Chapter Twenty five: Tragedy in Secaucus
Just before John Flanagan got off duty at 11 p.m. on Aug. 26, he was called to handle a disturbance at Harmon Meadow Mall. Some kids had tried to sneak into the theater without paying. He was good at handling things like this, though some cops said he was the man they wanted when they had a serious case.
AHe=s one hell of a cop,@ said court officer Joe Griffo. AOther cops like having him as backup.@
Big and strong, John Flanagan was also a nice guy. People at the local bagel shop knew him by name, and as he made his way towards the theater to handle the situation with the kids, he waved at them, and they at him. He was a familiar and friendly face, and someone who stopped in to check on them often. They liked that.
Within an hour of the theater incident, John Flanagan was dead, and so was his brother, Dan, as a fire ripped through their house at 12:42 a.m. Wednesday. The fire was so devastating that the siding of the house next door crumpled.
AMy wife woke me up,@ said George Shoenrock, former chief of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department, who just happened to live across the street. AShe kept yelling >fire!=. We thought our house was on fire. We have a big mirror in our living room and we saw the flames. I jumped up and ran out. I thought the front of our house was on fire. Then I looked across the street. It was the Flanagan house, and it was a inferno.@
Shoenrock jumped into some clothing.
AI didn=t put my fire gear on. There was no time for that,@ he said. AI just ran out in my regular clothes. Some of the neighbors said they could hear the boys talking. We saw the mother staggering out of the house from the side door. We grabbed her and made her get away from the fire. Then, me and the man next door C I think he was a paid firefighter from West New York C dragged out some hoses, one from my own yard. But it wasn=t any good. We knew someone was in the back room. We climbed up on the roof above the cellar door, broke the window with the air conditioner, but it wasn=t any good. The heat was just too much.@
Brian Cosentino, a West New York firefighter, had been visiting someone next door when he saw the fire and helped with the attempted rescue.
At that point, the Secaucus fire department arrived in full force, and Shoenrock went to help roll out hoses. But the flames roared out the front of the house, searing the telephone wires with its intensity. No one was going to get in that house, and from those who witnessed the scene, the faces of the firefighters said it all, every man knew the men trapped inside, everyone of them was struck by their inability to make a rescue, despite the reported calls for help.
It was an inferno. No one could have gotten to them alive, officials conceded. Some believe both men were dead by that time, but each man who watched helplessly from the street that early morning will never know, and, for these volunteers, that=s the most difficult part.
The men of the town=s volunteer squad almost always know the victims, and often blame themselves for not being able to do the impossible, for not being able to pull off miracles.
John Flanagan was apparently in his bed in the rear of the house when the fire started. His brother, Dan, was found near the front door. Friends suggest that he had rushed through the fire to the front door, then turned back when he realized that his brother was trapped.
AThat=s just the kind of thing Dan would do,@ said Anthony Impreveduto, state Assemblyman and a personal friend of the family. AThat just showed you the kind of person Dan Flanagan was. He was a giver and he gave the ultimate.@
John, for some reason, pulled out his pistol and fired several rounds towards the window, either as a signal for help to say he was trapped or to break the window to provide air. He died of affixation, authorities say.
Fire officials speculate that both men were awake when the fire broke out. Daniel was talking to friends on his computer. It is unclear why John didn=t jump out the window. Fellow veterans said he was normally very calm in pressure situation. No one is certain as to what went on in the house, though people outside heard the two men yelling. No one knows for certain why John shot off his gun.
AWhen a man is in a desperate situation, he will resort to desperate measures,@ said the visibly shaken chief of police at a hastily called press conference.
John, Flanagan was not afraid to push himself in order to help someone in trouble. One friend of his said the huge man once ran up all 25 flights of Harmon Cove Towers when the elevators weren=t working to respond to a call.
AJohn was a very good cop,@ said Court Administrator Dennis Pope, who has worked with both brothers over the years. AHe never wrote a bad ticket and he always came to court prepared. If he was off duty or on the road, he always let us know where he was and how we could reach him.@
Councilman Dennis Elwell who dealt with John Flanagan across the bargaining table, said the cop was Aa tough negotiator@ who he=d come to respect. Those who worked with him said John Flanagan was a kind-hearted man fellow workers at the department said had Aa heart of gold@
Daniel Flanagan=s full‑time job was with the U.S. Postal Service, where he was recently promoted to labor relations specialist, handling employee grievances and arbitrations. He had an accounting degree from St. Peter=s College in Jersey City. He had also planned, as the president of the library board, to unveil a new strategy for expanding the library.
AYou=re not going to replace people like this,@ said Michael Marra, the deputy town clerk and a friend, who also noted that underneath Daniel=s professional demeanor, there was a remarkably kind man, someone who would do anything for anybody, but would never violate his own sense of ethics.
