The fallen bricks and beams of a burnt-out Kensington warehouse were pinning Firefighter Pat Nally to the floor of a neighboring furniture store. A persistent ringing in his ears was the only noise to interrupt an eerie silence.
Nally was in excruciating pain with a broken back and busted pelvis. His right foot was trapped beneath tons of rubble. He tried to wiggle free, but the weight and the pain were too much to bear.
“I just remember going down, (being) overwhelmed with weight — and that just taking me down to the ground,” said Nally. “I couldn’t even see or turn. I tried getting myself up, but I was trapped.”
One moment, he and three colleagues were investigating the interior of the fire-damaged furniture store. It was 5:56 a.m. on April 9 at Boston and Jasper streets. They were checking for flare-ups from an earlier five-alarm blaze that had gutted the Thomas W. Buck Hosiery warehouse next door, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers later said.
In an instant, the warehouse and the world came tumbling down upon Firefighters Daniel Sweeney, Francis Chaney and Nally, along with their Ladder 10 company supervisor, Lt. Robert P. Neary. A brick wall tumbled onto the furniture store roof, causing it to collapse onto the men.
Neary, 60, and Sweeney, 25, died before frantic rescuers were able to pull them from the debris. Nally, 25, and Chaney, 43, survived. Now, Nally is staring at countless months of recovery and a lifetime of sadness for his fallen fire department brothers.
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This Saturday, Nally will take part in a block party honoring Neary and Sweeney, while raising money for a new Living Flame Memorial in the city’s Franklin Square. The event will be from 2 to 6 p.m. at Maggie’s Waterfront Café, 9242 N. Delaware Ave., and feature music, food, refreshments and family-friendly activities. Admission costs $25.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. A local grand jury has been convened to probe possible criminal wrongdoing connected with the fire. Nally is expected to be a key witness and is not permitted to discuss details of the fire or his department’s response to it.
Yet, the fire administration has permitted Nally to discuss his injuries and recovery with the Northeast Times.
“I definitely didn’t see it coming. I was shell-shocked. It was a ringing in my ears and confusion,” Nally said during an interview on June 12. “I don’t think I lost consciousness, but if I did it was only for a couple of seconds.
“I was just really confused. I just remember hearing guys’ voices yelling for me and feeling some sense of relief they were going to come and get me.”
In the ambient early-morning light, Nally spotted a fire helmet on the floor within arm’s reach, grabbed it and placed it on his head.
“I didn’t know how much more was coming. So many thoughts were running through my mind. I didn’t know if there was a basement and if I was going to fall even more,” he said. “I was worried about the other guys because we were all in there together.”
The next few hours are now a blur in Nally’s memory. According to fire department records, he was freed at 6:22 a.m.
He remembers the injured Chaney, along with members of Ladder 16 and Rescue 1 helping to free him and bring him to safety. Paramedics rushed him to Temple University Hospital, where he was stabilized and sedated. A while later, he learned about Neary and Sweeney.
“I don’t remember if I heard people crying outside. I think they had gotten Lieutenant Neary out (of the building). I asked a nurse how he was doing and she said he passed away and I started crying,” Nally recalled. “I asked about Danny Sweeney and she said they were still trying to get him out, and I had a bad feeling.”
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Neary and Sweeney became the first city firefighters to die in the line of duty since Aug. 20, 2004, when Capt. John Taylor and Firefighter Rey Rubio perished while battling a blaze sparked by a marijuana growing operation in the basement of a Port Richmond home.
Chaney was also hospitalized after the recent fire, but he recovered and returned to work within a month. Nally hopes to do the same someday. But there’s no telling when.
The Frankford native never planned to be a firefighter but now there’s nothing else he’d rather do. He graduated from St. Martin of Tours School, then Roman Catholic High School in 2004, following in the footsteps of older brother Seamus. A younger brother, Ryan, also attended Roman.
Seamus is now a Philadelphia police officer.
“I took the cop test coming out of high school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. (Seamus) said I should take all of the (municipal) tests. The fire department was the first to call,” Pat Nally said. “I gave it a shot and ended up loving it. I’ve been on (the job) for five-and-a-half years and hoping to be on for the next thirty.”
He entered the Fire Academy in January 2007 and graduated that May. He served almost a year at Foam 18, a specialty unit at Roosevelt Boulevard and Holme Avenue, then got a transfer to the busier Ladder 16 at Belgrade and Huntingdon streets in Fishtown.
On the night of the fatal fire, he was covering a shift for Ladder 10 at Kensington and Castor avenues.
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A few years ago, he and his fiancée, Kelly Mosca, bought a house in West Mayfair. They are planning a July 6 wedding and refuse to postpone it, “whether I’m in a wheelchair or she has to carry me,” Nally said.
The couple stays with Nally’s parents in East Torresdale while he continues his slow but steady recovery.
“I’ve been getting cards from the sisters (at St. Martin’s) and the cards from the kids are the best,” Nally said. “They keep telling me I was the smartest kid in the school and I say, ‘Wow! That’s the first time I’m hearing that.’ I guess they want me to feel better.”
He spends most of his days propped up in a hospital bed in his parents’ finished walk-out basement. A nurse visits daily, cleaning and dressing his wounds. Mosca, a nurse’s aide, left her job to care for him full-time.
Nally’s fourth vertebra in his lower back was crushed and his pelvis fractured. Only time and rest can heal those injuries, he said. Whenever he gets out of bed, he’s supposed to wear a rigid shell on his torso to immobilize his spine.
It reminds him of a turtle’s shell.
“I can only be up for a couple hours,” he said.
His foot has been getting the most medical attention, including an emergency surgery on the day of the injury.
“It was just to get the bones back into the shape of a semblance of a foot,” Nally said.
He never found out how many fractures there were in the foot.
“The next surgery after that, they put something on it that looked like an erector set,” he said.
He spent nine days in the hospital.
Three weeks after the injury, doctors removed the external stabilizing mechanism and inserted numerous pins, plates and screws into his foot. He has regained some movement in his toes and ankle.
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Encouragement has come from many sources. On the day of Neary’s funeral, Nally spoke with Neary’s widow, Diane, by telephone to apologize for not being able to attend.
“I just remember her being so strong and telling me just to worry about getting myself better,” he said.
Members of the Sweeney family visited him at the hospital and at his parents’ home. On May 19, he attended a Phillies game with the families of both fallen firefighters.
On Memorial Day weekend, he threw out the first pitch of a Police vs. Fire charity baseball game at Liberty Bell Athletic Association. Firefighter Tony Dabrowski hit the game-winning home run and gave the ball to Nally.
Nally is thankful for the countless “well-wishes and prayers and flowers” he has received. Any diversion helps him to cope with the emotional rollercoaster.
“I think about, ‘Why did I make it? Could I have done anything different?’ It’s sadness and anger. There’s a lot of time to think. Not a day passes that I’m not back on Boston Street with those guys,” he said.
Then he reminds himself how blessed he is to have a loving family and friends, and how important it is for him to perpetuate the legacies of Neary, Sweeney and all fallen firefighters.
“It’s extremely important to honor those guys, Danny Sweeney and Robert Neary, because they did pay the ultimate sacrifice doing a job they loved to do, helping people and saving lives,” Nally said. ••EndFragment