The biggest fire Frank DeFeo ever fought killed 25 elderly Jewish residents of Atlantic City’s Surfside Hotel, which was used as a senior citizens home in the offseason.

The fire also burned half a block, said DeFeo, who retired as a captain after a 35-year career in the Atlantic City Fire Department. It didn’t get the attention it deserved, DeFeo said, because it happened Nov. 18, 1963 — a few days before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“That took all those headlines,” said DeFeo, retired since 1996. He lives in Absecon with wife of 40 years, Mary Ann (Campbell), whom he met at the Rum Point Pub, a local landmark knocked down to build Harrah’s Resort in the Marina District. They have five adult children.

DeFeo started in the department in 1963, and had two busy decades in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The Inlet was burning,” he said. “Every night there would be a fire.”

Dozens of homes were left vacant, he said, due to speculation and planned urban renewal projects.

“Some of the most gorgeous two- and three- story homes on South States Avenue were left for anybody to break into,” DeFeo said. “We were out just about every night.”

He fought the 1963 fire that destroyed Hackney’s Seafood Restaurant in the Inlet, and the 1973 fire that took the 500 Club on South Missouri Avenue, where Frank Sinatra performed and Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin got started as a duo.

But he remembers a winter fire on a tugboat off Massachusetts Avenue for other reasons.

“Someone broke into it to keep warm, and set a mattress on fire,” he said, then left the boat to burn. “That was the coldest I’ve ever been on a fire.”

Writing workshops in Cape

Writer Eva Feeley, of Sea Isle City, will be leading a “Write Your Own Memoirs” workshop at the Avalon Free Public Library from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Jan. 14 through March 4. Call Linda Duffy at 609-967-7155.

Feeley is also leading seven-week “Components of Creative Writing” workshops at the Sea Isle City branch of the Cape May County Library from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Jan. 15 through Feb. 26, call 609-263-7301; and at the Ocean City Free Public Library from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Thursdays, Feb. 27 through April 10, call Karen Mahar at 609-399-2434.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:


More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.