WEST VILLAGE — Three tree pits lining Sixth Avenue by the dilapidated Father Fagan Park bear the names of three young firefighters who perished in a massive blaze on Watts Street in 1994.
The firefighters belonged to Engine 24, Ladder 5 on Sixth Avenue. The men of that firehouse frequented a Prohibition Era speakeasy-style bar called Chumley's, just because it was down the street. But after the Watts Street fire, the bar hosted a memorial to their lost friends.
Chumley's owner Steve Shlopak had been close with Capt. John Drennan, one of the firefighters killed by the Watts Street fire. Shlopak named the bar's red beer Captain Drennan's Red Ale, and a huge portrait of Drennan was mounted behind the bar.
It was after that, retired firefighter Jim Miller said, that Chumley's became something more than just a local watering hole.
"I guess that's what kind of cemented the relationship between the firehouse and Chumley's down the street," Miller said.
Engine 24 has been no stranger to sadness. The same firefighters whose brothers perished in the Watts Street fire went on to lose 11 men on Sept. 11, 2001.
"All of them had been guys who would come to Chumley's," Miller said.
A large memorial to the fallen heroes of 9/11 came together in the back of the bar, and became a permanent fixture. As in 1994, Chumley's became a refuge for the mourning firefighters.
A few years later, they lost two more men in a massive fire at the old Deutsche Bank building near Ground Zero, which had been condemned after 9/11.
"The firehouse on Sixth Avenue has had its share of hard times," Miller said. "Chumley's was kind of always part of that. It was an extension of who we were."
After the Watts Street fire, some of the Engine 24 firefighters started helping out at the bar. Soon the entire roster of Chumley's bartenders were off-duty firefighters.
Some, including Miller, partnered as the bar's operators about a decade ago, just a year or two before the wall collapse that forced the bar to close in 2007.
Since then, Miller and his partners have funneled money into building repairs, navigated complicated government red tape, and faced down lawsuits from a handful of neighborhood residents who are determined to see the bar closed for good.
The attacks from the neighbors, under the name "Bar-Free Bedford," caught Miller a little bit by surprise after his years as a firefighter in the neighborhood, and still affects him more than he expects.
"It stings a little bit," he said. "The notion that I would act irresponsibly after serving that community for so long is upside down.
"Us guys love that neighborhood," he added. "We wouldn't serve that community for so long and then come in and be a jerk."
The two men who died in the Deutsche Bank fire were Miller's best friends. One of them was Bobby Beddia, who tended bar at Chumley's every Friday night and Sundays during the day.
"He was Mr. Chumley," Miller said. "He was just terrific. Everyone in the Village loved him."
That love was so strong, former Councilwoman Christine Quinn sponsored a bill to name the street Chumley's is on "Firefighter Bobby Beddia Way." Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the bill into law in 2009.
But Miller and his friends have postponed the official dedication for years, because they want to hold a service in Chumley's.
"So we could all have a beer in his name," Miller explained.
More than six years have passed. The neighbors lost a lawsuit attempting to get the State Liquor Authority to revoke the bar's liquor license, and a judge is now deliberating over a second suit in which city lawyers defended Chumley's legal right to continue to operate as a bar once their repairs are complete.
Miller and his partners are going before Community Board 2 on Thursday night with their SLA application to have their liquor license renewed. Since 2007, the board has twice renewed the license without issue, Miller said.
Once those hurdles are cleared, Miller said, Chumley's reopening should be "very soon."
"We’re getting very, very close," Miller said. The repairs nearing completion now are being done by the landlord: "All the support stuff, all the foundation stuff."
"And then we go back in," Miller said, "and put Chumley’s back in."