43 years later, loved ones memorialize firefighters lost to infamous Waldbaum’s blaze

Members of the FDNY, family, friends and other loved ones of the victims of the 1978 Waldbaum’s fire came together for a memorial mass on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021.
Photo by Arthur de Gaeta

On this day more than four decades ago, an inferno at a Sheepshead Bay supermarket claimed the lives of six firefighters — and today, as in years past, the first responders’ friends and families convened at St. Brendan’s Roman Catholic Church on Avenue O to commemorate the occasion and remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice that fateful day.

On Aug. 2, 1978, firefighters from nearly a half-dozen fire companies headed to the Waldbaum’s on Ocean Avenue between Avenues Y and Z to battle a blaze in the summer heat. The fire broke out at about 8:40 am within the business, which was undergoing renovations at the time but still open to customers.

Six firefighters — William O’Connor, George Rice, James McManus, James Cutillo, Harold Hastings, and Charles Bouton — fell to their deaths when the roof of the supermarket collapsed underneath them, and an additional 34 firefighters and one emergency services police officer were injured as they battled back the blaze — six of whom also plunged into the flames, but were ultimately rescued.

On Aug. 2, 1978, nearly 20 firefighters were on the roof of a Sheepshead Bay supermarket when the central portion gave way, plunging 12 members into the flames.FDNY

“We were standing across the street and we were watching everything,” said Louise O’Connor, widow of Firefighter O’Connor, on the 40th anniversary of the blaze in 2018. “Billy came out of the building, and he saw us and he waved, he got up on the ladder, and he turned around and waved again and shortly after the roof collapsed.”

Since then, a memorial mass has been held at the parish on E. 13th Street, where victims’ loved ones come together for what they’ve likened to a “family reunion” of sorts.

Monday’s memorial mass took place at 10:30 am, according to the church bulletin, which said the house of worship was “privileged to once again be able to invite everyone” to honor the firefighters’ “supreme sacrifice.”

Fire officials and loved ones exit the church following the memorial mass.Photo by Arthur de Gaeta

Retired Firefighter Danny Prince, who was assigned to Ladder 156 with O’Connor and Bouton on the day of the fire, said at the 2018 memorial at St. Brendan’s, “We never forget, we never leave anybody behind and we never forget, this is a tribute to remember them every year.”

In 1988, the corner of Ocean Avenue and Avenue Z was co-named “Fireman’s Corner.”