35 years of firefighting history: This retired Manchester firefighter is making an epic scrapbook

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Retired Fire Capt. Daniel O’Rourke has his work cut out for him, assembling a scrapbook of his 35 years with Manchester Fire Department. Photo/Ryan Lessard

MANCHESTER, NH — Retired fire Capt. Daniel O’Rourke of the Manchester Fire Department, an extroverted Irish family man with a quick wit and a creative streak, has embarked on an epic project in the basement of his Boynton Street home. A project that is nearly 35-years in the making. 

A scrapbook. 

O’Rourke is normally more physically active, but a recent preemptive heart surgery in October has precluded heavy lifting for the time being. So, in a word, he got bored.

“You can only watch so much TV,” O’Rourke said.

As such, the lifelong fireman has converted his home gym into a craft space, with a long row of tables set up for reading, sorting and preserving in plastic sleeves the newspaper clippings he has saved since he started working for the department in 1985.

Since at least 1987, he has been saving newspapers that include articles of fires, medical rescues, department fundraisers and funerals he participated in, as well as the odd story about changes in department leadership.

The end result will be an historical record of the department covering the last three decades.

“Manchester has a great firefighting legacy, which is very much in evidence at the Millyard Museum, where we showcase an Amoskeag Steam Fire Engine that was manufactured in the Millyard back in 1871,” said John Clayton, executive director of the Manchester Historic Association. “Anytime a veteran firefighter like Dan O’Rourke can take the time to chronicle some of the noteworthy fires that have taken place in the city, it can only add to our appreciation and understanding of the work these men and women do.”

“I’ve been to every one of these fires,” O’Rourke said, gesturing at his unfinished collage laid out on his tables. Some of them front-page stories with dramatic images of multi-story blazes and heroic firefighters. Photo/Ryan Lessard

O’Rourke said after every newsworthy incident he would save the whole newspaper, stack it up and store the stacks in boxes in a closet.

“I’ve been to every one of these fires,” O’Rourke said, gesturing at his unfinished collage laid out on his tables. Some of them front-page stories with dramatic images of multi-story blazes and heroic firefighters.

O’Rourke will often have to sift through and read the paper until he locates the story or the reference he’s connected to, usually while listening to The Rolling Stones records. When he finds the relevant article, he cuts it out and places it in a three-hole sleeve that will later go inside a large binder.

So far, O’Rourke has already completed over 200 pages of the scrapbook, with likely over 100 more to go.

Several of the hundreds of fires he’s responded to over the years have left their mark on his memory. Others have receded until he finds an article that reminds him. He said he appreciates having the articles to remind him of those moments in his career but also for providing a bigger picture of how events unfolded since he had a limited perspective at the time.

“It brings back memories. Good and bad,” O’Rourke said. “I think of the guys that I was with, that we shared all this with.”

O’Rourke first started working as a fireman at the age of 25, after graduating from New Hampshire College. His Irish Democrat mother presented him with applications to three union jobs: the Manchester Fire Department, Manchester Police Department and New Hampshire State Police.

“I looked at the Manchester Police Department and figured I’d have to arrest half of my friends,” O’Rourke joked. 

He applied to the fire department and never looked back. 

“Back then, it was a steady job. I had job security. That was a big thing,” he said.

Dan O’Rourke says he’s not sure what to do with the scrapbook when it’s done, but he’d like it to be available as a resource for some, especially rookie firefighters starting out in Queen City. Photo/Ryan Lessard

Over the years, he’s responded to countless headline fires, such as the Orange Street fire in 1987 that took the life of a 3-year-old boy, a fire at the same Dutton Street building in 1997 that became the scene of a fatal fire this year which claimed the life of a woman and burned Fire Capt. Steve DesRuisseaux, and the 2008 Pearl Street apartment building fire that displaced over 100 residents. 

“Some of these affected a lot of lives,” he said.

In winter 1994, he remembers working a Montgomery Street fire in frigid temperatures with icicles forming on his other firefighters’ suits from the misting hose water.

“That was the coldest I’ve ever been at a fire,” O’Rourke said. 

Another memorable occasion was responding to a chemical fire on South Beech Street near the McDonald’s on South Willow Street. Businesses including the McDonald’s had to close, which left the fast-food restaurant with a lot of extra food it decided to donate to the firefighters. 

O’Rourke remembers it was hard work, but they were unusually well-fed.

“We were out at a chemical fire eating Egg McMuffins,” he said.

A Batman symbol designed by Capt. Daniel O’Rourke made front-page news in the Union Leader when Webster Street Fire Station was allowed to reinstate the iconic symbol. Courtesy Photo

In the early 2000s, O’Rourke designed a Batman symbol made out of cardboard that was placed in the belfry of Station 5 on Webster Street. It was a double entendre; a nod to their jobs as heroes answering a call, and to the former Webster Street building’s well-earned nickname as “the bat house,” due to its bat infestation.

Former Chief Joe Kane ordered the bat symbol removed, but about four years later in 2008, Kane rescinded his prohibition just before retiring. 

O’Rourke also saved articles about the 9/11 terror attacks, regional disasters that claimed the lives of firemen and funeral services for fallen firefighters that saw massive turnout from New Hampshire fire departments. 

Between 2015 and 2020, O’Rourke served as captain of Station 3.

He’s not sure what to do with the scrapbook when it’s done, but he’d like it to be available as a resource for some, especially rookie firefighters starting out in Queen City.

“If Dan’s looking for a repository for the material he is able to collect, he’ll find an eager audience at the MHA,” Clayton added. “Our Research Center at 129 Amherst Street would be a great place to house his material, where it will be accessible for scholars and genealogists looking to do research on the topic of firefighting in Manchester.”


 

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Ryan Lessard

Ryan Lessard is a freelance reporter.