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William Feehan, the Fire Department's second-highest official, whose knowledge and cunning in battling fires himself made him the stuff of legend to his firefighters, died Tuesday when the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on his command station.
He was 71 and lived in Flushing, Queens.
Mr. Feehan, the first deputy fire commissioner, was a former firefighter who rose through the ranks and who insisted on being called just chief, even after serving as the department's acting commissioner in the last months of the administration of Mayor David N. Dinkins.
Though someone of Mr. Feehan's rank would ordinarily have been asked to make way for appointees of the new administration after Mr. Dinkins's defeat, David Billig, a department spokesman, said no one dreamed of asking Mr. Feehan, who was thought to know the location of every fire hydrant in the city, to leave.
"He's the Fire Department," Mr. Billig said. "He is so knowledgeable."
Mr. Feehan's son John, also a firefighter, said that after a generation's service, his father could have made almost as much money collecting a pension as he did risking his life. "Retiring never even entered his mind," John Feehan said."
William Feehan, the son of a firefighter, was born in Long Island City, Queens, on Sept. 29, 1929. He grew up in another Queens neighborhood, Jackson Heights. He graduated from St. John's University in 1952 and then joined the Army and served in Korea.
He worked as a substitute teacher for several years, even after joining the Fire Department in 1959. He was first assigned to Ladder Company 3, and then to Ladder Companies 18 and 6, making him a truckie, as firefighters call those who serve in ladder companies.
He also served in Engine Company 59, and in Rescue Company 1, a unit that suffered heavy casualties in the World Trade Center collapse.
He fought many large fires, particularly in Harlem and Brooklyn in the 1960's. He battled the blaze that killed 12 firefighters in Madison Square in 1966, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard fire in 1960, which killed 50 people.
In an interview with The Daily News, he said of the Navy Yard fire: "It was the largest number of body bags I had ever seen. I was in Korea and never saw that many." In that fire, aboard the aircraft carrier Constellation, which was under construction, 50 workers were killed and more than 350 were injured.
When he was named chief of department in 1991, making him the first person to hold every possible rank within the department, he brought his firsthand experience to fires throughout the city.
In a speech to firefighters at a firehouse in Astoria that was celebrating its 100th anniversary, he spoke of the department's journey from the days of horse-drawn pumpers to times when firefighters are trained in cardiac care and other emergency medical procedures.
"We are only passing through," he said. "We are the guardians and custodians of a 100-year tradition."
Mr. Feehan was a trim 6 feet 2 inches tall. He was an avid reader of military history, among other subjects. He never replaced his rotary phone with a touch-tone set.
His wife, Elizabeth, died five years ago.
In addition to his son John, who lives in College Point, Queens, he is survived by another son, William, of Princeton Junction, N.J.; two daughters, Elizabeth Feehan of Brooklyn, and Tara Davan of Belle Harbor, Queens; and six grandchildren.
John Feehan said yesterday: "If there's any consolation to come out of this, it is that he didn't know he lost 200 of his men. He didn't have to deal with that horrific fact."
Editorial Obituary published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on September 13, 2001.