One gray Saturday morning in 1945, days before the atomic detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought World War II to a close, a US Army B-25 bomber, lost in thick fog, careened into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building.
High-test fuel flooded the skyscraper’s upper stories, sparking a conflagration 913 feet in the air. The plane’s landing gear plummeted down an elevator shaft, hitting the foundation like a bomb. Engine parts slammed onto a nearby building, setting off secondary blazes. Three crew members and 11 civilians were killed.
William Patrick Feehan, a 20-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, was one of the first on the scene. Six miles away in Jackson Heights, Queens, 15-year-old Bill Feehan eavesdropped on the action over the FDNY’s radio alarm broadcast.
Decades later, details of the disaster “never seemed to fade from Bill’s memory,” writes Brian McDonald, in the new book “Five Floors Up” (Grand Central Publishing), out now. “The last time he told the tale about the plane hitting the Empire State Building was … just a few months before the World Trade Center attack.”
McDonald tells the story of a four-generation FDNY family, the department they serve, and the bonds that inspired their devotion to what they see as a calling, a duty and a way of life.
“It’s a very special culture,” said a grown-up Bill Feehan in 1992, three decades after following his father into the FDNY.
“When you have a department whose men and women are expected to be ready at any moment to put their life on the line, to go to the aid of a stranger … I don’t think you can pay people to do that job. There has to be something beyond money that makes them do that.”
Bill joined the department in 1959 and served at every one of its nine ranks, including commissioner. On September 11, 2001, First Deputy Commissioner Feehan — who, despite his array of titles, insisted on just being called “Chief” — was helping to direct the response from the West Street command center at the base of the World Trade Center. With its collapse he became, at age 71, the FDNY’s oldest 9/11 casualty.
He was “a living legend,” the 9/11 Memorial Museum declared. “Part father confessor, part history professor, and part fire department Yoda,” McDonald writes.
But his brilliant run nearly ended before it began.
The wait to enter the department was long in the 1950s, as Bill and other Korean War veterans returned to civilian lives in New York City. Just married to the former Betty Keegan, his sweetheart from St. John’s College, he took a job with the New York Fire Patrol, a private agency that protected pricey equipment at commercial fire scenes.
In February 1958, a blaze at the six-story Elkins Paper and Twine building in SoHo nearly killed the young father-to-be when the burning factory caved in on the FDNY units and Fire Patrol crews working inside.
“The last thing he remembered was the floor beneath him falling away,” McDonald writes. “The rush of air caused by the collapse lifted him and blew him down the stairwell.”
A devout Catholic, Bill later joked that the Holy Ghost had ejected him from the building. “But the near-death experience was like an invisible scar that he would always carry,” says McDonald. The two firefighters and four Fire Patrol members who lost their lives were the first of many deaths Bill witnessed on the job.
His first child, Elizabeth, was an infant when Bill finally got his coveted FDNY spot. Four children followed — daughter Tara and sons Billy, Michael, and John. But for Betty, the stress of her husband’s job took a heavy toll. When Michael died suddenly at just four months of age, she spiraled into a deep depression.
The Feehans relied on their extended family, including the now-retired William, as Bill began to climb the FDNY’s ranks. Father and son would inevitably “talk fire,” as they called it, whenever they got together, as the children soaked in their stories.
“In a way, [Bill’s] love for his dad and his love for the fire department were one and the same,” McDonald writes. William Patrick Feehan, a lifelong non-smoker, died of emphysema in 1975.
Bill Feehan was a new lieutenant at Chinatown’s Ladder 6 in 1966 when the basement of a Chelsea art store, packed with flammable lacquer and paint, caught fire. Firefighters from Engine 18, the first to respond, entered the smoky building through an adjacent drugstore. They had no idea that the art store’s cellar had been expanded into the space beneath their feet. The floor crumbled, dropping ten firemen directly into the flames and incinerating two others in the resulting flashover.
Ladder 6 arrived on the second alarm for a rescue effort that devolved into a grim recovery operation. Bill and his men worked a bucket brigade to dig out their comrades’ bodies. The 23rd Street Fire, as the blaze became known, was the deadliest day in New York firefighting history – until 2001.
In the 1970s, Will was a captain leading Engine 59 in Harlem, a neighborhood notorious for its five-story walk-up tenements. Blazes there all seemed to start in the same inaccessible spot, which the house turned into its motto: “Five floors up, and five rooms in.”
By 1985, after stints as staff chief of operations and of fire prevention, Bill was known as “the most broadly experienced fire officer in the department,” McDonald writes.
“I’ve loved every place I’ve worked, I’ve loved every rank I’ve had,” Bill said in 1992. “But there was always that thing … Let me see what the next one is about.”
Meanwhile, he was passing the torch of service along. In 1989, daughter Tara married Brian Davan, a second-generation firefighter from Breezy Point, Queens. Their son Connor was Bill’s guest at special FDNY events, like fireboat cruises on New York Harbor. His youngest son John was the valedictorian of the Fire Academy’s Class of 1995.
“For some, especially those who have had relatives on the job, the decision to become a firefighter is instinctual,” McDonald notes. “Almost as if not taking the job goes against their very nature.”
Bill won the respect of politicians on both sides of the aisle as he hit the department’s highest echelons. In 1993, outgoing Mayor David Dinkins appointed him the FDNY’s 28th fire commissioner — even though Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani would certainly name his own pick the moment he was sworn in.
Giuliani did, but kept Bill on as first deputy commissioner. The chief quickly found a way to get on the new mayor’s good side.
“Rudy was a fire buff,” McDonald explains, and “it was no secret that the mayor was unhappy in his marriage” to newscaster Donna Hanover. “Chief Feehan made sure word of any fire over two alarms got to Gracie Mansion right away” — an excuse Giuliani happily used to escape the mayoral home.
When Betty died in 1996 after a long series of hospitalizations, Bill threw himself even more deeply into his work. “The department still provided the ballast in his life,” McDonald writes. “Without it he’d be set adrift.”
He was at the department’s MetroTech Center headquarters in Queens on the bright, cloudless morning of September 11, 2001, when terrorists plowed the first airplane into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Bill and the rest of the brass glimpsed the smoking skyscraper from their office windows, then rushed to the scene.
He was there, donning his white chief’s helmet, when the second plane exploded over his head. “A wheel housing from the jet crashed to the street just yards away,” McDonald writes, based on the accounts of surviving colleagues. “Then came body parts.”
“This is no place for a 71-year-old,” Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen confided to another chief at the command post in the North Tower’s lobby. But Bill ignored Von Essen’s order to leave the scene and work from an office instead.
Witnesses place Bill at a West Street loading dock when the South Tower pancaked down to earth at 9:59 am. There, he and Chief of Department Peter Ganci directed attempts to rescue firefighters from the rubble. Bill was at Ganci’s side 29 minutes later when the North Tower fell, killing them both.
“The truest kind of love is to lay down your life for another,” Bill once said, in one of his effortlessly eloquent Fire Department eulogies. “But the purest form of love is to cherish each other every day. Never leave a moment’s doubt that you love with your whole heart and soul.”
After the chief’s death, Brian Davan and son John remained with the department, where both currently serve as battalion chiefs. Connor Davan, after graduating from Siena College, joined the FDNY in 2016.
Connor was just 8 years old in 2001. At his grandfather’s wake, McDonald writes, an elderly former firefighter approached him.
“I worked with Chief Feehan in 59 Engine,” the man said. “Do you know where that is?’
The little boy nodded resolutely.
“Five floors up,” he answered. “And five rooms in.”