Over the next 12 hours, I would watch firefighters struggle to contain the flames, battling for every inch of that neighborhood as the blaze devoured a substantial chunk of Passaic's industrial base. Building after building fell to the attack, sparks spreading the fire across rooftops despite the efforts of 50 fire companies to contain it.
Firefighters evacuated building after building as they made their retreat, giving up the block of apartments closest to the blaze, hoping they would not have to give up more blocks, making the fire impossible to contain.
At one point, eight or 10 factories burned all at once, as firefighters struggled to pull brother firefighters free of the overwhelming smoke, some burned, some coughing, many making their way back to the ambulancas EMTs administered oxygen and treatment for burns.
On came the flames. Up rose new spouts of water to greet them. Firefighters - lifted by 100-foot ladders - stood against the flow of smoke like tiny rubber-suited warriors, spraying the red billows in a fight that went on and on. A firefighter came, told us we had to move. We could see the sparks falling onto the roofs of the buildings just across the street from ours.
Panic seized the crowd. People who had been huddled until then behind the firefighters ran towards us, full of reports of impending doom, shouting that the fire had escaped and would soon consume us.
In those hours, I prayed numerous times, as did many of the others around me, and in those hours, sweating, coughing, exhausted firefighters beat back the wall of flames, one slow inch at a time, so that doom - which had seemed so certain at one point - grew less certain, then less likely. Finally, when the wind shifted again, we knew we had been spared.
I did not know it at the time, but one brave firefighter from Secaucus lost his life. William "Bo" Koenemund, from the Washington Hook & Ladder Company in Secaucus, died of a heart attack while fighting the fire.
One hell of a firefighter
Koenemund was working the ladder operation during that "Great Labor Day Fire," which destroyed 40 acres of factories in Passaic.
For about three hours, fighting the blaze that took all day and much of the night to contain, Koenemund helped position and raise ladders. At some point, he said he felt tired, sat down, and then collapsed. Doctors said he died of heart attack.
So every third Friday in September since 1985, firefighters have gathered in the Washington Hook and Ladder firehouse on County Avenue to remember the man most call "Bo."
There is also a yearly event dedicated to Bo. It's held at the Washington Hook & Ladder, but is sponsored by Secaucus Firefighters Mutual Association. This group uses Bo's heroism in the Passaic fire and his previous years of experience as an occasion to honor those firefighters that have displayed similar courageous traits in the performance of their duties (see sidebar).
Recently, the Secaucus Fire Department paid tribute in a ceremony that featured firefighters from across the state, with the honor guard carrying silver-tipped axes. It has been that small ceremony every year that has kept Koenemund's memory alive best.
"That man was 100 percent fireman," said George Heflich, who served as chief of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department when a heart attack struck Koenemund down during a massive blaze
Heflich knew Koenemund for more than 38 years and both men served together in the same fire company.
"He lived and breathed the fire department," Heflich said. "He was one of those guys who couldn't say no to anyone."
Raymond Cieciuch, who served as captain of the Washington Hook and Ladder and later rose to assistant chief of the fire department, had always offered a personal tribute to Koenemund, setting aside a special trophy in the every two year Fire Chief's Inspection Parade in the memory of the man.
"Were we close?" Cieciuch said, when asked once about his connection to the diseased firefighter. "Yeah, we were close."
Bo, firefighters said, loved the firefighting tradition, and had picked up the gauntlet left by his uncle, who had served as a firefighter for 47 years, along with his father and his cousins. At one point, seven members of his family served at the Washington Hook & Ladder Company at one time.
Even when in his early sixties, Bo was considered "strong as a bull" by those who knew him. Like all those who volunteered their time in those days, Bo received no compensation for his efforts, and those closest to him say Bo's only motivation was dedication to duty. He served as department secretary, lieutenant, captain and firefighter over his 39 years in service. Bo even cooked for the fire company's events. Since he worked for PSE&G right across County Avenue from the firehouse, people found him in the firehouse constantly, a place he seemed to consider his second home. Heflich said Bo was always searching out chores repairs to be done.
Over the last four years of his life, Bo got the chance to work side by side with his son, William Jr., in the company. Although Bo's son eventually became a firefighter in Lodi, he couldn't forget his service to Secaucus as a firefighter, or his position as ex-captain. When his old company needed help in searching out a new secondary vehicle for the South End firehouse, William Jr. came back to co-chair with Cieciuch the search committee, back to the company for which his father had served and died. William, Jr. was even on hand to dedicate one of the new fire trucks honoring not only his father, but the company. SIDEBAR -- Hose Company No. 2 honored this year
The honors ceremony sponsored by Secaucus Fireman's Mutual Association, held at Washington Hook & Ladder Fire Company, issued its annual William "Bo" Koenemund Awards to Hose No. 2 - which started its 80-plus-year history as Lurhaman's Hose Company after a prominent farming family in the North End. The company was honored for deeds performed in the past year.
As the result of a dramatic rescue of a drowning dog from the Hackensack River - after a car had hit it - Firefighter Richard Johnson received an award. First Assistant Fire Chief Frank Walters said Johnson received the honorable service award for continually leaving the safety of the fireboat and entering the river in an attempt to retrieve an injured dog.
According to witnesses on the scene during the event that occurred earlier this year, the dog was hit on Meadowlands Parkway and somehow ran into the water, floating out from shore, screeching in pain. The fire boat crew stationed at Hose Company No. 2 in the North End firehouse responded, but because of low tide, the boat could not reach the dog as it moved along the shore towards Harmon Cove. Michael Gonnelli, a firefighter from the Claredon Fire House, swam out on a surfboard borrowed from a Harmon Cove resident and handed the dog over to firefighters in the boat.
Hose Company No. 2 was also honored as a company for its rescue of a state highway worker. Apparently, a state truck overturned, trapping the worker beneath. Hose Company No. 2 firefighters, trained in such rescue operations, were able get the worker out.
Walters said the incident occurred on May 6 about 2:14 p.m. as the result of an auto accident at Rt. 3 West & Maple Street ramp. The Unit Citation was awarded for the life saving extrication of a victim whose head was pinned between the vehicle and the roadway. This citation honored Capt. Charles Mutscher, Lt. Daniel Snyder Firefighters Charles Snyder, Christopher Snyder, Kevin Kloepping, Walter Spodaryk, Richard Johnson, Harry Backiel, Guido Bravo, Matthew Kickey.
Deputy Mayor John Reilly, who is also a firefighter and the Town Council's liaison to the fire department, represented the town of Secaucus at the ceremony.
"I told them it was a good thing to give firefighters recognition and how it was important that they get public recognition for the role they play in saving lives," Reilly said in a later interview. "I said it was a pleasure to represent them."
Secaucus firefighters who died in performance of duty: