13 November 2007
1 hour, 56 minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Vincent Dunn, who retired in 1999 as Commander of Division 3 (midtown Manhattan) with the New York Fire Department, was born in 1935 to Rose Ann and Magnus Vincent Dunn, a clerk in the New York City Comptroller’s office. His great-grandfather, James Dunn, emigrated from Ireland in the 1860s and his grandfather, Joseph Dunn, married Catherine Brennan, who was also from Ireland.
Vincent Dunn and his older sister, Katherine (Kay), were raised in Queens, New York. He attended elementary school at St. Teresa’s in Woodside and St. Anthony’s in Greenpoint, then Queens Vocational High School until dropping out at age sixteen. In 1952, Dunn enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to the U.S.S. Lioba and to police duties in Guantanamo, Cuba.
Upon being discharged, Dunn began a forty-two year career as a firefighter.
Dunn completed his G.E.D. while in the Navy and went to college on the G.I. Bill, obtaining a B.A. in Sociology and an M.A. in Urban Studies in 1979 from Queens College, City University of New York. He has taught as an adjunct professor at Manhattan College and at John Jay College, City University of New York, and as an Instructor at the National Fire Academy. A contributing editor with Firehouse magazine and WNYF, Vincent Dunn is the author of Collapse of Burning Buildings: A Guide to Fireground Safety (1988), Safety and Survival on the Fireground (1992), Command and Control of Fires and Emergencies (2000), and Strategy of Firefighting (2007). He also produces and edits the website “The Unofficial Home Page of FDNY,”(1) and lectures nationally on fire and firefighter safety.
Married since 1959, the Dunns raised two children in Douglaston, Queens.
Excerpt No. 1
Fear of TypingDisc 1, 19:07–21:40
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
VD: Get some focus. You know, I – when we were working in Orbach’s(2) my friend – I worked with this guy, Matty Walsh. He didn’t go to the Navy with me. He said, “We should go to computer school.” Not computer school, it was like, it was something out there that we wanted to learn [so] that we could get a better job than Orbach’s. But it was like typing school, maybe it was – I mean, “Let’s go to typing school.” So we were always discussing, you know, but we never did anything. And when I – when you joined the Navy they sent you to training. And again, my father always said you should learn to type – I guess it was typing school. And the joke was, when I went in the Navy, every assignment I went to – you know, when you went from boot camp into, you know, the ship to see duty – the first thing they say [is] “Does anybody know how to type?” The guy got a good job, you know. I told my father, “Dad, every assignment I go to they always – you know, I should have listened to you.” And actually, in 19 – I made lieutenant in 1963 – uh, I took the test in ’63, I got promoted to lieutenant in ’64 and I used to sweat that typewriter. You know what I mean? The papers would come down in the fire office. I said, “I hope I don’t have to type anything today,” you know. And I got a book out and I learned how to type – and I learned how to type actually. But it was: you got to learn how to type! You know, so that was another one of my fears – you know, learning how to type.
Excerpt No. 2
Attack on the World Trade CenterDisc 2, 19:24–22:57
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
KS: Yes, I meant to ask you about that. Can you – I know it was only two years after your retirement, what was that like for you?
VD: Well, you know, I mean – you know, I would have been dead. I mean, I didn’t believe those buildings would come down. I was in the gym, actually, when the buildings – I saw – I had just finished a video, a training video on high rise fires. I said, “I better do this training video before I forget,” you know. I finished this training video on how to fight a high-rise fire. And boom, I’m in the gym and I look at the TV set and I see this fire burning – “Oh, this is gonna burn for a couple of days,” I said; you know, I said, “Firemen are probably just staying in the stairway, can’t make the fire, rescue guys are probably trying to help people down, not knowing the damage of the building.” So I said – you know, then I said, “The other plane,” and then I’m getting the picture. Still nothing. When I saw that structure come down, oh God, I knew they were – I mean, I knew what goes on in a high-rise building. So I just put my head in my hands, I said, “Oh God, I know those guys are dying.” So I got out of that thing [gym], I went home – I said, “Wait a minute, how did that building fall?”
LA: I was going to ask you, how do you think that happened?
