Cudmore: Tragedy at a firemen’s convention in Amsterdam

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Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News

Two people ultimately died, eight were injured and litigation went on for at least three years following an accident at the August 1958 New York State Volunteer Firemen’s Convention held in Amsterdam.

Before the accident happened, Recorder reporter James H. Walker, Jr., had written that “skill and derring-do were the order of the day.”

One competition consisted of a fire truck speeding to a high wooden arch and the firemen’s team leaping out of the vehicle and throwing a fire ladder up against the arch where the judges were sitting.

While his teammates steadied the ladder, one fireman ran up the ladder to touch the top rung. The event was judged by the time it took for the team member to reach the top.

An estimated 2,000 spectators safely watched such events with fire trucks performing maneuvers at speeds of 45 to 65 miles per hour at what was then Coessens Park in the city’s East End.

At 12:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 22, a small fire truck, something like a pickup truck, from Oyster Bay on Long Island was taking part in a competition that required the driver to speed to a designated spot, stop and have the truck’s crew quickly unreel a hose.

The hydraulic line in the truck’s brake system apparently broke, according to a mechanic’s investigation after the crash.

The vehicle plowed through a six-foot wire fence, striking spectators.

Walker wrote in Saturday’s Recorder that a “carnival atmosphere was turned into one of horror.”

One man, 67-year-old Fred Biege of Cranesville, was somersaulted into the air and dragged a short distance.

Biege died from his injuries two hours later at Amsterdam City Hospital.

Montgomery County Coroner Dr. Fred Pipito said Biege never regained consciousness.

Pipito ruled the death was accidental with no criminal negligence involved. 

Also injured in the accident were Stephen Mormile, 12, of Valley View Road; James Van Der Bogart, 8, of East Main St.; William Wyzkowski, 68, of Elizabeth St.; Robert Van Velsor, Kenneth Van Velsor, John Zwolinski and George Wedley, members of the fire truck team.

The driver of the truck was treated for bruises and shock.

The driver was Wilbur Young of Oyster Bay. Young frantically signaled to spectators to get out of the way of his speeding vehicle in vain.

After hitting the fence and the spectators, the Ford truck powered by a Cadillac engine continued into a baseball field before finally coming to a stop. 

By the time that several lawsuits were being settled in 1961, another injured man, Felix Winkel, 47, of Forbes Street in Amsterdam, also had died.

In the accident Winkel was thrown face down to the ground into the wire mesh fence and dragged some distance.

The Oyster Bay volunteers were from Atlantic Steamer Company Number One, known as the Rough Riders, a reference to a military group led by President Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt was Oyster Bay’s most famous resident.

The Recorder noted that during the convention all hotel rooms in Amsterdam were filled and some conventioneers were staying in private homes.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported 4,000 firemen attended the event.

The day after the tragedy, fire trucks and firemen paraded from Veterans Field on Locust Avenue to Prospect Street, Church Street and East Main Street to Coessens Park, where trophies were awarded.

If memory serves, my family attended the parade. I recall a tense atmosphere, especially when the contingent from Oyster Bay went by.

Oyster Bay came in fifth place in the competitions. East Meadow won the nearly five-foot-high first place trophy.

 

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