The second-worst fire in New York City history

You know what the worst is. Next on the list—in terms of loss of firefighter life, that is—comes the 23rd Street Fire in 1966, which killed 12 firefighters.

23rdstreetfirefuneralIt started in a brownstone at 7 East 22rd Street at 9:30 p.m. on October 17. An art dealer stored paint in the cellar, which fueled heavy smoke and a raging basement fire.

Unable to make their way to the source of the flames, firefighters went around the block to 23rd Street to try to enter through a building that shared the cellar.

Firefighters didn’t know that after a renovation, a wall in the shared cellar had been moved, weakening the floor. The entire first floor soon collapsed into the basement inferno, killing 10 firefighters. Two more died in another part of the building.

The city was astounded and distraught. Days later, 10,000 firefighters flanked Fifth Avenue as fire trucks carried coffins to St. Thomas Episcopal Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (Above photo: FDNY. Below: The New York Times)


The site is now home to a high-rise apartment house, just across from Madison Square Park. A small plaque honors the men who lost their lives there 43 years ago.

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18 Responses to “The second-worst fire in New York City history”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Where the site is on 23rd Street was a great below-the-ground pool hall. Can’t recall it’s name, McGir’s, or something like that. I played there often and lost every time. Oh well, I wasn’t meant to be a pool shark hustler.

  2. Chris Kearin Says:

    Surely you meant “second-worst fire” only in regard to the loss of firefighters? The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and perhaps others as well, caused more total deaths by far (assuming the WTC was number 1).

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    Yes, of course, thank you for pointing that out. I’ve corrected the text. Second-worst fire when it comes to number of firefighter deaths.

  4. Force Tube Avenue Says:

    I recall the shock felt in the city at the time. We took up a collection in my elementary school class in response to an article in the Daily News.

  5. shmapty Says:

    Weren’t there a couple fires in the 18th century that literally burnt half of the city (half, because Broadway was a sufficiently wide firewall)?

  6. wildnewyork Says:

    There was a massive fire in 1776 and another in 1835. And probably a lot of smaller but still destructive ones in between.

    • shmapty Says:

      @wildnewyork Thanks. Found the wiki links for both. Seems that both were quite destructive to the wooden structures of the time, but resulted in minimal loss of life.

  7. Amanda Says:

    What was the worst fire in NYC history? I don’t think the WTC bombing was technically a fire was it?

  8. wildnewyork Says:

    I’m looking at it in terms of the most firefighter deaths. I don’t think anything can beat 9/11; the fires in the Towers killed more than 300 firefighters.

    The fires in 1776 and 1835 destroyed more of the city though.

  9. Greg Says:

    I believe that renovation was illegal and people were prosecuted.

  10. Klein Says:

    I’m thinking 9/11 wasn’t really a “fire”. Obviously there was fire in the building as a result, but to call it a fire would mean that something inside the building caused the flames and it grew from there.

  11. Perfect Male Specimen Says:

    What about the General Slocum fire when over 1,000 people lost their lives in the East River?

  12. Jim Says:

    There was the General Slocum and the Triangle Shirtwaist fires that caused far more loss of life, both in the same century.This fire was the second and till 9/11 the worst loss of life in a single incident for the FDNY but it was far from the second worst fire in NYC history. This was an important part of New York’s history but I have a hard time with the title of the post. It’s factually misleading.

  13. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Just as add on: February 27, 1975 brought a fire in the telephone building at 204 Second Avenue, at East 13th Street. This was the largest loss of telephone service from fire in United States history, until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

    taken from Wikipedia

  14. One century and three views of East 23rd Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] down after a 1970 fire; buildings on its left that had housed art galleries were destroyed in a terrible 1966 blaze that killed 12 firefighters. “The demolition of the four buildings  created a large parking lot,” the book […]

  15. Michael Sheehy Says:

    In terms of challenges, 9/11 aside, the Second Avenue Central Office fire of 1975 is often ranked #2 in modern FDNY history. Other contenders are Deutsche Bank and the USS Constellation in 1960.

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