February 27 marks the 47th anniversary of the New York Telephone exchange fire.
Just after midnight on February 27, 1975, a short circuit in the basement cable vault at the New York Telephone Company switching center started a fire.
At the time, fifteen employees were working in the building, located at Second Avenue and Thirteenth Street in East Village.
An internal alarm sounded at 12:15 a.m. and all employees safely evacuated (two employees were initially missing, but were located after an extensive search of the building and surrounding area).
The building’s internal telephone lines were already disrupted, but a maintenance worker used a street call box to alert the fire department.
Responding firefighters found the entire building filled with smoke, particularly on the lower floors, and confronted obstacles attempting to reach the fire.
The incident quickly escalated to five alarms and forced the evacuation of nearby residents.
699 firefighters responded to the scene.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of FDNY firefighters, the fire was officially declared under control at 4:46 p.m. on February 28.
No firefighters were killed at the telephone building site during the fire, but many later developed cancer as a result of their exposure to toxins that were released during the fire.
The toxins included burning polyvinyl chloride, hydrogen chloride, vinyl chloride monomer, and chlorinated dioxins.
About 40 cases of cancer among firefighters who were there have been definitively attributed to toxic exposure.
Dan Noonan, a retired firefighter and advocate who responded to the New York Telephone Exchange fire, has estimated that hundreds of firefighters developed cancer from their exposure there.
“Many of us became sick and many died,” Noonan said. “We trust that the next generation of firefighters will recognize the lessons learned from this cancerous toxic exposure.”
To honor the sacrifices made by these firefighters, the FDNY will install commemorative plaques at the New York Telephone Company (now Verizon) building and at the FDNY Fire Academy.
Firefighters have also petitioned New York City for an honorific street sign to rename the corner of Second Avenue and Thirteenth Street, “Phone Fire Firefighters Way.” If you are a firefighter injured on the job or develop cancer resulting from toxic exposure, please contact us at 212-385-8000 or www.firelaw.com.