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Fallen Firefighters Honored on 50th Anniversary of Fatal Blast

Fallen Firefighters Honored on 50th Anniversary of Fatal Blast

Firefighters Tom Hansen (left), president of the Auburn Permanent Firefighters Benevolence Association, and Brian Donovan, president of Firefighters Union Local 1446, are seen Wednesday next to a memorial showing the names of fallen firefighters at the Au

The Post-Standard via YellowBrix

March 27, 2010

“It’s a great job, but it could end in a second. These three guys drove up the street to check for an odor of gas and they never came home,” Donovan said.

Like Irene Murphy, retired assistant fire Chief Butch Delaney — who turns 85 in July — had no trouble recalling the explosion. He was a captain on Engine No. 3 company and he and his crew found themselves in a helpless position that night 50 years ago.

“The building was completely demolished. We knew there were three guys in there. We tried to rescue them but we knew they were deceased. It was terrible,” Delaney recalled.

One of his jobs that night was to shut off the valve on one of the gas tanks. While he turned the valve with a pipe wrench, firefighters doused him with water — just in case there was another explosion.

It was an unsettling moment for him and bedlam ruled the evening, Delaney said. The service station was leveled, debris littered a two-block area downtown and there was no hope for the five victims caught in the explosion.

“It’s something I’ll never forget, that’s for sure,” Delaney said.

The memory of the fire also remains fresh for Auburn Mayor Michael Quill, who was helping his father — a career Auburn firefighter — fix the boiler at their home. When his father learned of the explosion he raced to the scene and did not return home until the next day, said Quill, who was 11 years old at the time.

“The big thing that sticks in my mind still to this day is how quickly life changes,” said Quill, who followed in his late father’s footsteps. The mayor served 32-plus years with the fire department, the last 11 years as chief, before taking elected office.

At Tuesday’s ceremony, sponsored by the firefighters union and the Auburn Permanent Firemen’s Benevolent Association, Donovan will ring a bell five times for each of the nine deceased firefighters when their name is called.

The bell tolling is a time-honored tradition started in the 1800s when fire departments would ring a bell five times shortly after one of their firefighters was killed in action. That custom continues today, Donovan said.

For Donovan, a firefighter for 11 years, the memorial service will always be important.

“It doesn’t matter how many years have passed, I’m going to keep going to them. It could be 50 years later, 51 years later, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

A few years after the 1960 fatal explosion, a court awarded the surviving families settlements ranging from $14,000 to $46,000 each, according to news reports.

Irene Murphy, who was 44 when her husband was killed, wound up with about $27,000 in settlement money after attorney fees and funeral expenses, the reports said. She said she supported her children as an office worker at Auburn Memorial Hospital.

Murphy never remarried and two of her adult children have died since her husband was killed, prompting her to say more than once during an interview last week, “I’ve had a tough life.”

Although she has trouble remembering some details from her past, Murphy had no problem recalling the fire that left her a widow.

“It’s a like a dream, a bad one. I don’t really like to bring it up,” she said.