Steamer Engineer James W. McCarthy perished on July 24, 1872 when he responded to a commercial building burning on Provost Street. A brick wall collapsed over him. He was only 34 years old, and had been a firefighter for 13 months.
Three Jersey City firefighters had died in the line of duty prior to McCarthy. But he was the first firefighter to perish after the volunteer department had become professional. Jersey City in 1870s had a number of major fires that prompted the establishment of the professional fire department.
McCarthy’s name had been missing from the city’s list of line-of-duty deaths for decades. Fire Department historian and dispatcher Ira Rubin, through research, rediscovered McCarthy’s headstone about six or seven years ago, along with nine firefighters missing from the list. Then, Rubin began the tradition of holding a mid-summer ceremony. When Rubin passed away in March 2016, the ritual was picked up by the Gong Club, a firefighter support group in Jersey City.
The club aids fire victims and first responders at fire calls.
Fire Chief Steve McGill said that Rubin found the headstone flat on the ground and helped restore it. Although the white headstone lettering had faded with time, the details were still legible.
At the recent ceremony, the landscape of the historic cemetery seemed to fit the mood. The wind blew leaves and branches across an old grass road overgrown with grass, with McCarthy buried between two old pebbled pathways.
“It is to pay tribute to people like McCarthy, who go out into situations that are not safe.” – Rev. James Pagnotta
Located in a section of the graveyard where many of the graves date from the decades just after the Civil War, McCarthy’s pale grave seemed to stand out against the backdrop of ivy-covered graves. His stone, dedicated by his fellow firefighters, says he was “killed while discharging his duty as an engineer of steamer.”
McCarthy was a member of Engine Company No. 3, which no longer exists. At the time it was located on Mercer Street near City Hall, according to Paul Schaetzle of the Gong Club. He said many of the early deaths in the department were associated with railroads, some after being hit by trains, others who fell while battling blazes near rail lines.
Last year, rain drenched the cemetery, according to Conni Spellman of the Gong Club, pausing just long enough for the ceremony to take place. Although forecasters predicted rain again this year, patches of sunlight illuminated the grave and some of greenery around it. Several dozen firefighters and their commanders stood at attention along the pebbled path.
St. Joseph’s Church pastor Rev. James Pagnotta, the Fire Department chaplain who officiated the memorial ceremony, said he was grateful the hot sun wasn’t shining. He said he has come out for rituals like this for so long some might wonder why he does it.
“But I do know why. It is to pay tribute to people like McCarthy, who go out into situations that are not safe, uncertain about what might happen to them,” he said. “We are here to honor and remember them, all those who gave up their lives.”
While people routinely say after tragic deaths that they will never forget, Rev. Pagnotta said, “They do forget.” He said this ritual is an effort to keep the memory of people like McCarthy alive.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.