New London honors firefighter John O'Connor on the 30th anniversary of his death

Feb. 1—NEW LONDON — The entrance room to the fire department's South Station was packed with people Wednesday as firefighters unveiled the display of a jacket once worn by John M. O'Connor, a firefighter who died on duty 30 years ago.

A soft "wow" escaped the mouths of O'Connor's family as they saw the display for the first time. Many held their phones up to take a photo.

Earlier in the day the family and the entire city fire department stood on Truman Street where a portion of the street has been renamed as "Lieutenant John M. O'Connor Way."

City firefighters had made a promise to never forget O'Connor, and 30 years later the department continues to do so. The city's firefighter union organized Wednesday's events to commemorate the anniversary.

On Feb. 1, 1993, O'Connor died of a heart attack while responding to a roaring blaze at 91 Truman St. that also took the lives of three people trapped inside the home. Many described the horrible weather, snow and the ice-encrusted house that firefighters battled that night.

Before his death, O'Connor had been named an acting lieutenant and was working at headquarters.

During the morning dedication in front of a memorial for O'Connor behind City Hall, Mayor Michael Passero announced the city was promoting him to lieutenant.

Then everyone moved to Truman Street to see the street signs erected in O'Connor's name. One stands at the road's intersection with Hempstead Street and the other at the intersection of Blinman St. in front of Truman Laundry.

There would later be a mass in O'Connor's memory at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, the unveiling of the jacket display and a reception at the Lighthouse Inn.

Michael Leonard, an executive board member of the firefighters union, said the signs were done in cooperation with the mayor, city and state.

"Thousands travel this road and will now understand the sacrifice made on this road that day," Leonard said.

O'Connor's daughter, Janet O'Connor Theiler, wrapped a bouquet of flowers on one of the signs.

Theiler said the family continues to feel a big void without her father. She said it is an honor that the city's firefighters promised 30 years ago they would not forget him and they haven't. She added only a handful remain in the department that worked with him.

"He was all about fire safety," she said. "He'd yell at me for having long hair and tell us to not play with matches."

The night she and her siblings, Dennis and Danny, lost their father still weighs heavy on their mind.

Danny O'Connor, once a firefighter for Quaker Hill Fire Company, remembers being woken up that night and heading to the house at 91 Truman St. When he arrived there, he was told to go to the hospital.

All three siblings met in the hospital where they were told their father had died at the fire.

Danny O'Connor said the efforts made by the union this year to further honor his father are "well-deserved."

Steve Joly, president of the New London firefighters' union, said the union met with the family before the anniversary to discuss how loved ones wanted O'Connor to be memorialized.

Joly was ten years old the night O'Connor passed away, but he said the late firefighter has been apart of the department's culture since his first day on the job. He recalls seeing O'Connor's photo on the wall his first day of work with the message "we will never 4get," four being O'Connor's assigned number.

"We memorialize him everyday," Joly said.

Passero, a retired firefighter, called O'Connor a father figure. He said he was young and just starting out as a firefighter while O'Connor was older and more experienced.

Passero said O'Connor's sacrifice changed everything for the fire department, especially in regards to the number of firefighters on duty, which increased after the fire.

"There's the fire department before and after John's death," he said.