New York’s Bravest

February 13, 2011 | 4 Comments

Memorial Plaque for Fireman Bernard O'Kane and Lt. Seeman

Memorial Plaque for Fireman Bernard O'Kane and Lt. Seeman

The month of January has been cold here, and filled with snow. We’ve been busy, as usual, and had a couple of special events to celebrate. The first one was the unveiling of a memorial plaque for a NYC firefighter who died in the line of duty. Fireman 1st Grade Bernard O’Kane was on duty in Engine 227 in Brooklyn early on the morning of Christmas Day, 1927, when the company responded to the alarm of a fire. Barely two hours later, the company returned to the fire house and the watch officer noted in the official log that Fireman O’Kane died in the line of duty, having fallen down an air shaft. The story in the New York Times describes the tragedy:

Fireman Bernard O’Kane of MacDonough Street, Brooklyn, was killed early yesterday morning while fighting a fire on the roof of a four-story tenement at 1,015 Putnam Avenue, Brooklyn, opposite the Bushwick Hospital. He lost his footing and fell sixty feet to instant death in the courtyard.

O’Kane left his home Saturday night after fixing up the tree for Billy, 4 years old, and Bernard Jr., 2, his sons, and kissing his wife, Catherine, good-bye. He was due back at 3 o’clock yesterday morning.

O’Kane finished his tour of duty in the Halsey Theatre, on Broadway, Brooklyn, at 11:30 and reported back to the firehouse of Engine Company 227 at Herkimer Street and Ralph Avenue. A few minutes later the alarm hit in for the tenement house fire.

There had been a fire in the basement of the Bushwick Hospital Monday night and when the alarm sounded the firemen thought there was another blaze in the institution. They made a quick run through the cold streets and discovered that the fire had started in the cellar of the tenement house and had spread through the dumbwaiter shaft to the roof. The hospital was not threatened.

The eight families in the tenement house ran down the stairs, through the smoke, shivering in their night attire. The firemen had to work quietly, not to disturb and alarm the patients in the hospital. The blaze was stubborn and the water froze as soon as it fell on the building.

O’Kane was one of the men ordered to the roof. He worked there for more than an hour. The fire was under control and all the men were about to descend when O’Kane slipped and fell. He was dead when his companions reached him.

One of the firemen broke the news of her husband’s death to Mrs. O’Kane. She had been waiting for her husband to come home to play Santa Claus. When reporters called later, Billy was circling the parlor in his new tricycle, overjoyed in the possession of his shiny toys. Bernie was carrying his new things around the room.

Mrs. O’Kane lay on a couch crying as the Christmas tree was dismantled and taken out of the room over the protests of the uncomprehending Billy and Bernie. The O’Kanes were married five years ago. Another boy, Joseph, died about a year ago when he was four years old. O’Kane was 30 years old and had been in the Fire Department three years. His wife is 23.

Arrangements were made last night for funeral services in the Church of Our Counsel, where O’Kane and his wife were to have gone yesterday to attend the holiday mass.

Nowadays the Fire Department honors officers who die in the line of duty, but in the past this was not the case, and so recently many Engine Companies have been commemorating their fallen colleagues. Engine Company 227 has lost two Firemen in the line of duty over the years, and before 9/11 had been planning a commemorative ceremony. After the tragedy of 9/11, the effort was suspended, and only recently was it revived, and a ceremony planned for Thursday, January 6th, to commemorate the memory of Bernard and a colleague, Lt. John Seeman, who died in 1935, only a week after being promoted to Lieutenant.

The officers in Engine 227 had sought to find relatives of both officers; alas, Bernard’s immediate family had passed away and there was no trace of relatives for Lt. Seeman. Coincidentally, I had been seeking information about Bernard, a brother of my great-grandmother, and when he spotted a posting I made on a genealogy board, Fire Fighter Robert Sypko of Company 227 got in touch to invite me and other family representatives. So it was that I, my cousin Brian O’Hagan (whose grandmother was Bernard’s niece), and our cousin Anne Kutka (whose father was Bernard’s nephew, and who had emigrated with Bernard from Ireland, arriving in New York on April 15th, the day the Titanic sank, made our way to the Fire Station for the unveiling of a memorial to the two officers.

The Fire Department did both men proud, with a wonderful service, complete with pipe band, and unveiled a plaque honoring the two fallen comrades. At a reception afterwards we got a chance to explore the fire station – not the original home of Company 227, but the home of another company to where Company 227 moved several years after the death of Lt. Seeman – and to examine the log books for 1927 and 1935, reading the stark entries describing the tragedies. One interesting point to note was that the log book for 1935 showed that Bernard’s widow Catherine was employed as a Matron in the Fire Station. In the days before pensions, the Fire Department looked after the widows of the fallen by ensuring that they had a source of income, looking after the stations where their husbands used to serve.

It was wonderful to be present at such an event to honor the memory of a fallen hero, and even though we never knew him, we were proud to represent Bernard’s family.