Ron Fandrick, a young airman in the Air Force from Underwood, was at Syracuse University in New York attending classes 54 years ago when the dorm he was staying in caught fire and burned.
Fandrick was one of 19 people hospitalized. Seven people died.
A memorial dedication ceremony will be held Oct. 4 at Syracuse University, where a plaque will be installed near the site of the building that burned. The memorial will honor those who died in the fire and those who survived it.
This photo shows the dormitory that burned at Syracuse University in New York in 1959 when seven people died and 19 were hospitalized, including a former Underwood man who had joined the Air Force several months earlier. Those who died or were injured in the blaze will be remembered during a ceremony at the site Oct. 4.
Fandrick, who lives in New Port Richey, Fla., graduated from Underwood High School in 1958 and joined the Air Force. After basic training in Texas, he was sent to Syracuse University for an intensive Russian language course.
"The third day of classes (Jan. 6, 1959), our dormitory caught fire and seven people died and 19 of us were hospitalized, including me, with burns and lacerations," said Fandrick.
When the fire occurred, he jumped out of the window into the snow and ran to another building. "We waited a while for the ambulances and fire trucks," he said. He said the fire took 73 seconds to consume the entire building.
"There was some confusion about how the fire started," he said. "Some said there was a short in a Pepsi machine another said someone was smoking in bed, but the final report showed that the wind blew a smoke stack against some insulation. (It was a cold, snowy, windy day in Syracuse that morning of January 6, 1959.)," he said.
"All of us that were hospitalized were given tutors that helped us catch up to the rest of the class," Fandrick said.
Fandrick's job in the Air Force was as a Russian language translator.
"After Syracuse, I spent three years in Bremerhaven, Germany (1959-1962), where we intercepted Russian radio and translated important information to send back to NSA (National Security Agency) in Washington, D.C.
"That was during the time of the Cold War, when Russia was testing some missiles that they were planning to send to Cuba, and we reported any information and movement from Moscow to Tashkent (which was their missile test area)," he said.
Fandrick's tour of duty in the Air Force ended in July 1962, ahead of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, an event that brought the United State and Soviet Union to near nuclear conflict.
Photographs taken by a U-2 spy plane showed that Soviet-made missiles in Cuba, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, were stationed 90 miles off the American coastline.
"It was a tense time for America during the Cuban crisis," Fandrick said. He said his unit often had information that wasn't available to the public.
Fandrick spent four years in the Air Force, with three of the four years in Germany.
He left the Air Force with the rank of airman first class and went to Rochester (Minn.) Community College, worked for Northwest Airlines for five years in Minneapolis and then got a commercial pilot's license.
"But NWA was hiring younger pilots returning from Vietnam, so I took a test with the FAA and became an air traffic controller/supervisor for the next 25 years in Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, where I retired and worked for a software company in the Silicon Valley for a couple of years," he said.
While in Washington, D.C., he met his wife, Karen Garrison, originally from Baltimore. She also worked for the FAA as an administrative assistant.
His wife's company relocated to Spokane, Wash., and after five years in cold weather, they moved to Florida in 2002, where he has a part-time job in a golf club pro shop and gets to play free golf, he said.
Fandrick also is the webmaster of the 6913th RSM-Radio Squadron Mobile website and has collected extensive historical information about the fire, along with memories and photos of the group's time in the Air Force.
"We have a reunion every two years. Last year we were in Minneapolis, three years ago in Savannah, Ga., and next year we'll be in Boston," he said.
He said the memorial event at Syracuse University came about through another veterans' organization.
"There is an organization called the 'Prop Wash Gang' made up of former Air Force guys, many who did the same kind of work we did. Some were aboard planes that skirted the borders and intercepted Russian radio and transcribed and translated the messages," he said.
"Some of the guys also had gone to Syracuse University and remembered the fire. They worked with the university and the City of Syracuse to finally make it happen," Fandrick said.
Fandrick and his wife will be attending the ceremony, and staying with friends, Don and Diane Dowling, in Rochester, N.Y. "Don was also in the fire and hospital later," Fandrick said.