Thursday, September 11, 2008

Blending Fires, Fact and Fiction

West End man writes first novel, dedicated to Long Beach 9/11 victim

By Joseph Kellard

Gene Welischar has quite an imagination.

In his soon-to-be-published first novel, "If You Play With Fire," the retired FDNY chief and longtime Long Beach resident puts himself in a fantasy romance with an ex-nun-turned FBI agent. The two meet when she visits his Manhattan firehouse to investigate a real-life arsonist who burned buildings for hire.

Much of Welischar’s story, which explores how firefighters battled blazes in Brooklyn and Queens in the 1960s and ’70s, is based in fact. During those turbulent decades he was in the midst of a 33-year career with the FDNY in a city threatened by political, economic and physical collapse. He writes of the riots and fires that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination; "Jewish Lightning," a variety of arson that lined the pockets of failing businesses with insurance payouts; and "Danny O," a professional, mob-connected arsonist who torched apartments for property owners unable to get ride of stubborn tenants so they could build high-rises.

"Danny O has had a lot of work from the new builders who want fast access to the space occupied by these old buildings for their business ventures," Welischar, 78, writes in the novel’s prelude. "… He prefers that no deaths or injuries will result from the fire, but only because that could bring serious investigation." During one arson in 1978, Danny O, who stood on rooftops to watch his blazes rip through buildings as fire units arrived, observed from a distance as a firefighter was loaded into an ambulance on a stretcher.

Eventually — and, again, factually — the FBI sent agents to the firehouse where Welischar was captain from 1976 to 1983, Ladder 13 on 85th Street, to look up records on recent arsons. One of the real-life federal agents, Marita Lorenz, had reportedly been sent to Cuba in 1960 to attempt to seduce and then poison Fidel Castro in 1960. Welischar dated her a few times, he said.

In the book, Lorenz morphed from fact into fiction, becoming, in Welischar’s imagination, an agent who grew up Catholic and became a nun. But her father, a Protestant policeman, wanted grandchildren, so she left the clergy to start a family. "But she couldn’t," Welischar explained, "so then she looked for a surrogate father and she happened to pick me, the captain of the firehouse." At this he laughed mischievously. "I have a great imagination. My daughter said, ‘Dad where did you get all this stuff from?’"

The real-life FBI agents were pointed to a certain management company that was eventually prosecuted, but Welischar’s search to find out how the investigation unfolded hit a dead end, because the company had changed its name.

For years, Welischar, who retired in 1991, had rehashed those eventful decades, and three years ago he decided to explore them again. He began writing "If You Play With Fire," with editorial help from his wife, Patricia. Welischar took his completed novel to Florida and enrolled in a writing course given by Patrika Vaughn, owner of A Cappela Publishing. Vaughn found his story intriguing enough to print 3,500 copies.

"I thought it would be extremely interesting to the lay person to see how firefighters operated, especially with the malfeasance of the city government during the ’60s and ’70s," Vaughn told the Herald. "I found it a wonderful story."

While the novel is populated with corrupt government officials, unscrupulous businessmen seeking shortcuts to obtain prime real estate, and arsonists, Welischar also profiles a few heroic life- and property-saving characters, the informal leaders who train and inspire their fellow firefighters. "They’re like the unsung heroes of the fire department," Welischar said. "They’re like the infantrymen of the firehouse. They’re teachers who break in the new men and shape the character of a firehouse."

Welischar dedicated the novel to the late Greg Stajk, a probationary firefighter whom he mentored at Ladder 13 in 1982. While still with the company on Sept. 11, 2001, Stajk, then a 14-year resident of Long Beach, was killed at the World Trade Center.

Welischar got to know Stajk through his daughter, Mary, calling him a big brother to her. "He was a low-profile guy who was nice to be around," Welischar recalled. "All the guys loved him. And I found out later that he was a terrific artist."

Stajk’s mother, Marge, who lives in Florida, said she was honored and surprised by Welischar’s tribute to her son, and read a rough copy of "If You Play With Fire." "It was interesting to see how the novel switches back and forth between real-life human-interest stories and fiction," Marge said.

Welischar began his career as an NYPD street patrolman when he came home from the Korean War, before joining Ladder 116 in Long Island City in 1958. From there he went to Engine 218 in Bushwick, where he became a lieutenant, and then to Ladder 13. In 1983 he transferred to Engine 264 in Far Rockaway, where he retired eight years later.

Welischar moved to Long Beach in 1977, and in 1989 he bought The Inn on West Beech Street, where he held fundraisers for veterans at Northport Hospital. The generosity of his adopted hometown figures in the novel.

"Whenever someone is in trouble, they have benefits at bars and raise thousands and thousands of dollars for people who have gone through tragedies," Welischar said of Long Beach, where he will sell and sign copies of his novel at the Irish Day Parade next month. "There are at least 20 that I can remember in which money was raised for people in distress. And that’s something about Long Beach: It’s a very tight-knit neighborhood."

For information or to purchase "If You Play With Fire," go to

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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