Once a fireman, always a fireman

Firefighter supervisor Dennis O’Connell was an active bagpiper.

Dennis O’Connell of City Island was in grammar school when he caught firefighter fever. It was nearly five decades ago and O’Connell lived on E. 187th Street off Webster Avenue. He saw a new television show: “Rescue 8.”

According to O’Connell’s longtime friend and fellow Fire Department of New York dispatcher Robert Engel, Doc showed up at school the next day a changed kid.

“We had a little clique,” Engel remembered. “We went over to Roebuck’s and bought construction helmets, then painted them red like on Rescue 8. We started a club.”

O’Connell passed away in the hospital October 19, following a massive stroke.

FDNY observed an “Inspector’s Funeral” Thursday, October 23 in his honor, as firefighters and dispatchers lined City Island Avenue. O’Connell is survived by his wife, Pat and two children, Sean and Tara. He’d been sick since June.

“He was a quiet man, a kind man and a family man,” said wife Pat O’Connell, who met her husband in 1974. “When our kids were born, he worked three jobs so they would be raised by me.”

One day in the 1960s, a real firefighter from the neighborhood stopped by. He invited O’Connell’s gang to a Saturday fire drill.

“He showed us all this stuff – our eyes were big as silver dollars,” Engel said. “We got in the fire department explorer scouts on Belmont Avenue. I think there were 10 of us. That’s how our life in the fire department started.”

O’Connell joined the fire department soon after high school. He began and finished as a dispatcher, serving 37 years.

Knowledgeable and cool under pressure, O’Connell knew the Bronx like no other.

“You’d give him a location – 4537 Box, City Island – he’d give you the cross-streets,” Engel said. “He didn’t need a computer.”

A fire department bagpiper, strong leader and friendly boss to Engel, O’Connell watched the Bronx fall on desperate times. Engel worked beside him for 18 years.

O’Connell loved chasing fires. He and Engel would listen for the fire bells behind their high school, sneak out of class and follow the smoke.

“We’d ‘slide down the banister,’” Engel said. “And come back to class stinking like a three-alarm fire. Now you ask any fireman on the street, ‘Do you know Doc?’ and of course they do.”

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