When Marie Reilly died last week at 92, she left a legacy of sacrifice and service, just as her husband had.
Marie Reilly spent the last 48 years as an FDNY firefighter’s widow on Long Island, where she raised six kids on her own.
When she died last week at 92, she left a legacy of sacrifice and service, just as her husband had.
On Oct. 17, 1966, Marie Reilly didn’t even know there had been a big fire in Manhattan the night before.
When you’re taking care of four girls and two boys in a three-bedroom house on a school night in Westbury and your husband worked crazy hours, there wasn’t a lot of time to catch up on the news.
“But in the morning, she was helping us all get ready for school when my mom saw the official FDNY car pull up outside and a few chiefs and a chaplain walking up to the door. And I could tell by the look on her face that she knew my dad was gone,” remembers Joe Reilly, who was 16 that year, when Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” reached No. 1.
“I don’t remember a whole lot about that morning,” Joe Reilly says nearly a half-century later. “It was very emotional. They said there had been an accident. They had not yet recovered my dad’s body.”
The night before, Deputy Chief Thomas Reilly, 53, of Division 3, answered a 9:36 p.m. alarm for a fire at a first-floor art dealer’s shop in a four-story brownstone at 7 E. 22nd St., just off Broadway.
The flammable lacquer, oils, paints and wooden frames accelerated the blaze to such intensity that firefighters had to get in from the back, through Wonder Drugs at 6 E. 23rd St. Little did they know that the art dealer had removed a bearing wall in the connecting cellar to make room for storage. A cement and terrazzo floor was tightly laid in the drugstore, camouflaging the smoke and flames that slurped beneath the firefighters’ feet.
At 10:39 p.m., a 15-by-35-foot section of the floor collapsed.
Twelve firefighters, including Reilly, plunged into the secret back room of hell below. When the awful smoke cleared, the bagpipes wailed for all 12 firefighters, the most ever lost in a single incident in FDNY history — until 9/11.
“Most of the firefighters had their funerals in St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” says Rosemary Reilly, eldest of Thomas and Marie’s children. “My mom had our dad’s at St. Brigid’s here in Westbury. A devastating time. But once we buried my dad, my mom insisted that my brother Joe play football for Carle Place High that Sunday, as his father would have wanted. She insisted I go back up to Cortland College on Monday. All the other kids went back to local schools.”
“She made us all go right back to living our lives,” says Joe Reilly. “She missed my dad terribly, but she was an amazingly strong woman, and she had six kids to raise without a father and that’s exactly what she dedicated the rest of her life to.”
“All of us graduated college but one, who went to secretarial school,” says Rosemary. “Mom never remarried. I never married and stayed home to live with my mom. But one of my sisters and two of my brothers got married in October so that there would also be happiness in that awful month that our father died.”
Marie Reilly cooked every single night.
“She kept cooking Thanksgiving and Christmas until a few years ago, when it became too crazy with 16 grandkids,” says Rosemary. “She raised us all on my father’s pension. She never took a traditional job, but she volunteered at Mercy Hospital as their financial secretary. She also organized her bowling league. She had her hair and nails done once a week. Always dressed fashionably, even mowing the lawn in high heels. She refused to look or behave like an old lady. She bowled a 139, with five spares, a week ago.”
Joe chokes back a tear thinking of his mother’s sacrifices for her kids after their father’s death. “My mom absolutely rose to the occasion of holding this family together in our dad’s absence,” says Joe. “She made sure we always felt his goodness, his spirit in the house.”
Marie Reilly was making veal and peppers in her kitchen when she fatally collapsed in cardiac arrest Monday.
“She died on her 69th wedding anniversary,” Rosemary says.
On Friday, her six kids and 16 grandchildren watched as Marie Reilly’s remains were buried in Pinelawn Cemetery, at long last rejoining her beloved husband, FDNY Deputy Chief Thomas Reilly.
Rest in Peace.
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS