25 years later, New London remembers fallen firefighter

Janet O'Connor Theiler, center, daughter of New London Fire Department acting Lt. John O'Connor, wipes away a tear while she and other family members become emotional as they listen to one of the speakers during a memorial ceremony outside New London City Hall on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, to mark the 25 years since  O'Connor died in the line of duty on Feb. 1, 1993.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Janet O'Connor Theiler, center, daughter of New London Fire Department acting Lt. John O'Connor, wipes away a tear while she and other family members become emotional as they listen to one of the speakers during a memorial ceremony outside New London City Hall on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, to mark the 25 years since O'Connor died in the line of duty on Feb. 1, 1993. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

New London — Though it happened a quarter of a century ago, the line-of-duty death of city firefighter John O’Connor continues to affect those who knew and loved the 63-year-old.

That much was obvious Thursday, as city personnel commemorated the anniversary of his Feb. 1, 1993, death. O’Connor, among the first to arrive at a roaring blaze at 91 Truman St. that day, died of a heart attack while fighting the flames.

Standing behind City Hall and in front of a stone tribute to O’Connor, those who spoke struggled to keep it together. Firefighters and police officers, many of the former wearing sunglasses, somberly looked on.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years,” Mayor Michael Passero said, calling O’Connor a mentor and a good friend. “It’s a place I don’t like to go because it’s still very emotional for me after all these years.”

Passero, who worked as a firefighter until he became mayor in 2015, also was on duty that night. Usually he and O’Connor were paired up at the South Station, he said, but that night manpower issues meant O’Connor was acting as lieutenant at the department’s headquarters.

According to Passero, O’Connor and one other firefighter were first on scene. As his partner hooked up the hydrant, O’Connor took it upon himself to pull the hose up to the fully involved structure fire.

A short time later, when more firefighters had arrived, a powerline connected to the house fell to the ground, snapping and crackling. O’Connor dropped to the ground about the same time.

“They say what kills firefighters is they’re asked to do too much in a short amount of time,” Passero said after Thursday's event. “It would have taken a really fit person to take the physical demand placed on him at that moment.”

The ceremony, which opened with a New London Firefighters Pipes and Drums rendition of “Amazing Grace,” concluded with the lighting of a red, battery-powered “eternal flame” placed next to O’Connor’s memorial.

A father figure

John O'Connor
John O'Connor

By all accounts, the night of Feb. 1, 1993, was a chaotic one. It began with a fatal stabbing on Pearl Street; a shooting was reported on Green Street, and the night included not one but two fires. It also was a chilly one: Photos of 91 Truman St. show the three-story building, pounded with water from hoses, was covered with ice.

When the chaos settled, officials found three people dead inside the home, including owner Robert L. Dantzler Sr. His son, Kevan, was charged with four counts of arson murder in the case but later acquitted. Jurors at the time said the evidence presented didn’t convince them the fire was an arson or that Kevan Dantzler had set it.

Passero said one good thing that came out of the tragedy is that it transformed how the department operates.

After O’Connor’s death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cracked down on city officials, who then poured resources into the department and created a manpower mandate.

“People don’t understand why we hire to keep 16 on duty,” Passero said. “It’s for that reason. That’s one place you can’t save money.”

Passero said O’Connor was a father figure within the department, where he worked for 35 years.

“I’d go to him for advice,” Passero recalled. “We just had so much fun working together. It was like every minute of the day was a laugh.”

Fire Chief Henry Kydd said he could tell stories for hours about the practical jokes and conversations that took place while O’Connor was around.

He said O’Connor at one point decided to quit cigarettes and alcohol, opting for radishes instead.

“He used to walk around saying, ‘No calories,’” Kydd said, gesturing toward an imaginary bundle of radishes in his hand.

On Thursday, radishes sat on top of O’Connor’s memorial, soon to be accompanied by fresh roses.

‘Everyone remembers’

After the ceremony, O’Connor’s children and children-in-law said they vividly remember everything about the night of the fire and the day that followed.

Dennis O’Connor said he heard the call over a scanner in his house and decided to head to the fire, where he soon learned of his father’s fate. He called his wife, Suzanne, to tell her the news.

Daniel O’Connor, now an active firefighter and EMT with the Quaker Hill Fire Co., was awoken by his pager. When he heard the news, he called his wife, Therese.

Janet O’Connor Theiler, home with a newborn, heard the news from Suzanne and told her husband, Michael.

All of them raced to the hospital, but it was too late.

His children shed tears during Thursday’s recognition of their father’s sacrifice, and later laughed as they recalled piling into the back of the station wagon, running around to the fires he fought.

Each of them gave New London firefighters kudos for staying in touch through the years. And while they knew Thursday’s ceremony was set to take place, they said they didn’t realize how many people were going to show up.

“We thought maybe nobody would remember,” Janet said, pointing out how much time has passed. “But, as you can see, everyone remembers.”

l.boyle@theday.com

Members of the New London Fire Department salute during a memorial ceremony outside New London City Hall on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, to mark the 25 years since New London Fire Department acting Lt. John M. O'Connor died in the line of duty on Feb. 1, 1993.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Members of the New London Fire Department salute during a memorial ceremony outside New London City Hall on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, to mark the 25 years since New London Fire Department acting Lt. John M. O'Connor died in the line of duty on Feb. 1, 1993. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Firefighters battle a blaze at 91 Truman St. in New London on Feb. 1, 1993. City firefighter John O'Connor died of a heart attack while battling the fire. (Day file photo/Andrea Hoy)
Firefighters battle a blaze at 91 Truman St. in New London on Feb. 1, 1993. City firefighter John O'Connor died of a heart attack while battling the fire. (Day file photo/Andrea Hoy)
The New London Firefighters Pipe and Drum band march up Masonic Street for a memorial ceremony outside New London City Hall on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, to mark the 25 years since New London Fire Department acting Lt. John M. O'Connor died in the line of duty on Truman Street on Feb. 1, 1993.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
The New London Firefighters Pipe and Drum band march up Masonic Street for a memorial ceremony outside New London City Hall on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, to mark the 25 years since New London Fire Department acting Lt. John M. O'Connor died in the line of duty on Truman Street on Feb. 1, 1993. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
New London Mayor Michael Passero, a former city firefighter, talks about his friendship with acting Lt. John O'Connor and being on duty the night O'Connor died in the line of duty, during a memorial ceremony outside New London City Hall on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.  The ceremony marked the 25 years since O'Connor died Feb. 1, 1993.  Members of O'Connor's family listen in the background.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
New London Mayor Michael Passero, a former city firefighter, talks about his friendship with acting Lt. John O'Connor and being on duty the night O'Connor died in the line of duty, during a memorial ceremony outside New London City Hall on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018. The ceremony marked the 25 years since O'Connor died Feb. 1, 1993. Members of O'Connor's family listen in the background. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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