Former New York City Fire Chief Ignites Relationship with Local Houston Fire Station
Even at 94, retired firefighter George McGrath still seems every inch the New York City Fire Chief—alert, lean and quick witted.
Just six years short of 100, McGrath still feels a deep sense of brotherhood with fellow firefighters from nearby Houston Fire Station 60—some more than 70 years younger than him. The connection, he says, is instant. It’s a connection that began last year as part of an annual appreciation breakfast The Buckhingham in Houston has for the firefighters who serve as their nearest emergency response team.
“We felt that George was a natural choice for taking part in our good will efforts to show appreciation to our local firefighting team,” said Gillian Hill, who coordinates the appreciation breakfasts on behalf of The Buckingham. “With his deep background and career achievements in fighting fires, we felt that both he and the local firemen would find it especially interesting. And they really have!”
Not surprisingly, McGrath was happy to take part. He even brought along CDs with videos clips of difficult fires he faced over his career in New York. These videos are now being used as training films for his fellow firefighters, and the idea these clips could help better prepare or protect one of them pleases him greatly.
“Firefighters are a brotherhood—
A prime example would be Captain Nancy Kamman, who leads local Fire Station 60. The two have struck up a great friendship and McGrath treasures his photos taken with the beaming young female fire captain. The two are from totally different eras but have one major point in common—both know what it’s like to send brave men and women into burning buildings to save lives and preserve property. That bond seems to bridge every difference in age and gender—and the age difference is pretty amazing.
"HFD Fire Station 60 enjoys a very special relationship with The Buckingham and it's residents. We always enjoy the opportunity to visit but especially enjoy seeing Chief McGrath,” said Captain Kamman. “We always learn something about the history and tactics of the fire service from the stories he tells. Despite the changes in equipment, personnel and technology, the business of firefighting remains the same as time passes. It requires brave people to do hard, dangerous work. It's an honor to know someone like Chief McGrath who has given so much to our profession."
McGrath began his career as a fireman in 1939, at a time when many of the old timers around the fire station still remembered horse-drawn fire engines. He shares the tales they told about their trusty fire horses in reverent tones. One story told how the fire horses became so accustomed to hearing the different fire bells that they knew which way to turn—left or right—when they cleared the firehouse doors. Others related that the worst part of work was going home to their wives smelling like horses at the end of the day. McGrath’
McGrath joined the Navy when World War II broke out in 1941 and spent several years at sea on the battleship Texas. He was onboard when it bombarded Iwo Jima prior to the Marine amphibious assault and victory that has become the stuff of legend. He never forgot the heroism of the Marines who were recovered on board the Texas for the trip home. Compared to them, he felt he has it made onboard a battleship.
He rejoined the New York City Fire Department after the war and got full credit for those years towards his retirement. During that time he got married and rose from fireman to Fire Captain, to Fire Chief—over about ten fire companies. He wound up putting out fires in all five boroughs of NYC, and was injured only once—when a roof he was standing on collapsed, injuring his back. But he soon recovered and returned to work.
McGrath never lost a man under his command until the very day he was promoted to Fire Chief. On that day, one of the men at the fire station where he had been Fire Captain was killed by a collapsing wall. His appointment to Fire Chief didn’t become effective until midnight that night, so technically, he was still in charge of that firehouse. It is one of the few bad memories from a very long career.
He retired in 1975 with 35 years of service and remained in NYC until his wife passed away. Then one of his two daughters began searching out senior living communities for him in Houston, so he would be close to her. She researched about 30 and finally sent him details on six, including The Buckingham. Upon arriving in Houston to tour the top six, his first stop was The Buckingham. His search went no further.
“I just loved everything about The Buckingham,“
Today, George McGrath enjoys a serene life, far from the pressures of fighting fires in the high-rise canyons of New York City. He accommodations are far more comfortable in Houston, Texas, than they were aboard the battleship Texas. But perhaps the most inspiring part of his days is when he shares with his new firefighter friends—the special excitement of riding to a fire to put yourself at risk to save others and all they hold dear.
It’s a passion, he insists, that literally defines the profession. Clearly, it was the right calling for McGrath. When asked what single quality is most indispensable in a top firefighter, he said simply. ”You have to love the job.” Later, when asked if he'd do it all over again, he said, ”I would. I would. It’s the best job in the world.”
The Buckingham is Houston’s premier life care senior living community located in the Memorial neighborhood. Situated on a 17-acre site along Buffalo Bayou at 8580 Woodway Drive, The Buckingham offers resort-style services and amenities for active, independent seniors, as well as all levels of health care services on-site at The Plaza at The Buckingham. The community features 205 independent living residences; 43 private assisted living apartments; 16 private memory support apartments; and 60 private skilled nursing suites.
The Buckingham is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit senior living community owned by Senior Quality Lifestyles Corporation (SQLC), a Texas-based nonprofit organization that owns sister communities Edgemere in Dallas, Querencia at Barton Creek in Austin, The Stayton at Museum Way under construction in Fort Worth, and Mirador under construction in Corpus Christi. For information visit www.buckinghamhouston.com, or call (832) 426-1372.