PASSAIC — For 98 years James J. Delaney was denied membership in an exclusive club he founded — a club nobody wants to join.
Delaney, killed on the way to a fire in 1911, was the city’s first fireman to die in the line of duty. But for decades his story had been omitted from the Passaic Fire Department’s renowned past.
The oversight was discovered this year by professional firefighters and amateur historians within the department, who finally honored Delaney by recognizing his place in history.
“We carry the history with us like you carry your family history,” said Passaic Fire Chief Patrick Trentacost. “You don’t want to slight anybody, especially when they died in the line of duty.”
That history continues this weekend as the city commemorates the department’s centennial anniversary.
The party starts Sunday with a parade in the grand tradition of the fire department celebration — bagpipers, battalions on the march and a fleet of modern emergency trucks that evolved from the turn-of-the-century horse-drawn hand pumps of a predecessor volunteer department.
Trentacost has pushed to revive the department’s past. The chief, who joined the force in 1986, can rattle off past disasters, highlighting dark days when not everyone came back. Those accounts are passed on to recruits who need only look to the department’s 96-year-old fire director, Robert Hare, for an instant connection to the past.
Hare joined the department in 1942 and still talks about pushing reluctant “lead-foot” firemen to “eat the smoke” and “face the beast.”
In an interview, he spoke about the pioneers who helped convert the horse carriages into the country’s first fully mechanized paid department.
“They were just as progressive, but they had to work with what they had to work with,” Hare said. “They had horses, so they worked with horses, but I’m sure there were always guys who knew it would become motorized or mechanical. I think they felt same way that things were going to progress and that the fire department was going to be a part of it.”
At the stroke of noon on Nov. 22, 1909, church bells and street box 25 on Prospect Street rang in the city’s first class of 26 professional firefighters, who were paid $150 a month, said Firefighter Ernesto Rodrigues III, department historian. That class took over operations from an active volunteer corps of factory workers and businessmen to chase barn and tenement fires across the growing village of Acquackanonk, as Passaic was then known.
Within a year, the department would be completely motorized, and chiefs from across the nation would visit the city’s firehouses to take note.
“We were state-of-the-art, No. 1, period,” said Mark Auerbach, city historian.
Delaney, a figure Rodrigues wants to learn more about, was a member of that original 1909 class and reached the rank of lieutenant. On April 15, 1911, he was riding with Company 1 when the hose truck overturned after hitting a rut, injuring two other firefighters.
Delaney later died at St. Mary’s Hospital, and the truck would be dubbed the “death car.” Firefighters refused to ride in it, according to a 1914 article in The New York Times.
In the next 98 years, the department saw six more on-duty deaths, but it was not until after 2001 that the department started honoring them in a ceremony every May. That year, firefighters mourned the death of Alberto Tirado, who died while trying to rescue a mother and children he believed were trapped.
Deputy Chief Kenneth Martinez, a close friend of Tirado, believes history is alive in departments across the country because of the responsibility placed on their members.
“No other job, except for a police officer or the military service, requires, by virtue of an oath you take, an individual employee to deliberately and intentionally risk his life,” he said.
Between the Delaney and Tirado bookends, one of the darkest chapters in the Passaic Fire Department was on March 12, 1970, when a Third Street building collapsed in a blaze and killed Battalion Chief Joseph Griffin and Firefighter Samuel Latona.
Hare was deputy chief and on the scene that day, coordinating the attack. Last week he recalled the loss.
“It’s very quiet, you don’t hear much,” Hare said. “Everybody is beside themselves, but still they have work to do.”
Passaic’s professional firefighters who died in the line of duty over nearly 100 years:
Lieutenant James J. Delaney
April 15, 1911
Killed when the three-ton hose and chemical truck he was riding overturned on Passaic Street en route to a tenement fire. He died at St. Mary’s Hospital.
Deputy Chief John Doremus and firefighter Edmund Hutchinson
Dec. 20, 1955
Killed when the chief’s car they rode in collided with Truck Company 1 at Passaic and Main avenues. The accident prompted the department to upgrade its radio system and sirens.
Firefighter William Jackson
Feb. 17, 1960
Killed while fighting a blaze inside a building when a wall collapsed, pinning him against a fire truck.
Battalion Chief Joseph Griffin and firefighter Samuel Latona
March 12, 1970
Killed when a wall collapsed at 181 Third St. during one of the city’s most intense blazes. Several injured firefighters were pulled from the rubble.
Firefighter Alberto Tirado
May 9, 2001
Killed trying to rescue children he believed were trapped in an apartment building. He died of smoke inhalation.