Remembering New Milford's Fatal Rhein Court Fire
A 1972 house fire on Rhein Court took the life of 26-year old patrolman Ray Woods and 45-year old Marie Cordey; firefighter Joe Costello sustained critical injuries.
Despite the span of years, and the different roles each man played that fateful morning 40 years ago, Fire Inspector Alan Silverman, Chief of Police Frank Papapietro and firefighter George Saigh recount the events of what took place with the same startling accuracy.
The lines on the faces of these three men, deepening as they recall that night 40 years ago, tell the story of the gravity of what they witnessed while fighting a fatal house fire on Rhein Court that took the lives of a 26-year old police officer and a 45-year old mother, and left a veteran firefighter with critical life-altering injuries.
In the early hours of a November morning in 1972, those expected to live, died; those expected to die, lived. It was a fire unlike any other that New Milford has seen before, or since. A thread in the fabric of the town's long noble history that these men stress cannot, should not, ever be forgotten.
According to Silverman, former fire chief out of Company 2, the call of a working fire came in at approximately 12:40 a.m. the morning of Sunday, November 26, 1972. In the days before pagers, firefighters relied on black boxes installed in their homes that rang whenever the fire horn blew. Hearing the call, and thinking at first that it was the telephone, Silverman, who lived four blocks away, was among the first to arrive at Company 2. As was customary for those who arrived first, he picked up the phone in the engine room and learned from the desk that it was a working house fire with people trapped inside. He wrote the address of the fire on the board and waited until there were enough men to roll the first truck.
Saigh remembers he and Silverman grabbing their gear and jumping onto the back of the truck, donning their turnout coats and boots while holding onto each other so neither would fall as the engine took a sharp turn at the corner of Trenton.
The first engine to arrive at the scene was from Company 1. Joseph Costello, a veteran firefighter out of Company 1, and father of four, was already inside the burning house before Silverman, Papapietro and Saigh arrived. Hearing that two police officers had run into the burning house to rescue a trapped resident, Marie Cordey, Costello grabbed his Scott Pack and ran into the burning house. (Cordey's husband, Phillip Cordey, was rescued by Dumont police who placed a ladder at a second floor window for him to climb down; her 19-year old daugter, Debra, jumped from a second story window, fracturing her arm when she landed on the driveway.)
While inside the house, Costello got caught in a flash. A flash, or backdraft, is an explosion that occurs after a fire has consumed all the available oxygen in a confined area and fresh oxygen is introduced.
"I arrived just after the flash blew Joe out the door," Silverman recalled. "There was a hell of a lot of screaming when I got there. A hell of a lot of screaming."
Saigh also remembers arriving at the scene seconds after Costello had been blown through the front door and seeing him on fire on the front lawn. "There was nothing but screaming and complete pandemonium," he recalled.
Papapietro, an 18-year old junior firefighter out of Company 2 the morning of the fire, arrived by car right behind Silverman and Saigh, also recalled the pandemonium and the screaming.
"I can still hear the screaming," said Papapietro. "I can bring the sounds of those screams back in a minute. I can still smell the scent of burning flesh -- a smell so strong, so powerful, it's almost a taste. I can still feel the full weight of the injured bodies I helped lift into the back of all those ambulances."
Silverman remembers at least a dozen ambulances lined up taking care of the injured, adding that in the chaos of the flash, and with Costello as injured as he was, it was hard to maintain discipline among the ranks. More injuries occured as a result.
Papapietro said that when he wasn't lifting the injured onto stretchers and into ambulances--so many ambulances--he was running equipment to the other firemen.
"As I was running across the lawn, I remember pausing to look down at Joe. In that moment I remember thinking that his fingers looked like hot dogs that split open from being on a grill for too long."
Silverman and Saigh also remember seeing the full extent of Costello's injuries and thinking that he was not going to make it. They both said that there was nothing left of his hands.
"He was so sure that he was going to die on that front lawn," Papapietro recalled, his words weighted with emotion. "I remember his cries, 'I want full honors. Full honors. Make sure that I get full honors.'"
Because of all the chaos, all three men concur that it is hard to put the fire into any kind of neat sequence. According to reports at the time, three New Milford officers were the first to arrive on the scene -- Ray Woods, Buddy Barrett and Mike Burns, who had recently joined the New Milford Police Department. Knowing that Marie Cordey was unconscious in a second floor bedroom, Woods grabbed Burns' sling pack (portable air tanks) from the trunk of his patrol car and, since Burns had no experience with fires, told him to stay outside while he and Barrett ran into the blazing house wearing no protective gear over the polyester of their uniforms.
"In those days every police car carried a sling pack," Papapietro said. "We take an oath to serve and protect, and in those days that included running into burning houses if we knew people were in trouble."
(This practice by police was officially suspended in 1988, when sling packs were removed from patrol cars.)