VD: So I go back to my house and I got a magazine article on the ’93 bombing, you know, on the first terrorist attack.(3) I remember reading the construction – what’s the construction? So, uh, the guys – he says, this is radically different construction from any other high-rise building in America. It’s, uh, the steel core is steel beams. You got sixty foot unsupported steel trusses with tubular bearing walls. I said, “Oh God, how did they let that building be built like that?” You know, it was there, I didn’t know it. God, now I see how that structure failed. It was a house of cards waiting to come down. So, I mean, you have two tubular bearing walls, sixty foot – and the handbook of fire protection, which is like a bible in the fire service, forty years ago said open bar joints can fail within five to ten minutes of fire exposure. So we always knew that. How they got to build that, you know, that was my – so then all my – you know, I get crazy with construction and I, I blame the Port Authority for not complying with the New York City Building and Fire Code – that was my – when they ask me to go testify at a lot of these hearings, I complained about the construction. And, you know, they just fluffed it over. But the only other building in America built like that is the Sears Tower, and they’re very scared.
VD: Chicago, and they’ve got four of them towers clumped together which gives it a little more stability. But as soon as – you see, all of these [other] high-rises are skeleton steel, from like – and a plane comes through, it would have been destroyed by the columns, you know, and it maybe would have tilted it, part of the side would have come off –
KS: – but it wouldn’t have fallen.
VD: – but it would not have come down in ten seconds. One hundred and ten stories –
LA: – that just came – squished, yeah.
KS: – plopped down.
VD: Ten stories – yeah – you know, those trusses folded down. You know, the center came down. One floor fell on the other floor – ten seconds – one hundred and ten stories: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. One hundred and ten – the other one came down in eight seconds. Wait a minute! If you don’t think that there is something – and now its coming out. I mean, I even heard Trump say there was something wrong with that building, you know.(4) What I can say, legally, is that it was radically different from any other building. It was unorthodox construction and it should not have been allowed. The New York City Buildings and Fire Codes should not have allowed that.
Excerpt No. 3
I’m not that IrishDisc 2, 24:54–27:11
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
KS: Okay, is it okay if I ask you a few questions about your Irish identity and how it affects your life? I know we spoke about this –
VB: Funny, you know, I’m called an Irishman. I’m called a person – I’m not that Irish. You know, let me tell you about my Irish – I was trying to think, you know. Now, I grew up in 44th Street, Sunnyside. All of my friends’ parents had a brogue. My parents didn’t have a brogue. You know, they – I told you my great-grandfather was born, and my grandmother was born, in Ireland but she came here as a child, so she – my grandfather and grandmother had a little accent –
LA: She was in nineteenth century, then right? They came –
VD: 1860. We thought it was 1840. But we think it was 1860, my grandfather James Dunn came to America – uh, James Dunn, that’s my great-grandfather. His son was Joseph Francis Dunn and one of his sons was Magnus Vincent Dunn, which was my father.
LA: Magnus. Wow, that’s an impressive name!
VD: Magnus, yeah, yeah, it’s funny. And, uh, so anyway, my friends were – it was strictly an Irish neighborhood.
LA: Yeah, it is.
VD: And we used to – and we used to, my friends used to make fun of their parents, saying, “Oh, my parents!” “Oh, the Irish.” “The old colonial boy,” they’d sing these songs.(5) So, and then when we became teenagers, we started going to dances, and we’d go to Irish dances up in Yorkville.(6) They had the Yorkville Casino, they’d have – like, their parents would be there. And we would go to these Irish dances and we’d do the – we would do – half of them –
LA: Did you go to [the] Jaeger House?(7)
VD: Yeah, yeah,[the] Jaeger House.
LA: And City Center?(8)
VD: 86th Street, there was a lot of Irish places up there. And we would – we were always with our cups, we were drinking too – I mean, so, and their parents were there. But we would do these funny dances, Irish dances, and then, um, we would do some other dances, at Queen of Martyrs on Queens Boulevard.(9) The nuns would be watching us, then we’d be slow dancing.
LA: No touching?
