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A Local Firehouse With Two Seminal Connections to 9-11

September 11th holds an especially powerful meaning, in more ways than one, for one particular firehouse in our neighborhood. That two-story structure stands at 108 East 13th Street, just east of Fourth Avenue, in the middle of the rich historic neighborhood south of Union Square for which Village Preservation has been advocating landmark protections. Walking past this building, it’s hard not to notice the abundance of plaques, which commemorate the different chapters of the structure’s storied past. Housing what was originally called Hook & Ladder Co. No. 3, the firehouse building was commissioned by one of New York City’s most colorful mayors and a longtime resident of Greenwich Village. Over seven decades later, it played a major role in responding to the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, suffering some of the greatest losses of any firehouse in the city. Perhaps ironically, this particular fire company was also born on another September 11th — in 1865, just after another great conflagration which also engulfed and deeply affected New York.

108 East 13th Street, 2020.

Hook & Ladder Co. No. 3 was originally organized just after the Civil War, and was first located in a no-longer-extant building just west of its present home at 108 East 13th Street. The building that stands today was constructed in 1928 by architect John R. Sliney following its commission by Mayor James J. Walker (1881-1946). Known as “Gentleman Jim” and “Beau James,” the Jazz Age Mayor Walker was known for his charming nature, dashing appearance, and lavish lifestyle — as well as for the corruption of his administration, which was deeply intertwined with the Tammany organization.

Mayor James Walker, 1926. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mayor Walker’s ties to our neighborhoods stretch far beyond the firehouse at 108 East 13th Street. When he was born, Walker’s home was located at 108 Leroy Street (now demolished), which continued to serve as the home of the family business even after the Walkers moved to 6 St. Luke’s Place in 1886. Throughout his life, including his mayoralty from 1926 to 1932, Mayor Walker continued to live on St. Luke’s Place, a short trip from the firehouse. In 1947, the City Council changed the name of the park across from Mayor Walker’s home to James J. Walker Park, in his honor.

Walker is further remembered as the protege of New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, who also lived in what is now Village Preservation’s proposed historic district South of Union Square, at 51 Fifth Avenue. Smith was the first Catholic major party candidate for President, and served as the President of Empire State, Inc., the firm which built the Empire State Building in just 13 months.

Plaque on the side of 108 East 13th Street, 2020.

Seventy three years after 108 East 13th Street was commissioned by Mayor Walker and exactly one hundred and thirty six years after Hook & Ladder Co. No. 3 was organized, al-Qaeda terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center. According to documentation by the 9/11 Memorial & Museum pulled from the 9/11 Commission Report and other sources, Ladder 3 played a major role in the response to this horrific attack.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images via Daily Mail.

The North Tower of the World Trade Center was hit at 8:46am, just when the members of Ladder 3 were rotating shifts. Because of this, some of the off-duty firefighters continued to work, traveling with the rest of the crew to the site of the disaster. Led by Captain Patrick “Paddy” Brown and Lieutenant Kevin W. Donnelly, the group arrived at the North Tower within minutes of Flight 11’s impact.

Wearing 100 pounds of protective gear, the firefighters of Ladder 3 started climbing the stairs of the North Tower to evacuate the people inside. By 10:00am, some of the group had reached the 44th floor, while others were already on the 54th floor. When the South Tower collapsed at 9:58am, many of those inside the North Tower remained unaware. Given uncertain information, a chief in the North Tower ordered evacuation, but many did not hear the instruction and others were determined to stay until everyone inside had been safely rescued. Thirty minutes later, when the North Tower collapsed at 10:28am, 11 members of Ladder 3 were killed, and 108 East 13th Street became one of the hardest-hit firehouses in the entire city. In total, nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attacks that day, including 346 active and retired members of the New York City Fire Department — the largest loss of life faced by any emergency response agency.

Ladder Company 3’s firetruck, severely damaged by the tower collapse, was stored in a climate-controlled environment at JFK International Airport for ten years. Then, on July 20, 2011, over 100 FDNY members and family members gathered to watch as the truck descended into the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Covered in a white shroud decorated with fire department flags, the 60,000 pound vehicle was lowered by a giant crane as bagpipes played the national anthem.

The firetruck has become a symbol of Ladder 3, the events of 9/11, and the city’s collective grief and memory of that day. Likewise, the building at 108 East 13th Street stands as a memorial of its own. Every year, on September 11th, the building recalls the lengthy history of Ladder 3, from its origins as Hook & Ladder Co. No. 3, to the construction of its home led by a famed Greenwich Village Mayor, to its heroic participation in one of New York City’s greatest tragedies.

Protect the Area South of Union Square

108 East 13th Street is one of many remarkable buildings in the neighborhood South of Union Square. Given the increased pressure on the area exacerbated by the construction of the 14th Street Tech Hub, the time is now for the city to act to protect this building and its surrounding neighborhood, an incredibly historically rich but endangered area.

Urge the city to protect this vital history and neighborhood NOW – click here.

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