Joe Griffo, who worked with both brothers in his capacity as court officer and the driver of the town bus said AI get a lump in my stomach every time I think about it. I liked being around both, they felt like family.@
Councilman Robert Campanella, who counted himself as among Dan Flanagan=s closest friend said: AThere are takers and givers in the world, he gave of himself, he volunteered for things and got no money for what he did. He isn=t just a hero now, he=s always been a hero.@
By late afternoon on Wednesday, town workers had managed to seal up the windows of the house with plywood, trying to erase a little of the horror that had occurred less than 12 hours earlier. But they could not hide the charred smell that filled the air, nor cover the lawn filled with the almost unrecognizable contents dragged from the house, pieces of lace work, a metal ladder twisted out of shape by the head, and the ruins of an air conditioner. All day, cars rode down the narrow street, hundreds of residents from other parts of town, some coming to gawk at the burned telephone wires and the melted siding on the house. But most came to pay silent tribute to the two important men who fought for their lives against a blazing inferno, their last words apparently calling to each other as the fire consumed them.
Hours after a raging fire killed two brothers and drove their mother from the gutted house on Central Lane in Secaucus, firefighters still staggered around the scene, wearing expressions of shock and frustration, the stench of the burning remains still clinging to their clothing as investigators tried to find some sense from the ruins of the disaster.
At 12:42 a.m. Wednesday morning, a call came into the police station that sent firefighters rushing to the scene only to find the single-family house already fully engaged with Daniel and John Flanagan trapped inside.
AOur men knew them,@ said weary fire chief, Ronald Kosky, his voice breaking with emotion. AWe wanted to reach them more than anything, but the fire was just too intense.@
John Flanagan, 50, was a 19‑year veteran of the Secaucus Police Department, president of its Policemen=s Benevolent Association.
He was found sprawled across the bed in a rear room of the house, his nine-millimeter pistol in his hand. Neighbors reported hearing gunshots during the blaze. Early speculation suggested John Flanagan=s gun clip may have exploded in the heat. A later investigation found that John, who apparently died of affixation, had either tried to call attention to himself or had fired at the window to reach precious fresh air.
Daniel Flanagan, 36, who served as the town=s Democratic chairman as well as chairman of the Housing Authority and the Library Board, was found seated on the first floor, his body pressed close to the front door.
One firefighter, Michael Hansen, cut his hand while breaking through the windows to access the house. The heat had apparently fused all the doors shut. Hansen was admitted to Meadowlands Hospital where he underwent surgery for two hours to repair his hand. He is expected to be out of work for two months.
Investigators ruled the fire accidental, and initial reports indicate the fire may have been electrical in nature. While Police Chief Dennis Corcoran said investigators from the Jersey City Arson Squad and the Hudson County Prosecutor=s Office had been called in, no foul play was suspected.
The brothers= mother, Florence, was rescued through a side door by neighbors. She was sent to Meadowlands Hospital and Medical Center where she was treated and released. Dan and John Flanagan were among nine siblings all between 30 and 60 years old. Along with John and Daniel, Bill Flanagan also lived in the house. He was not at home at the time of the fire.
AThe father died a year ago,@ said Mayor Anthony Just. AThe boys stayed at the house to help the mother out.@
Just said the Flanagans were an important family in a small town. AThere=s a void,@ he said. AThey will be missed.@
Just has ordered flags around town flown at half staff and had black and purple funeral bunting draped from town hall.
Anthony Impreveduto, the district=s assemblyman, was a close friend of Daniel=s. He called him a hero. Like many of the family=s neighbors and friends, Impreveduto believes that Daniel could have escaped and turned back when he heard his brother=s call for help from the back of the house. AThat=s how he always lived his life, as a hero.@
Impreveduto said Daniel was just coming into his own as a leader in town. Others claim he modeled himself after Impreveduto=s father, Rocco, who died of natural causes late last year.
AThe death really moved Dan,@ said one DPW worker. ADan wanted to fill his shoes and make good things happen for Secaucus.
Daniel had become Democratic chairman after Rocco, the former chairman, died. While serving as president of the Secaucus Housing Authority for years, Daniel also took on the post as president of the library board, and was actively seeking a solution to for the library=s need to move.
AHe was an up-and-coming person in the Democratic party,@ said one party member. AWhen he took over for Rocco Impreveduto, I didn=t think he could do it. But then, he just stepped right and did the job. He was remarkable.@
AHe wanted to make a believer out of me and he did,@ said Library Director Kathy Steffens, who said the board would seek to continue his work.
Impreveduto said the death had a major impact on the town=s senior population, many of whom have called his office crying. County Executive Robert Janiszewski and Democratic Chairman Hank Gallo issued statements praising Daniel=s political activism and his skill in unifying a fractious local party.
AHe was smart, clever, witty and kind,@ said Donna Barabas, who worked with Daniel on several local campaigns, including her own for council this year. AI=d rather lose this right arm than lose him.@
John Flanagan, a 6-foot, 3-inch, 300-pound man was strong, yet kind. Many he worked for called him a Ateddy bear@. Some of the officers who knew him said he was as big as a grizzly bear and just as tough in a critical situation. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his valor in Vietnam. John purchased the house for his family when he got out of the Army in 1972. He served in the Army from 1966 with one tour in Vietnam. He started as a special police officer in June, 1974, and was appointed as a full-time officer in 1978.
AJohn Flanagan has continuously demonstrated outstanding dedication to the Secaucus Police Department and his community,@ Chief Corcoran said.