New London gathered Wednesday morning to remember a local hero, Lt. John O’Connor, 30 years after he died while fighting a fire in the city.
“He was a faithful servant,” said Mayor Michael Passero, who worked alongside O’Connor as a firefighter at the city’s South Station in 1993.
February 1, 1993 was a bitterly cold night in New London. The fire department was down in numbers, struggling with staffing. O’Connor, a 35-year veteran of the department, was acting as lieutenant when a serious fire was called in on Truman Street.
“This fire was just consuming the building. Before John O’Connor’s engine pulled up the fire was well out of control,” said Passero, who was also working that night.
Get Connecticut local news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Connecticut newsletters.
O’Connor and another firefighter were first on scene. From accounts, the two sprang into action to fight the fire and try to save the people trapped inside.
“The amount of work that was demanded of two people in seconds was superhuman -- really superhuman,” said Passero.
By the time Passero and other firefighters arrived at the scene, O’Connor had fallen to the ground. He suffered a heart attack while fighting the flames. He was pulling hose at the time.
“Being there that night, I mean I was just numb -- physically numb,” said Passero. “It was just an awful situation to be in. You just kept working. You just kept working until the fire was out.”
Passero said that O’Connor was a father figure in his life.
“John O’Connor was a teacher. He had a great deal of wisdom,” said Passero. “We were not only firefighters, but we also just got along well together.”
O’Connor’s family described the night as one of the worst in their family’s history.
“It was just impossible to believe that it was all happening,” said Suzanne O’Connor, John’s daughter-in-law.
Investigators believe the fire was arson. Three people inside the home died that night as well.
“After the events of that night, the whole world changed for the fire department in New London. Since that time, the city has really focused on the need to have adequate staffing because, not only did John lose his life in that fire, but three civilians lost their life in that fire,” said Passero.
Current fire chief Tom Curcio remembers February 1 as well. He described it as a horrendous night, but also as a turning point for the department.
“It’s important to remember, and John specifically, because he was the reason why the city eventually got a staffing clause in their contract, and we continue to support that to this day for our safety.”
To this day, a picture of O’Connor hangs in each of New London’s firehouses. There is a scholarship in his name and a plaque with an eternal flame outside of City Hall.
“He died in the line of duty serving the city, selfless, trying to help others who lost their lives that night as well. It is a big deal. It is part of our family’s history. It is part of the city’s history. It is important for us to remember just from that perspective -- the honor and the serving that he gave to the city,” said Suzanne O’Connor.
Wednesday the city posthumously promoted O’Connor to lieutenant.
“Long overdue. He died acting as a lieutenant and certainly deserved that rank,” said Passero.
A street sign was also dedicated to O’Connor on Truman Street.
“It is important to us that the young firefighters have just some ways to remember him and his story. Many of the firefighters were not even born in 1993. So, keeping his story alive is very important to us,” Suzanne O’Connor said.