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The Fire at the Parish School

At first, I was ready to jump out of the front passenger side door when Rich’s car slowed down enough. Rethinking the plan, I didn’t want to make myself a victim by tripping over the gear on the floor between my feet. Thinking fast and staying in the zone is one thing. Tunnel vision is another; it’ll get you hurt or even killed.

Ten Years Ago

I don’t remember where we were headed to or heading out from when the tones dropped. I do remember the blast of radiant heat that rushed into the car when I opened my door along Broadway some two blocks or more from the scene. It was nighttime, 21 December 2010, and St. Peter’s School was on fire.

I thanked my friend – one of our fire commissioners – for the ride as I kicked off my shoes to leave them in the car, and hopped out onto the pavement in my socks and pulled my gear out after me. Stepping into my boots, I hiked my bunker pants up by the suspenders, donned my helmet, tucked my coat under my arm (gloves and nomex hood tucked into one sleeve), and gave one last nod of the head in the driver’s direction. I shut the passenger door, I gingerly stepped over the police barricade, and we each went on our way.

I humped it – first downhill, then uphill – to the command center to learn the location of our apparatus and assignment. Crews coming out of the school were dressing down to t-shirts and shorts as fast as they could. As cold as the winter weather was, the heat from the fire was penetrating everything. The Incident Commander (IC) told me our guys were standing by in reserve with the apparatus about a block away. As I turned to start up another hill to Salvage-1, I  caught a glimpse of the building just as a new body of flame suddenly shot out of the uppermost windows and the roof.

Checking in with the Accountability Officer and donning the rest of my gear, I grabbed a tool from a side compartment on our apparatus and waited. After some time, a transmission came over the radio:

“Salvage, send a team down from your apparatus.”

I keyed the mic.

“Salvage copies,” I confirmed.

We started to make our way to the structure – just as a new burst of fire exploded out of the top of the building. Upon arrival, we encountered Captain Brown descending the front steps, his helmet in his hands and a thick black stripe running right down the middle of it from front to back.  He plopped down on the tail step of a nearby apparatus as a firefighter came over to help him remove his air pack and get out of his coat.

Then I heard Brownie say, “She rolled. Came straight at us and there was nowhere to go.” Reverently looking at the scorched helmet lying beside him, he added, “Thank God she went right over the top of our heads.”

We were told to move into the building. The assignment was to feed hose up the flights of stairs to the crawl space on the top floor, where fire attack was still going on. I went in and positioned myself in the stairwell, between the first and second floors. As it was passed up to me, I fed hose through the right hand banister to the man above.

“Coupling,” I’d call out every fifty feet to our officer at the door.

A metal coupling connects two fifty-foot lengths of hose, so the announcement was meant to help everyone keep track of how much line was coming in. It was also a help to the guys passing hose directly to the nozzleman and his backup firefighters; it allowed them to get ready to estimate how far away the attack team had gone, even if it was out of sight. It’s part of ongoing size-up and accountability.

As part of its own size up and accountability, the team would need to orient itself to the wall as it dragged the hose forward until it got into the crawl space to initiate the attack. It’s humbling to realize how easy it is to get completely lost in the dark if you and your team don’t remain accountable to the wall you’re following. It’s your point of reference. You can fan out if you need to, as might happen if you hear an unexpected cry for help, but you’d better be able to get back to the wall – to be accountable to it – if you expect to stay oriented, get the job done, and make it out of the building.

Eventually, I thought we were finished feeding line. It was only a temporary pause, however, as our aching shoulders were soon put to work again, pushing hose up through the narrow space between the banister of the flight above and the stairs beyond it. If you’ve attended a parochial school, you know the kind of stairwell I’m talking about.

Like the fire that started off that year, the multiple alarm blaze that closed out 2010 also occurred in the bitter cold and on less than desirable terrain. After some time of advancing hose line up the stairs, unkinking it, waiting, drawing it back, swapping out bottles and swapping out crews, advancing the line again, and checking for extension, the fire was finally knocked down. Then it was time to bring all of those lengths down and flake them all out into the narrow and hilly street so they could be rolled and dumped on a utility vehicle for transport back to Central.

Photo taken by the author

The Parish of St. Peter’s had just finalized the sale of the building to Catholic Charities, and interior remodeling had already begun. It was ultimately determined that the blaze had originated with a piece of equipment in the basement. I knew about the sale of the old school; I attended Mass at St. Peter’s. In fact, it was at that church that I served my first-ever Traditional Latin Mass.

Years Before That

Each Wednesday before work, I would come down Broadway and make my way up and down those narrow, winding hills early in the morning. Entering the silent darkness of the church, I would pause for a moment and wait for my eyes to adjust. As the various stained glass windows came dimly into view, I would make out the German inscriptions on them and on the Stations of the Cross and marvel at the old world  craftsmanship. In more advantageous times for cultural celebration, this had been the German church.