While inside the house, Woods found Barrett in serious trouble and was seen by firefighters pushing Barrett out the front door before running back inside. Barrett suffered serious neck and hand burns, the fire doing permanent damage to some of the nerves in his fingers.
That is when Costello got caught in the flash and landed on the front lawn on fire. Silverman said that as he and Saigh stretched their line across the front lawn, Costello and Barrett lay screaming as EMS workers assessed the severity of their burns. They remember seeing the rubber from Costello's protective gloves fused to what was left of his hands.
As unbelievable as it seems today, Silverman, Papapietro and Saigh said that at the time of the Rhein Court fire, gear was made primarily of rubber designed to keep firemen dry. Their protective gloves were rubber, as were parts of their turnout coats. However, when rubber meets the extreme heat of a fire, it melts. Or, in the case of Costello, it fuses to your hands and melts the layers of skin beneath.
After breaking the living room window and laying water on the fire, Silverman and Saigh ran into the house to rescue Woods and Marie Cordey.
"There wasn't much of a fire when me and Alan ran into the house, but the heat was intense. Extreme heat like I never felt before," Saigh recalled.
Saigh said that while searching the second floor for Marie Cordey, Silverman spotted Woods in a bathroom laying unconscious between the wall and the toilet.
"When I found Woods, his mask was off," Silverman said. "We think that he pulled his mask off believing in the thick of the smoke that the glass shower door was a window and he was trying to use his tank to smash it open."
Saigh remembers Silverman administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive Woods, who also served on the ambulance corps with Silverman.
"We dragged Woods out to the landing and down the stairs making our way to the front lawn," Saigh recounted. "Al started working to resuscitate him. He brought him back, but then lost him. He continued to work on him and finally brought him back again."
"We were told that he was in fair condition in Holy Name Hospital," Saigh said. "We never thought he'd die."
Firefighters fought their way to the bedroom where 45-year old Marie Cordey had been sleeping. She too was brought outside where she was resuscitated and brought to Holy Name Hospital where she died the next day.
Silverman, Papapietro and Saigh all agreed that no one thought Costello would survive the injuries he sustained that morning.
Even in retrospect, these three men said that the thought of Woods dying seemed an impossibility that night because he left the scene conscious. "I saw him in the back of an ambulance, conscious with black smoke shadowing every part of his face except where his air mask had been," Papapietro said.
After the fire was extinguished, the firemen returned to their headquarters just as dawn was breaking. Although they were running on sheer adrenaline, all remember the atmosphere being subdued. The weight of the experience they had just gone through hanging heavy in the air as everyone tried to process it; tried to make collective sense out of what had happened.
Saigh said that he never before, or after, experienced a fire where the injuries were so grave.
"I remember sitting on the back of a truck in the engine room that morning thinking that I'd seen injuries before, but not as bad as what happened to Joe."
"When one of your guys gets hurt that bad it changes the game," he added.
Two days after the fire, Woods succumbed to his injuries--his lungs had been seared by the heat of the fire. Woods' death sent shock waves throughout the police and fire departments.
For Papapietro, it was an "instantaneous reality check" that being a fireman was not all about camaraderie, picnics and parades.
"It was also the moment I realized that cops could die in the line of duty without getting shot and I was there to witness it. The events of that fire occupy a space in my mind where the reality of serious danger never dwelled before."
"The entire department was in shock," Saigh said. "We all thought it was Joe who wouldn't make it."
But Costello did make it which, according to Silverman, Papapietro, and Saigh, is a testament to how tough he was.
According to all three men, Costello wore his injuries like a badge of honor and stayed an active member of Company 1 until the day he died, spending most of his time lecturing on fire safety.
Silverman recounts Woods' funeral as being a very humbling experience. "Seeing all those police and firemen from all over was just an amazing thing to witness," he said.
Woods, who was married with no children, joined NMPD in 1967, was a 1964 graduate of NMHS, served the National Guard's 50th Armored Division and was a member of the New Milford Ambulance Corps. He was laid out at Boulevard Funeral Home, where it took two fire trucks to carry all of the flowers to George Washington Cemetery in Paramus where he was buried with the full honors accorded to a police officer who died in the line of duty.
Papapietro recalled that his burial took place on a Saturday and Route 4 was closed so that the "miles long" procession could travel to Paramus without being detained by traffic, specifically holiday mall traffic.
"I still remember that as the first cars arrived at the cemetery, cars were still leaving New Milford," he said.
40 years later Papapietro said that he can never forget the endless numbers of uniformed policemen and firemen who traveled from all over the tri-state area saluting Woods' coffin in tribute to his ultimate sacrifice.
"That kind of turnout speaks to the brotherhood of the patch," he said.
"For every first responder who was at the Rhein Court fire, it's so important for us to inform those coming up the ranks that every time they put that uniform on, or don that gear, they are the bearers of a tradition that honors the memory of all who served with valor and gave their lives to save others."