Volume 17 • Issue 20 | October 08 - 14, 2004

Downtown fire chief will hang up hard hat

By Tyler Pray

Downtown Express photo by Tyler Pray

Battalion Chief Bill Blaich, who commands four firehouses, is planning to retire at the end of the year.

Battalion 1 Fire Chief Bill Blaich, 58, is getting ready to retire at the end of the year, but not because of his age. He’s just following orders — his wife’s. His career always strained his family, especially her, Blaich said. After 35 years in the F.D.N.Y., he’s going to spend more time with his wife.

“Sometimes I get hurt, and my wife comes to the hospital. Sometimes you’re cleaned up and looking good, sometimes you’re beat-up and bleeding,” said Blaich, who supervises four firehouses in Lower Manhattan. “The anxiety increased tremendously after 9/11, when people went to work on a beautiful fall day and their wives never saw them again.”

His wife told him, “If you don’t retire soon, you’ll really experience terror.” Blaich chuckled as he recalled her playful threat. He’s got a few quips of his own. As he walked downstairs to lunch, he jokes, “Besides, they’re getting me a Ferrari when I retire – one-sixth size, with a six-volt battery in the back.”

Blaich said he is looking forward to retirement. The firemen of the Duane St. firehouse where Blaich works, however, tell a different story. “He’s going to come up and extend his retirement date on the day he’s supposed to retire,” said Lieutenant John Belmonte of Engine Company 7. “He has the energy of a young man, working at scenes with no sign of fatigue.”

He still goes out on runs, even multi-alarm fires. “He’s like a father to a lot of us,” said Steve Rogers, a firefighter with Ladder Company 1. “He really looks out for the guys. We’re going to miss him.”

Blaich commands seven companies and a Fire Protection Unit on Governors Island. Engine 4 and Ladder 15 on South St., Engine 6 on Beekman St., Engine 10 and Ladder 10, known as the “10 House” across from the World Trade Center site, and Engine 7 and Ladder 1 on Duane St. all report to him.

“As battalion chief, I still respond to alarms of all types. I’m in charge of how to deploy when we get to a scene,” said Blaich, sitting in his small office on the second floor of the Duane St. firehouse. Battalion 1 did around 3,200 runs last year. “If there’s a fire, it’s my responsibility to get things moving, get people where they are supposed to be, make sure the fire goes out, evacuate the building, and especially make sure my people come out safely.” While he’s a small man, he commands big respect from the men of Battalion 1 and the community, particularly for his efforts during and after the 9/11 attacks. Community Board 1 thanked Blaich for his service at its September meeting.

Blaich watched the towers collapse from a chilling vantage point aboard a Manhattan-bound Staten Island Ferry. “I never even expected to find anyone in my company alive after that,” he said. Battalion 1 lost 23 of the 343 firefighters killed in the attacks. Blaich spent all day and all night at ground zero. The tragedy brought back his memories of losing three of his good friends to fires over the years.

“I stayed on until we rebuilt the area,” he said. “The chiefs and officers that were still alive down here, we all knew what had to be done, even though it wasn’t pleasant.” The last three years of Blaich’s career have been different than the first thirty-two, 9/11 having changed the realm of what firefighters do. Previously, fires were the focus, but now they support the police in responding to reports of bombs, suspicious packages and many other security matters. “There’s always thoughts in the back of your mind now. As long as we don’t forget it, we will get over it.”

After three years, Blaich feels the battalion is finally returning to normal, although he said, “there is no ‘normal’ in fire department dialogue.” Everyday is a new challenge, especially throughout the re-organization after the chaos of 9/11. The department needed him to help train new firefighters while continuing his other duties. He said he has accomplished his mission, and can “fade into the woodwork and the place will keep running itself fine.”

But it won’t be easy for him to finally walk away. After all, firefighting is in his genes.

His grandfather, father, older brother and son are all firemen in New York. His cousin is a captain, and his brother-in-law is also a battalion chief. Blaich started his career in 1969, just out of St. John’s University. He spent the beginning of his career in Brooklyn, where arsons and wood-frame buildings kept him busy. After a year serving in Vietnam, a short time on Staten Island, five years in Chinatown, and a year in Queens, he settled at Battalion 1 in 1996.

In 1981, the Uniformed Fire Officers Association honored him for saving two babies trapped behind a bed in Brooklyn, and his unit received five citations for valor and diligence in precarious life-threatening situations. “When a unit performs the way it should,” said Blaich, “lives are saved.”

Blaich expressed appreciation to Community Board 1 for all of its help during the difficult recovery. The firefighters had their first battalion Christmas party last year thanks to businesses and restaurants in the area. It improved morale and brought the men together. “I don’t think anybody saw this anywhere else,” said Blaich of the value of the community’s aid. He hopes the department reciprocates with their fire service.

Firemen of all ranks share a tight bond. They visit each other and help each other. The mechanic in the house fixes cars while another guy can put a roof on a house. “It’s been like that for as long as I can remember. When my father was working it was the same thing,” said Blaich. Everybody knows their position and what they can do to help. He smiles, “It’s a brotherhood.”

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