PORTLAND — Tom O’Connor Jr. knows all too well the risks of being a firefighter.
In 1960, at the age of 16, he was told his father, Tom Sr., had died when two fire trucks collided responding to a false alarm.
Twenty years later, O’Connor, who was a city firefighter from 1969-1983, had to be dragged out of a three-alarm fire on Oak Street because the roof was about to collapse.
He was still looking for a fellow firefighter, Joseph Cavallaro Jr., when he was told to evacuate. He remembers a shower of sparks, clouds of ash and a burning roof beam grazing his shoulder.
“You know what walking in a blizzard is like at midnight – how you see those big white flakes of snow coming down?” O’Connor said. “Now just imagine that every one of those flakes of snow was on fire, and that’s what is was like inside there.”
O’Connor made it out. Cavallaro didn’t. O’Connor, a welder by trade, said he relives that day every time he sees sparks.
Last Friday, city officials broke ground on a memorial on the west lawn at Central Station, 380 Congress St., that they hope will ensure no one will forget the 20 city firefighters who have died while responding to emergencies.
The more than $30,000 memorial of black and gray granite is being paid for by private donations, according to City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.
O’Connor, who knew five people whose names will be etched on the wall – his father, Cavallaro, William E. Nugent Jr., John Rafferty and Frank Cowen – said he believes the fatalities reflected a past attitude toward Portland’s firefighters.
“The city’s attitude was that firefighters were just a necessary evil,” he said. “(The memorial) is a good change in attitude for the city.”
A lot has changed over the years – especially after the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, when federal investment into front-line emergency response was dramatically increased.
Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne, who was a city firefighter for 17 years before becoming chief in 2001, said he worked with Cowen and considered him a mentor.
LaMontagne said safety is now the primary focus of the department.
“Hopefully, we’ll never have to add another name to that stone,” he said.
But for family members like Mary Lou Eaton, whose father Thomas Walsh died at the 1945 Stevens Avenue Armory fire, the memorial is an appreciated, if not long-overdue, memorial.
“I’m very happy they’re doing this,” Eaton said. “I think the men that died in the city of Portland Fire Department should be honored.”
A rendering of a memorial that will be built at Portland’s Central Station, 380 Congress St., to honor fallen firefighters.
Portland firefighters await the start of the ground-breaking ceremony Sept. 9 for a memorial to honor their fallen colleagues.
The 20 Portland firefighters whose names will enscribed on a memorial at Central Station, 380 Congress St.:
• Hoseman Thomas W. Burham, Engine 2, April 28, 1903.
• Hoseman Clarence A. Johnson, Engine 3, May 22, 1903.
• Hoseman Charles W. Barrett, Engine 1, Oct. 2, 1908.
• Deputy Chief William H. Steele, District 1, Jan. 1, 1913.
• Lt. Ralph H. Elderidge, Chemical 1, Jan. 2, 1913.
• Hoseman Harry E. Harmon, Engine 6, March 18, 1921.
• Ladderman Ralph E. Smith, Ladder 4, Sept. 4, 1915.
• Capt. James C. Kent, Engine 6, May 21, 1921.
• Lineman John M. Hardy, Electrical, May 13, 1926.
• Pvt. Edward F. Fowler, Chemical 1, Feb. 17, 1930.
• Lt. Walter M. Jackson, Engine 1, May 13, 1932.
• Pvt. Walter P. Webster, Ladder 5, Aug. 22, 1932.
• Pvt. Thomas Walsh, Engine 8, Feb. 4, 1945.
• Capt. Frank J. Mullens, Engine 1, May 3, 1952.
• Capt. John E. Tolan, Engine 6, Aug. 27, 1956.
• Pvt. Thomas G. O’Connor, Ladder 3, July 12, 1960.
• Lt. William E. Nugent Jr., Engine 1, Nov. 18, 1970.
• Capt. John F. Rafferty, Rescue 1, Jan. 30, 1972.
• Firefighter Joseph C. Cavallero Jr., Engine 1, March 24, 1980.
• Firefighter Frank E. Cowan, Ladder 1, Sept. 14, 1993.