Acclimated to the light and to the sacred space, I would then go to the altar boys’ sacristy on the Blessed Mother side of the church, don my cassock, and begin preparing St. Joseph’s altar for Mass. The priest was saying his prayers in the priests’ sacristy by this time, and I would make my own prayerful preparation in the pew till he was ready.

From the time I was twelve and well into my twenties I had served the New Mass. Serving the Traditional Mass was a new experience utterly. It demanded a great deal of me physically, for one. For another thing, I intuited that I was the witness to an intimate conversation with the Divine. This right and just interaction was for my benefit; it was very important to me that I behave as if I knew this were the case.

The fact that the Latin was intelligible to me as a teacher and tutor of the language definitely augmented my experience. Even so, I never had the feeling that my responses were the most meaningful part of my service and participation at the altar. It was my presence there. It was both the meaning and the sense of the words. It was the movements – the slow, deliberate, quiet movements of the body – called for by the slow, deliberate, quiet words.

It was my own going down to kneel and my getting up. My bows of the head and the inclining of my torso. It was the striking of the breast. The acknowledgement of the Holy Names. The osculations. These gestures and postures, it seemed to me, supplied a quality to my spoken words when it was time to make them that I had not ever recognized before.

Many Years Before That

Then, a few weeks ago, eleven years after my service at St. Joseph’s altar and at the St. Peter’s fire, I learned about Robert Joseph Flannery. He had been a graduate of St. Peter’s School before World War II, and his mother, Jennie, died when he was only seven years old. He attended the local high school, and joined the US Navy after graduation. Robert became a fireman and served in that capacity at his final duty station on Oahu, Hawaii aboard the Brooklyn-Class light cruiser, USS Helena (CL-50). His father Joseph passed away thirteen years after PO III Robert Joseph Flannery gave his life in supreme sacrifice on 7 December 1941 at Pearl Harbor.

Looking back on the Saint Peter’s School Fire and the piece of my life that surrounds it, I cannot avoid realizing that there is – or should be – a distinct continuity. Young Robert had come up and down those stairs many times…

Did he have a mischievous side to him? Had he and a playmate or two ever ventured near the crawl space on the top floor where the fire had rolled over Brownie’s head and given him that great souvenir? Had he ever slid down the banisters on the staircase through which I had passed those hundreds of feet of hose? If he had, did he manage to avoid discovery by the nuns? Did his father pick him up from school or did a neighbor greet him on the steps outside the school, or did he walk home with his friends or by himself?

In “those days,” wouldn’t he have been a member of the parish if he had been a student at the school? How had the pastor and, perhaps, the rectory housekeeper, extended to the motherless boy and his widower father a little human kindness and the comforts of the faith?

Had Robert been an altar boy at Saint Peter’s, assisting at the very form of the Mass I served there? Had he come running to the early morning Mass, up and down those hills, encountered the same silent darkness, and waited to marvel at the same sacred art? Did he speak or understand any German? How good was his Latin?

Did the members of the parish give Robert any kind of a send-off before he left home in 1940? Were there Masses offered for his safe return? As talk of wars and rumors of wars grew louder, did the people meet in the church during weekday evenings to commend him to God in their devotions?

Which parishioners were in attendance when Father Hartegan went with Mr. Flannery to meet the body of the hero when it finally arrived on the 11:45 am train? Who assisted him in committing the remains to the earth at St. Mary’s Cemetery on that Thursday, 30 October 1947? Were any of them parents of his old schoolmates? Were some of them blue or gold star family members themselves?

The fire at St. Peter’s is in the past, as is the death of Joseph and Jennie Flannery and that of PO III Flannery, their son. I don’t desire to tether myself to the past, though, as if its massive weight should excuse my lack of progress in the present. Nor do I wish to attempt the impossible, struggling to pull it along as I make my way to the future. That’s a kind of tunnel vision, and tunnel vision can get you hurt or killed, remember?

What I want to do – in fact, what I need to do – is perform my size up and do my duty in the present while working to pass down Tradition, accountable to that wall, that constant point of reference. That is what Mr. and Mrs. Flannery were called to do. That is what PO III Robert Joseph Flannery did. The clergy and the faithful of St. Peter’s received the same calling, from one generation to the next. It’s the same for me and the same for you.

Whatever needs doing, I am called to be accountable there. I want to be accountable to Tradition – to something and to Someone, ultimately – Who has my body-soul composite always in mind. Something and Someone  Who will always be there, as a reliable point of reference and a true measure of my service,  regardless of what is going on. Something and Someone Whom I hope will see me safely home.

God bless and save Robert Joseph Flannery, United States Navy, and God bless and save all of our beloved dead!



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