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St. Francis Prep Honors John Downing '79

Monday, February 2, 2009   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Michael Graziano
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Story by Dylan Butler, (SFP Class of 1992) FIVE BOROSPORTS.COM 
The wooden bleachers at St. Francis Prep brought back a flood of memories for Josephine Downing, an Irish immigrant who spent many Friday nights at the Fresh Meadows school watching her son John play basketball for the Terriers.

“This is where I got sore throats from hollering from the stands,” she said. “They were good times.”

She returned to the same gym on Friday night to see her son’s No. 34 jersey retired in an emotional halftime ceremony. John Downing was one of three firefighters to die in the Fathers Day fire of 2001. He was 40.

“It’s fantastic,” she said of the honor. “I never expected that, beautiful really.”

John Downing grew up in Woodside, directly across the street from Tom Finn, a St. Francis Prep coach for two decades. Finn coached Downing in the seventh and eighth grades at St. Sebastian, where he won a pair of CYO Diocesan titles.

“He used to draw three or four charges a game and to get three or four you had to go down seven or eight times,” Finn said. “He used to give his body for the cause, always played hard. He was the type of kid we turned out here for a long time.”

During his time at St. Francis Prep, the 6-foot-4 Downing delivered a newspaper and worked at nearby Calvary Cemetery part-time. But his love was basketball.

“He was one of our better players,” longtime St. Francis Prep basketball coach Tim Leary said. “He was a tough kid. He was fun to be around and it’s kind of a sad story because we’ve been through so many of these.”

Downing, who graduated in 1979, carried his love of hoops with him to the FDNY, which was another one of passions.

“He was a class guy,” said Gerry Brannigan, who worked with Downing at Ladder 163 in Woodside for more than a decade. “He was very into his family, very into the job, he was a good basketball player, a very motivated guy. He was a perfectionist, he took care of his house, was into his daughter’s soccer. He was a very good man, a guy you could count on.”

Downing also had a characteristic that is integral to a firehouse.

“He was a real good practical joker and he had the size to back it up, too,” Lt. Nick D’Alessandro said. “He had a sharp wit, sharp tongue.”

When not playing hoops, playing jokes or playing with his children, Downing was studying for the lieutenant’s test.

“Outside of my office there’s a chair, it’s still there, you would see him there all the time with his books open, studying very hard,” D’Alessandro said. “I think he would have aced the test.”

Downing never got the chance, dying in the explosion in the hardware store of the Long Island General Supply Company in Astoria on June 17, 2001.

Brannigan was with Downing, who was posthumously named lieutenant, on the call that day.

“It was a very tough day for us,” he said. “We helped in the search to find him. He was missing for a long time. It was a very tough day. I actually rode in the ambulance with him. It was a very hard thing to deal with.”

Two years later the Downing family was dealt another crushing blow when John’s son, Michael, died after being diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of cancer. He was just five years old.

Less than three months after the Fathers Day fire, 363 firefighters died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Because of the magnitude of the toll Sept. 11 took on the FDNY, the Fathers Day fire is often referred to as the “Forgotten Fire.”

“It was one of the most tragic fires in the history of the department -- 9/11 is 9/11, it needs no explanation,” D'Alessandro said. “To us, Fathers Day was a crushing blow before 9/11, something we'll never get over.”

Those who lived in Woodside, those in firehouses around the city who put their lives on the line every day will always remember. They'll never forget at St. Francis Prep, either.

Said Brannigan: “It’s a class move.”