Life’s Goal Accomplished Pidgeon Retires
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
‘The Dark Horse fire,” Oneonta’s retiring fire chief, Pat Pidgeon, immediately responded when asked about the worst blaze he tackled in 36 years with the OFD.
Pidgeon was strapped into the jump seat of the fire engine as it arrived around 5 a.m. March, 1, 1992, at 18 Market St.
“There was an explosion,” he said. He looked over his shoulder. “A beam blew out, and landed on a line of cars. I knew it was going to be a long night.”
The site was what’s now that parking lot a couple of buildings east of the Green Earth health food market. Also on fire was the attached J.J. Maloney Building, a candy distributorship at 12-14 Market.
Pidgeon and Bobby Russo, his crew captain and brother of Fire Chief Francis “Cootie” Russo, set up a 2½-inch hose at the hydrant at today’s Cooper Fox, at the back end of Clinton Plaza.
“I remember the blue flames from all the alcohol that was burning,” he recalled.
At one point, as the fire appeared very close to a neighboring apartment house, he and Russo hammered on the doors of apartments in the building, awakening college coeds and protecting them with their shields as the girls hurried to safety.
That building was saved and is still student housing today.
He learned a lot that day: One, he drove a Bobcat for the first time; two, he participated in his first investigation; three, he applied boyhood lessons of hard work.
“When you’ve got work to do, you’ve got work to do,” he said. “That’s how we were raised.”
Finally leaving the scene at 6 p.m., 12 hours after he arrived, “I was covered in a sheet of ice,” he said. “I walked into the firehouse, walked upstairs and got in a hot shower to take off my coat.” The clips had been frozen solid.
As the ninth member of the Pidgeon clan to join the fire department, his future career was always part of his life.
At age 10, he was skating on Hodge’s Pond in Neahwa Park on Feb. 12, 1974, when a D&H train derailed at Emmons and one of the tankers exploded. “I could see it glowing in the sky,” he said.
He called his mother, Marlene, on a pay phone, and she told him to hurry home to Monroe Avenue, near Center Street School, a Pidgeon family enclave. His dad and two uncles has been on the scene when the tanker exploded.
Uncle Ronnie had his rubber coat melted into his back. His father and his Uncle Joe were in the hospital, treated for injuries and released that night.
Ron and Joe and cousin Jeff were OFD captains – the department is divided into four crews, each with a captain – and his dad Charles, Uncle Herbie were captains in the call fire department, where Herb’s son Brett also served. The chief’s brother Michael served in the call department, as did cousin Ronnie Emmett.
Other Pidgeons were active in the Boy Scouts’ Explorer post, an OFD affiliate.
But the chief, whose last day on the job was Feb. 12 – he’s eligible for vacation pay and other time through the end of March – has fond memories, too.
He remembers the department’s summer clambake, when Uncle Ronnie would drive to New York City’s docks in the wee hours and bring back 8-10 burlap bags with 1,000 clams each. He would join the boys scrubbing clams in a tilted trough, the youngest at the bottom end.
Pidgeon graduated from OHS in 1982, and drove for North American Van Lines and Schuman’s until March 21, 1985, when he joined the OFD’s call department.
Along with Frank Russo, the chief’s son (now Family Y director), he entered the professional OFB in 1988.
There were 20 active firefighters in those days, in four crews, plus 8-10 parttimers to fill in and 30-40 call firefighters, about 20 who were “pretty active.”
Staffing is pretty much the same then as now, although calls have increased from 1,200 a year in 1988 to 3,600 today.
From the beginning, he said in an interview, he intended to be chief. “I thought I could do it,” he said, and soaked in all the training offered and studying for the Civil Service tests that would take him there.
In the fall of 2003, he made captain, earning a slot in FLIP school, the First Line Officer Program at Fort Totten, Queens, with 57 other officers, 20 from Upstate.
The numbers “4 and 2” stuck with him. In New York City, four engines and two trucks respond to every call. In Oneonta, “4 and 2” means “four firefighters on one engine and two on one truck,” he related.
“We do with six guys that it took 100 guys to do there,” he said.
At the end of 2009, Chief Robert Barnes retired, and Captain Pidgeon achieved his life’s goal on Jan. 1, 2010.
Over his career, the biggest change in the OFD’s role is the development of EMT squad: “75 percent of what we do now is ambulance and EMS. Everybody has to be dual-roled, cross-trained.”
In 1992, he was one of the department’s first “critical care technicians.” Now, all firemen go through multi-stepped training, from first responder to paramedic, the peak.
As to why he retired now, at age 55, Pidgeon said “I hated politics,” and it wore him down. He was particularly disheartened when Common Council defunded his assistant chief’s position a few months ago.
Now, he plans to “enjoy life” with his long-time significant other, Judy Sweet. But his legacy is secure.
His eldest son, Ryan, 30, is a firefighter with the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, and a volunteer firefighter with the Hyattsville department.
Son Matthew, 28, lives in Unadilla and, as did his dad, drives trucks for Schuman’s.
To mark their father’s retirement, they presented him with a flag flown aboard Marine One on Sept. 30 over Washington D.C., “in honor of Fire Chief Patrick W. Pidgeon for his 36 years of faithful and honorable service to the Oneonta Fire Department.”
Most important to his chief, he accomplished his foremost goal: “To make sure the men went home to their families at the end of the day.”