A garden rises where a fireman died by arson

In 1977—with city coffers empty, crime rising, and residents fleeing at historically high rates—more than 13,000 New York City buildings were intentionally set on fire.

One of these arson fires happened on July 2 at 358 East Eighth Street, an abandoned tenement between Avenues C and D. The blaze, set with diesel oil, broke out on the fifth floor at about 3:10 pm.

Firefighters from Engine 15 saw the smoke while heading back to their station house on Pitt Street after responding to a false alarm. They detoured to the burning tenement to take on the four-alarm blaze, according to the New York Daily News on July 7, 1977.

With the firefighters on the fifth floor, the arsonist allegedly came back and set a second fire on a lower floor, reported the Daily News. (At right, the six-story building in 1940)

“When the new outburst of flames surged upward, the firemen crawled to a window where Ladder Company 11 had extended its cherry picker,” stated the Daily News.

One fireman made it to the cherry picker; three were overcome by smoke inhalation and had to be rescued inside.

Firefighter Martin Celic, 25, a Staten Island native who was to be married later that year, tried to get in the cherry picker. He tripped and fell 70 feet to the sidewalk.

Celic spent a week at Bellevue with massive head injuries before dying on July 10, his fiancee at his bedside.

A 17-year-old was arrested for setting the fire; he allegedly told officials that he did it to prevent winos and junkies from getting inside the building. In 1978 he was ordered to stand trial for arson and murder.

In 1978, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, admitting that he set the fire, according to the Daily News on July 7 of that year. He received 8-25 years.

This tragic story would be just a footnote of 1970s New York City history if not for the efforts of community members.

“Longtime neighborhood residents Ansley and Kelly Carnahan had begun gardening in the lot adjacent to the abandoned building in 1975,” states NYC Parks. “After the burnt-out building was condemned and torn down, the Carnahans and other local residents expanded their garden to the new lot.”

They named it the Firemen’s Garden (or Fireman’s Garden; it’s spelled both ways), “in honor of those who risk their lives daily in every borough and district,” continues NYC Parks. “Marty Celic’s family donated benches made of cedar and wrought iron.”

The garden became a nonprofit in 1989, then was transferred to the New York City Parks Department control in 1999. Shady, leafy, and with brick paths inside, it’s one of many firefighter tributes throughout the city.

For many New Yorkers, the Firemen’s Garden is a little off the beaten path. A “special ceremony is held in mid-July in remembrance of the sacrifices of all New York City firemen,” NYC Parks says, might be worth making the trek for.

[First and second photo: New York Daily News; third photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services]

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12 Responses to “A garden rises where a fireman died by arson”

  1. Tom B Says:

    I understand that this positive story is about the Fireman’s Garden and the people who made it possible. But it reminds me of a dark time in NYC and why some residents still pine for that era. Are we headed back to those times?

    • countrypaul Says:

      We may be. The social contract is lying in tatters, and the former New Yorker in the White House seems to have written the permission slip for chaos to run rampant. Combine this with overcrowding and unsustainable wealth disparity and we have as recipe for renewed disaster. I don’t know from where the strength for someone to stand up against this disaster will come, but I hope it arrives soon.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Sadly I think yes, for a variety of reasons

  2. The "Another Sign of the Apocalypse" Edition - The Briefly Says:

    […] A look at the history of Firemen’s Garden on E 8th St, where the NYFD’s Martin Celic lost his life in 1977. (Ephemeral New York) […]

  3. Benjamin P. Feldman Says:

    Thank you! I knew nothing about this. May his memory be a blessing…

  4. Linda Beame Says:

    Tom, yes the city is heaed that way if we do not cut the police budget by half and reinvest in critical services.

  5. John Nichols Says:

    For some reason, the 17 yr old who set the fire that killed the fireman was never identified. The story just disappeared. Whose son was it that caused the papers to back off?

  6. AG Says:

    The firebug’s name was Nelson Arzon. Looks like he was tried in 1978 for felony murder; you can look up People v Arzon to see why he did a laughably short bid for that crime. He’s apparently alive and living in Maryland now.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks for this AG. I dug a little deeper and found a Daily News article from 1978 (tiny news brief, actually) that said he pleaded guilty and got 8-25 years. I don’t know how many years he actually served though. I added this info to the post.

  7. osssman Says:

    https://opencasebook.org/cases/1734/

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