VD: No touching – you’d get telephone numbers but you’d never call anyone up. But, uh, a rite of passage. But the – so that was it. I mean, all my friend’s parents had brogues, you know and then, you know, um…
Excerpt No. 4
ReligionDisc 2, 40:49-41:39
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
VD: So I know my Irish heritage in the fire service couldn’t have hurt me, it never hurt me at all. But I never pursued it – I never pursued it. And again, you know, those two things I was afraid of – my temper and my alcohol – they were things I was trying to get away from, you know, and I’m still trying to get away from them. But my wife – so my wife and I, we still haven’t – you know, we’re thinking now we’re gonna meet our maker and we’d like to get religious but I honestly don’t – I don’t, maybe I will later on – I don’t – I pray, I mean, I know when we had a family problem with my son I prayed every morning and every night for two years. Every morning – and then once it was solved, I don’t pray any more. That was – so – so I can’t say I’m an atheist. I know I pray…
- Karen Shua-Haim (KS)
- Linda Dowling Almeida (LA)
- Vincent Dunn with his sister Kay at her First Communion, circa 1940. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- St. Anthony’s 8th grade class, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 1949. Vincent Dunn is just behind Brother Cyprian’s left shoulder. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- On graduation day from St. Anthony’s, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 1949. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- The Navy’s newest recruit, 1952. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Vincent Dunn and his father, Magnus, early 1950s. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- James Shaw and Vincent Dunn, Guantanamo, Cuba, early 1950s. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Vincent Dunn appointed to the Fire Department City of New York, 1 February 1957. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Vincent Dunn and Patricia Rutherford on their wedding day, 1959. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- First grade firefighter Vincent Dunn (standing, 3rd from right) with Engine Company 59 at 180 West 137st Street, Manhattan, 1960. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Lieutenant Vincent Dunn with Engine Company 33, lower Manhattan, 1964. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- “The Fire Factory,” Engine Company 58, 110th Street, Manhattan, circa 1970. Left to right: Pete Dipiano, John Modafferi, Charlie Raye, Vin Marino Garth Henning, and Captain Vincent Dunn. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Engine 58’s new pumper, 1972. Left to right, Walter Fourness, (in the seat), Captain Vincent Dunn, Charlie Matassa, Jim O’Rouke (on the stang), Joe Valenti (Nozzle Man), John Sineno “Da Cook”, Gene O’Shea (standing on John’s shoulders). Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Vincent Dunn, his sister Kay, son Carl, and father Magnus at the Dunn plot in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, NY, 1973. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Deputy Chief Dunn with Battalion 25, at a fire on Burnside Avenue in the Bronx, 1974. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Vincent Dunn at the command board with Division 7, South Bronx, circa 1980. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Vincent and Patricia Dunn with Carl and Faith, 1985. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Losing first burning building as Commander of Division 3, in a five alarm fire at 48th Street and 8th Avenue, Manhattan, 1985. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Deputy Chief Dunn at a structural collapse, 8th Avenue and 128th Street, Manhattan, with Rescue 3 Captain Joe Tiso (right). Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Vincent Dunn (right) in a high rise fire training session with Field Com. Unit Captain John Timulty (left), circa 1990. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Recipient of the Edward W. Whalen Award from the New York City Fire Safety Directors Association, with Penny Crone, ABC News/Channel 7 (New York), 1995. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, New York City Fire Department, with (left to right) Thomas Von Esson, Nick Visconti, Mayor Guiliani, and Peter Vallone, 2000. Photo courtesy of Vincent Dunn.
- Vincent & Patricia Dunn, 1990s
- Vincent Dunn, 13 November 2007. Photo by Linda Dowling Almeida.
- The Unofficial Home Page of FDNY, Our History, A Never Ending Story, http://nyfd.com/
- Orbach’s was a local department store.
- A car bomb detonated at the World Trade Center on 26 February 1993.
- Donald Trump, a New York City real estate developer.
- The reference is to “The Wild Colonial Boy,” a song about the Irish in Australia.
- Yorkville is a neighborhood on the upper east side of Manhattan.
- The Jaeger House was a bar/dance hall at 85th Street and Lexington Avenue, Manhattan, that was a popular Saturday night destination for young Irish and Irish Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s.
- City Center Ballroom was a dance hall on the west side of Manhattan on 55th Street that was another popular destination for young people as well as the site for many county association dances during the 1950s and early 1960s. City Center featured big band music as well as Irish ballads and traditional ceili music.
- Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, a Catholic parish in Forest Hills, Queens.