Colleagues recall the career of Battalion Chief Lachenaeur

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WATERTOWN — Perhaps no other family had such a long run with the Watertown Fire Department as the Lachenauers.

Over a 76-year span, the department was served by the family — first by Chief George W. Lachenauer, then later by his two sons, David M. and Ted.

That long reign came to an end a few short weeks ago. Battalion Chief David Lachenauer remained on the roster until March 6, when he officially retired.

Just 17 days into his retirement, he lost his nearly yearlong battle with cancer. He was 61.

“It’s not going to be the same without him,” said retired Capt. David J. Loftus, who worked with Mr. Lachenauer for more than 10 years.

On Sunday night, about 15 former coworkers — some of whom worked alongside him for decades — came together to remember their friend and colleague. They told of the fires they fought together and shared some anecdotes.

Mr. Lachenauer, with the Watertown department nearly 33 years, was affected by the three days he spent as a first responder at Ground Zero, New York City, after the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

He and his family attributed his cancer to that short time digging on the pile, his brother said.

Retired Capt. Joseph M. Compo doesn’t know how many fires he and Mr. Lachenauer fought together in their 30-plus years with the Watertown department. Probably hundreds, Mr. Compo figured.

A large fire on Dec. 8, 2007, in the Victoria Building, 201-205 Academy St., was one of the biggest. That fire destroyed a 22-unit apartment building, leaving 30 people homeless and two injured. A resident was later convicted of setting the fire and sentenced to 25 years in state prison.

In July 2005, Mr. Compo was among those who responded to the mammoth blaze that destroyed the Black Clawson plant on Pearl Street. Mr. Lachenauer was the acting battalion chief that night and it was his first major fire, recalled firefighter William P. Bragger.

“He issued 12 orders in his first 46 seconds there,” said Mr. Bragger, who worked with his boss on the B Platoon for seven years.

The last time they fought a fire together occurred at a vacant house at 803 LeRay St. on March 18 of last year.

His colleagues remembered their friend as a no-nonsense guy when he was on the scene. He’d set up a nozzle on a truck one minute and the next would quickly move to a chain saw to cut a hole in a roof, Mr. Compo said.

“When the alarm sounded, he was all business,” he said.

But Mr. Lachenauer had a mischievous side, too. Co-workers remember him hiding in lockers in the old Arsenal Street fire station, jumping out to scare colleagues.

He also played a practical joke on former Fire Chief Daniel J. Gaumont, a huge Boston Red Sox fan. Mr. Lachenauer and a colleague scraped off all the Red Sox stickers from the Chief Gaumont’s car and replaced them with New York Yankees stickers.

Chief Gaumont hated the Bronx Bombers. And Mr. Lachenauer, a Yankees fan, didn’t own up to the prank for a long while, friends said.

Mr. Lachenauer didn’t like long conversations and was known for not having a lot of patience, his friends recalled.

Capt. Scott Kolb remembered numerous times that Mr. Lachenauer simply ended the discussion while someone was in mid-sentence. Sometimes, it happened face to face, other times while on the phone. Suddenly, he was gone.

“Wait a second, am I through?” Mr. Kolb often wondered.

For years, the battalion chief was the butt of a longstanding joke about his quick conversations, with colleagues referring to him as “Dave 46-second Chief,” behind his back until he finally caught on, Mr. Bragger joked. Their boss got a laugh out of it when he realized.

Despite his businesslike, serious manner, Mr. Lachenauer was known to do anything for his guys. He was always there to make sure they had what they needed for the job they loved. Safety for his men was his number one concern, they recalled.

“He loved to come to work every day,” Mr. Compo said.

He also was concerned about their well-being and what was going on with their families. If there was an illness or a problem in a family, Mr. Lachenauer made sure to ask what he could do to help or simply how things were going, colleagues said.

Firefighter Jared D. Lyndaker had his own bout with cancer. But even when Mr. Lachenauer was at his sickest, the battalion chief asked the six-year veteran of the department how he was feeling, Mr. Lyndaker said.

Mr. Lachenauer’s father, George, joined the Watertown Fire Department in 1942 and served as chief from 1975 to 1979. First, David’s brother followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the department in 1980. On April 29, 1985, David Lachenauer became the third family member to serve.

Retired Capt. David T. Burns has vivid memories of that day. He joined the department on that same day, recalling meeting Mr. Lachenauer while the two were purchasing fire department shirts at Max Alpert’s clothing store.

Right off the bat, Mr. Burns saw the serious side of his friend when he matter-of-factly talked about his fire training, he recalled.

Like all firefighters, Ted Lachenauer remembers Sept. 11 like it was yesterday. Hearing the news at work, he called his brother, who was attending officers school in Queens when the two jets hit the World Trade Center. It was the second day of his brother’s training.

He and 14 other firefighters from upstate immediately jumped into rigs and headed toward the two towers, Mr. Lachenauer told the Watertown Daily Times in 2016, a few days before the tragedy’s 15th anniversary.

Assigned to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on 34th Street, they were sent to help casualties. None ever came.

They ended up going to Ground Zero, where they helped the hundreds of other firefighters dig in the piles. They were there until it was dark.

They went back the next day for the agonizing work. No one spoke. They were too busy digging, retrieving NYFD equipment buried by the fallen towers.

Mr. Lachenauer never liked talking about the experience. It was like witnessing “a war,” he later told his brother.

“He came back to say he saw things nobody would ever want to see,” Mr. Loftus said.

During those three days, Mr. Lachenauer was exposed to all kinds of vapors and chemicals from the smoldering pile at Ground Zero, his brother said. About 2,000 first responders are now ill from their exposure, the firefighters said. More than 1,300 have died.

A few days after Watertown’s LeRay Street fire, the battalion chief told his men he was ill and could no longer work.

They knew then he became another victim of Sept. 11.

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