Retired firefighter says cancer killed many who battled 1975 blaze
Retired firefighter Danny Noonan, 71, will never know how many of the nearly 700 FDNY members who responded to a blaze at the New York Telephone Company in Manhattan with him 45 years ago Thursday were struck with cancer in the aftermath — because most of them are dead.
“There was a huge amount of cancer,” Noonan, who suffers from leukemia, told The Post.
“Young healthy men all of a sudden were developing all of these crazy cancers. We started sounding the alarm to the city and the department’s hierarchy. There was no response to our alarm that all these firefighters are getting cancer.”
The fire broke out after midnight on Feb. 27, 1975, at the New York Telephone Company switching center at 204 Second Avenue and 13th Street. The building housed much of the borough’s telephone lines.
Noonan, who regularly gets chemotherapy at Sloan Kettering, says the blaze is burned into his memory.
“The fire was three floors underground,” Noonan recalled.
“In order to get there you had to go through a maze of hallways. The fire alarms were going off and it’s a similar sound to a submarine’s dive alarm. As we got deeper, we had to go down a steel staircase. The polyethylene they coat the telephone cables with was melting and adhering to our boots. It got to the point of zero visibility. A lot of firefighters’ air supply ran out and we had to buddy breath with them.”
There were no fatalities in the fire itself but as the years went on more and more of the members who were there were diagnosed with cancer, Noonan said. He got his diagnosis in 2001 with no family history of the disease.
There are no official figures for how many of the firefighters were diagnosed with cancer, an FDNY spokesman said. It wasn’t until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that it was widely acknowledged that burning substances could create toxic air that leads to future health issues for emergency workers.
United Firefighters Association President Gerard Fitzgerald said the Telephone Company fire is a story told to new firefighters at the academy that highlights “the need to wear your respirator.”
“There’s was no line of duty death that day but as a result of the fire there was a large loss of life,” he said. “Our mantra is to never forget and these guys are part of history.”
Noonan, who was assigned to Ladder 3 and only 25 at the time, said he and only a handful of members who were there are still alive today.
“The frustration level is enormous,” Noonan said. “It was just my second year in the department. I don’t know how many guys reached 55 who were at that fire. The department has never done an epidemiology study.”
Of the 699 firefighters at the fire, Noonan believes hundreds “died as young healthy men with no recognition whatsoever.”
Noonan recalled that the department stamped the folders of the firefighters who were there with a red star and people referred to that as the “red star of death.”
After retirement, Noonan moved to Southern California and it was there that he was diagnosed at UCLA. He now lives on the Upper East Side.
“They told me to a degree of medical certainty that my leukemia was the result of toxic exposure at the New York telephone fire,” he said.
“We’ve been fighting for some form of recognition for all 699 of us,” he said. “We wanted a memorial or simply a street renaming on 2nd Avenue and 13th Street. We have been consistently denied through the decades.”
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