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Eternal flames: Sheepshead Bay remembers Waldbaum supermarket fire 40 years later

Not forgotten: Bay Improvement Group president Steve Barrison talks to family members of firefighter Harold Hastings, Battalion 42, who lost his life in the Waldbaum supermarket fire of 1978, during a remembrance ceremony on Aug. 2.
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It was a day burned into memory.

Forty years after one of the city’s deadliest fires of the 20th century, families of firefighters and Sheepshead Bay locals gathered to remember the devastating Waldbaum supermarket fire on Aug 2.

Hundreds of people attended the 40th-anniversary memorial mass at St Brendan’s Catholic Church on Avenue O, along with the family members of the six firefighters who died in the fire, as well as the heads of the fire department and the police force.

The Waldbaum supermarket fire of Aug 2, 1978, on Avenue Y and Ocean Avenue was one of the worst fires in the fire department’s history. The collapse of the supermarket roof killed six firefighters and injured 34.

And the four decades that have passed did not diminish the memory of the traumatic blaze. One daughter of a fallen fireman was surprised by the number of people both young and old at the service.

“The day was overwhelming a little bit at times, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Christine Hastings, whose father Harold Hastings of Battalion 42 was killed in the fire. “We looked back in that church and there were guys standing in that church who were 20 years old. These young firemen, they come and they pay respects to my father and the other five firefighters, and they don’t even know these men. I think it’s amazing that they do that,” said Hastings, who travelled up from Naples, Florida, for the ceremony.

The Bay Improvement Group commemorated the 40th anniversary of the tragedy by installing a refurbished plaque at the site of the fire, which is now a Staples, to ensure that the surrounding community would always remember the event, according to the group’s president.

“It’s important that we don’t forget. That we remember this day and that we remember the families of the firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Steve Barrison, who actually witnessed the inferno firsthand.

“It was a crazy day,” he recalled. “I was across the street because I went to see if my grandmother was ok because she used to shop at Waldbaum’s.”

Hastings said the families of the six fallen firefighters have remained in touch over the last four decades.

“It’s a bond that unfortunately happened out of a tragedy, but it’s something that we carry with us,” she said. “We stay close, we’re all friends on social media and we have that bond.”

Hasting’s brother Brian actually married Caroline McManus, the daughter of James McManus, another of the six men to lose their lives that day.

“Out of this tragedy, my brother Brian met his wife Caroline, their fathers died together in the fire, and who knows if that would have happened without the fire,” Hastings said.

For Hastings, this is what it means to be part of the firefighter family.

“We’ve come a long way in 40 years, and so has the FDNY. We’re very blessed to be part of the FDNY family,” she said. “Our father died doing the job that he absolutely loved with five of his brothers.”

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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