By Nicholas Spangler New York Newsday
Elmer F. Chapman, a retired New York City firefighter who rose to deputy chief of department and fiercely opposed design choices at the World Trade Center he believed later contributed to its collapse, died Aug. 14 in his Levittown home. He was 91.
The cause was complications after a stroke, said a son-in-law, William McLaughlin of Lynbrook, also a retired firefighter.
Chapman retired from the department in 1984 after 37 years. He was working as a fire science consultant in 2001, when the Twin Towers were attacked. He’d opposed WTC plans he said didn’t comply with city building codes as early as the 1970s, when he worked in the FDNY’s Office of Planning and Operations Research, relatives said.
He believed the towers’ lightweight construction allowed them to be built relatively cheaply but at the expense of fire safety. He and a co-writer wrote in a 2006 essay that the towers were “subject to reduced strength and safety compared with standard, code-enforced high-rise construction.”
By the time of the 9/11 terror attacks, Chapman was better acquainted than most with disaster and near-misses.
When ABC-TV panned away from the second game of the 1977 World Series to show a building in flames — the occasion for the much-repeated but probably apocryphal Howard Cosell quote, “the Bronx is burning” — Chapman was fighting the fire.
He was on the scene when Croatian separatists exploded a bomb at the Yugoslav Bank in a Fifth Avenue skyscraper in 1980, and in 1981 when a steam pipe ruptured in the basement of a 24-story midtown office building, killing a cleaning woman and trapping 22 workers.
He went toe-to-toe with Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell on Valentine’s Day 1979 over decorations at the club he warned were fire hazards. In a confrontation witnessed by half-naked busboys and at least one photographer for a city tabloid, he told Rubell to “get lost” and barred partyers from entering until the decorations were removed.Chapman was born and raised in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn and graduated from St. Francis Prep High School.
During World War II, he served in the Navy on the aircraft carrier USS Cabot in the Pacific, earning seven Battle Stars and an Admiral’s Commendation. After the war, he became a flight engineer in the Naval Reserve, originally serving at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and later at Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Pennsylvania. He retired as chief petty officer after 40 years.
Chapman joined the FDNY in April 1947 and served much of his early career in Brooklyn. After being promoted to deputy chief, Chapman spent the remainder of his career in Manhattan, where he specialized in high-rise firefighting.
Chapman was a life member of the East Meadow Fire Department, an instructor and chief at the Nassau County Fire Training Academy and an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md.
His daughter, Marianne McLaughlin, said she’d grown up listening to his admonitions: upon entering a nightclub or concert venue, find and stand near the nearest fire exit; never stay above the seventh floor in a hotel, so as to be in easier reach of fire ladders; never stay anywhere without a sprinkler system.
“These things are stuck with me forever,” she said.
Chapman’s wife of 68 years, Helen, died in 2008. Besides his daughter, he is survived by sons, Robert of McMinnville, Ore., John of Sag Harbor, and James of North Massapequa, also a firefighter. He is also survived by nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Funeral Mass was held at Holy Family Catholic Church in Hicksville, followed by burial at Calverton National Cemetery.