30 years ago, 22-year old New Milford firefighter, William Entwistle, died while fighting a fire at Borough Hall. Entwistle, who was engaged to be married, was the first New Milford firefighter to lose his life as a result of a fire.
Entwistle, a firefighter out of Company 1, came from a family steeped in service. His father, James Entwistle, was a sergeant on the New Milford police force and his grandfather was the Superintendent of the DPW.
In commemorating the anniversary of the fire, as the Fire Department does every year, firefighter Bill Drew from Company 2 said, "When Bill ran into that fire he answered his final alarm."
According to reports at the time, the fire was caused by a short circuit in the attic storage area on the second floor of the building's south end, where papers and files were kept, and spread quickly north. There were no smoke alarms or sprinkler systems at that time to detect smoke or put water on the fire.
The fire was detected at approximately 1 p.m. on January 17, 1983. It is remembered by firefighters as being "so intense" that it took 75 firefighters four hours to extinguish. In addition to the New Milford Fire Department, River Edge and Oradell also fought the blaze, while Dumont and Bergenfield remained on stand-by at New Milford's two firehouses.
"As we reached the top of the stairs on the second floor, the smoke was so intense, so low to the floor, that we had to crawl to get to the storage closet where the guns and ammunition were kept," Police Chief Frank Papapietro recalled. "We grabbed everything we could carry because we knew we wouldn't be able to return."
Papapietro, a patrol officer working the police desk the day of the fire, said that it was a Borough Hall employee who first alerted them to the smell of smoke.
"At first we didn't detect anything," Papapietro said. "But then the smell of smoke intensified and smoke began to pour down from the ceiling tiles."
"That's when we knew we had a fire on our hands," Papapietro said. "And that's when we knew we had to get the guns and ammunition from the second floor and secure them outside in the police cars."
Former Fire Chief Alan Silverman arrived on the first engine from Company 2 with Drew and two probationary, or "probie," firefighters--Bob Sacchi, a former Explorer, and Jack McEwan.
"Flames were shooting out of the back and southside windows," Silverman recalled. "The probies were itching to go in, but I wouldn't let them--they were too inexperienced."
Sacchi, who went on to become a New York City firefighter, said that despite what he has seen fighting fires in New York, the memory of the Borough Hall fire still haunts him.
"I looked up to Billy," Sacchi said. "All us young guys knew him-- we wanted to be just like him. Losing him was personal."
Drew was one of the first firefighters to go into the burning building and go up to the second floor, leaving only when his air tank was nearing empty.
"I remember seeing Billy climbing the stairs as I was coming down," Drew recalls.
Meanwhile, Papapietro, along with future Police Chief Richie Costello, and two other officers, donned Scott Packs (portable air tanks with masks) and attempted to keep police operations going, even as smoke poured through the ceiling tiles above the desk.
"We had to remove our air masks to answer the phones," Papapietro recalled. "When the smoke became too dense, we called New Jersey Bell to transfer our phone lines to Dumont and we finally evacuated."
According to eyewitnesses, it wasn't immediately determined that Entwistle was in trouble, or even missing. Both Silverman and Drew said that accountability was much different in those days--essentially, if you were eyeballed by an officer you were accounted for.
Silverman said that the fire was so intense that it melted the steel beams causing the upstairs floor to collapse onto the first floor. Although it has never been determined, Silverman thinks that when the roof was vented, there may have been a flashover.
"The best we could figure is that Billy was blown into the corner because that's where we found him--right inside the doorway of what is now my office," Silverman said.
Entwistle's body was found when a firefighter accidentally kicked one of his boots as he was making his way through the smoke with a line.
Hearing that a firefighter was found unconscious on the second floor of the burning structure, Silverman raced into the building and found the body of a firefighter slumped on the floor with his mask off--it had melted. Unable to identify him, Silverman opened the firefighter's turnout coat to find Entwistle's name on his DPW uniform shirt.
Entwistle was pronounced dead at the scene at approximately 2:30 p.m. He is believed to have succombed to smoke inhalation.
Entwistle, a 1979 graduate of New Milford High School and an Explorer in the Fire Department before becoming a member at 18, was laid out at Volk Funeral Home in Oradell and buried at George Washington Cemetery in Paramus.
It was reported that over 2000 people came to honor Entwistle at his wake and funeral. Firefighters from as far away as California and Wyoming came to pay tribute, as well as more than 100 representatives from police departments, ambulance corps and ladies auxiliaries.
Papapietro recalls long lines of people waiting outside the funeral home in the bitter cold to pay their respect to Entwistle. Seeing this, Entwistle's father refused to sit down.
"He said that if all of these people waited in the bitter cold to see his son, he was going to stand and shake their hand," Papapietro said.
"That's the kind of guy he was. Not dwelling on the fact that he had just lost his son, but concerned about the people who stood waiting in the cold to see him."