decrepit wooden homes sat adjacent to St. Mary's to the rear. With a stiff wind whipping off Lake Erie, not only was a sacred piece of Buffalo's history in grave danger, but a large section of Pine Street was as well.
Not long after Donny Herbert pulled into the parking lot behind the Ladder 6/Engine 21 firehouse, it was apparent that his first day on the job was not going to be spent in the kitchen playing cards and drinking coffee. Both sides of the vintage double house were empty; rigs, equipment, and firefighters were already at the St. Mary's fire. A few of the other guys on second platoon began to trickle into the vacated apparatus floor around 4:15 P.M. It was quiet except for the muffled static of radio traffic. Firefighter Greg Pratchett, a three-year veteran but around the same age as Donny, welcomed the rookie aboard and instructed him to gear up. Someone would be coming in the division chief's rig to take them over to the fire. Pratchett, who moonlit as a substitute teacher, had stopped by St. Mary's on his way to the firehouse. He gave Donny and the other two second platoon guys assigned to Ladder 6, Ricky Bryant and Dave Perry, a quick rundown of what was going on. "Surround and drown," Pratchett summarized.
By 4:20 P.M., the fire had drawn a dozen engine companies from around the city, as well as four ladder trucks, both rescue units, and all the senior officers, including division and battalion chiefs, the commissioner, and the deputy commissioner. Some men in a fire department will never see a five-alarm fire during their entire career. Donny was about to take part in one on his first day.
The late December sun had not quite set, but the sky was already pitch-dark with smoke. A transfixed crowd of onlookers, including many streets department workers who were just then punching out of a massive garage on the next block, gathered in all directions to watch the show: spectacular, rolling flames utterly devouring the church. At 4:27 P.M. one of four clocks adorning each side of the steeple tower blew out with a loud pop and shot into a nearby yard like a streaking comet. In the fleeting light of early winter, the legions of spectators and firefighters were all looking skyward. The breathtaking spire would most certainly topple.
Fire Commissioner Al Duke got on the radio and ordered the firefighters to pull back to the rear of the church. Engine 18, which was pumping from a hydrant right in front of the church, promptly disconnected and moved farther down Pine Street. Ladder 6, an old-style tiller truck, was also relocated from a precarious position. As the new guy, Donny was given little to do other than stick close to Pratchett, who served as acting lieutenant in the absence of Captain Don Stoeckel (who was finishing up some paperwork at the training bureau). From the tiller seat, Pratchett operated a powerful ladder pipe hose aimed at the church. Thick, menacing flames, accompanied by hellish black smoke, continued to climb up the sides of the steeple tower and licked toward the very top, a metal sphere sporting a tiny cross.
A few minutes later there came another frightening blast that sent a ball of flames roaring into the dusk, almost as if it had been belched from the side of the tower by some imaginary blowtorch. "It's only a matter of minutes before she goes," muttered one onlooker, breaking a mesmerized silence.
At precisely 4:49 P.M., the steeple began to teeter. And then, seconds later, down it came, hurtling through the night sky, power lines snapping in unison as it hit the pavement below, exploding on impact. The searing projectile landed precisely in the intersection of Broadway and Pine, where it continued to burn. The hydrant on that corner, which had been relinquished only moments earlier by Engine 18, suffered a direct hit. It was later found to be practically melted.
More than a hundred firefighters were called to St. Mary's that day. While the fire was declared to be under control by around six P.M., firefighters from the second platoon, including Donny Herbert, stayed on the scene for hours to keep pouring water on the smoldering rubble so that embers did not reignite and blow over to surrounding homes.
It was a busy shift for Ladder 6, to say the least. From the St. Mary's fire, Donny's ladder truck was then called to the scene of a horrendous automobile accident on the Kensington Expressway that had killed two young Buffalo General nurses. After catching just a few hours of sleep, the platoon awoke to yet another alarm at around six A.M. An electrical fire was torching a one-and-a-half-story frame home on Moselle Street, not too far from another shuttered East Side church, St. Mary of Sorrows. By the time the first firefighters from Ladder 14 arrived on the scene, the house was already half-incinerated. The screams of neighbors told responders that people were trapped inside. The owner of the house, thirty-two-year-old Charles McDaniels, had escaped, but then charged back inside to try to save his wife, Olivia. Now they were both trapped in the bedroom. Two firefighters, Eddie Hughes, from Ladder 14, and Rescue 1's Mike Lombardo, battled their way up the stairs to try to save the two trapped occupants. They were too late. The McDanielses perished, overwhelmed by smoke.
Working a ventilation detail, essentially whacking holes in the windows and sides of the house with an ax, Donny was exhausted, but determined not to let it show. Suddenly, he heard someone shouting to him.
"Hey, give me a hand!" firefighter Lombardo called out the window. He hurriedly instructed Donny to climb up to a porch roof that sat just outside the bedroom window. Then Lombardo reached through the window and presented Donny with something heavy. "Here you go," Lombardo announced, workmanlike. It was the nude, lifeless body of Olivia McDaniels.
Later that morning, Ladder 6 went back over to the St. Mary's scene to help pick up hose, the fireman's equivalent of sweeping up after a party. Everybody pitched inalmost every inch of hose from four battalions had been unfurled to fight this epic blaze. Donny found himself surveying the charred heap of rubble that had once been a marvelous church. Whether a toppled garbage-can fire was the cause, or whether it was something more deliberate, whoever was responsible had done quite a number. The roof had collapsed and the pews and altar were destroyed. Donny was tired, famished. But before he left the scene, he noticed something strange, something he would never forget. Amid the ruin and devastation, all of the stained glass, as well as a majestic marble statue of the Blessed Mother, had somehow survived the fire completely unscathed.
Donny returned home around nine-thirty A.M., bleary-eyed and physically drained. He quietly let himself in the back door, which led into the kitchen. Linda was there making coffee; the kids were still asleep. He reeked of smoke. His hands and face were covered in soot. He appeared to be caught in a daze.
"Geez, you look like you've seen a ghost," Linda said, taken aback by her husband's catatonic demeanor, not to mention the acrid stench of smoke he carried into the house. Linda hadn't heard from Donny since he left the day before, but somehow she had felt certain he would be okay and now was eager to hear about his first time on the job. Donny lit a cigarette and started to detail the night's events, eventually uncorking all the emotions he'd experienced. He held his head in his hands and sighed.
"Lin, I really don't know if I can do this every day."
Hitting him suddenly was the realization that he needed to report back in just another eight hours. Linda had never seen Donny this shaken. She put her arms around him.