It is September 23, 2001. It is twelve days since the attack on and collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
This morning, the local newspapers carry the official department photographs of the 343 New York City firefighters who perished in the disaster. The New York Times has a two-page spread, while The New York Daily News devotes a section of the paper to the photos, with a pair of well-written tributes by Pete Hamill and Patrice O’Shaughnessy. Not surprising. The News has always been the blue-collar paper here; it’s likely that the men whose photos appear read it every day. I know my father did.
As I was looking at the faces and reading the names of these men, I was wondering what my father would have said about this. How many of these faces would he recognize? Surely, he knew some of them, although he retired in 1973 after thirty-five years of service.
For years after his retirement, my father continued to visit firehouses around the city. He was an insurance broker and many firemen were his clients. He was also a tax accountant and, up until just a few years ago, he trekked into the city three or four times a week during tax season, sometimes spending an entire day in one firehouse, making out income tax forms. So, yes, I’m sure he knew some of these brave men, even a few who were toddlers (or not even born) in ’73 when he hung up his helmet and left active duty.
When I was a child, my father occasionally took me to the firehouse with him. I can remember putting on his helmet and standing in his boots. The helmet felt like it weighed a ton; the boots were far too big for me. He’d let me ring the bell on the fire truck. But he’d never let me slide down the fire pole, which I always thought must have been a cool thing to do, because he thought I’d get hurt doing it.
The other firemen were always friendly. They were happy to see me and, I suspect, any other kids who visited. One of them, Clarence Williams, always bought me an ice cream pop. The firefighters enjoyed being there; indeed, it seemed a fairly easy life. They sat around reading, playing cards, or talking, just waiting to be called to fight a fire.
Once, I was in the fire house when an alarm came in. Awed, I watched the firemen don their gear, jump on the truck, and zoom away. When they returned, I asked my father why I couldn’t have come with him. He said, “Because little boys don’t put out fires. That’s what WE do.”
In the early 1960s, a building collapsed on my father as he fought a fire. Luckily, he was rescued and suffered only a neck injury and a burn. His injuries left him a physical scar that he carried for the rest of his life. Even though it must have left a psychological scar as well, it was only a few months later that he was back on the job.
At the time, I did not understand the danger my father faced every day he went to work. All the photos I’d ever seen of firemen and all the news reports on television showed them standing outside burning buildings spraying water on fires. I figured my father had been outside with a hose and the building just fell over sideways on him and his fellow firefighters. I didn’t know they went INTO burning buildings.
Years later when we talked about what might have happened to him, he said, “Well, that’s what we do.”
In the mid-70s, early in my career at DC Comics, it was decided that we needed a Fire Warden to be in charge of safety and evacuation in the event of a fire in the building. I pointed out my father’s career with the FDNY and so I was elected.
It was a fairly easy job at first. We had only 30 people on staff and the office was small, so I just had to walk down the main hallway and direct everyone to the fire exit. “Go that way and go now!” I said during our drills.
As DC grew to 200 people and the company took over five floors at 1700 Broadway, I recruited Assistant Wardens and made sure every room was checked as we made our way to the fire stairs.
When the safety inspectors ran the fire drills every few months, they would be amazed at how quickly the DC staffers assembled at the fire exits. No other company did it as quickly or efficiently. I would tell my father this and he would smile.
He then told me again about the dangers of smoke, particularly in offices where the fumes from burning plastics can be toxic. He reminded me about checking doors for heat before opening them. He cautioned me to always go down when escaping because fire burns up.
“And finally,” he’d say, “don’t you EVER decide to go back to save somebody. You get your butt out of the building and leave the rescuing to the firemen. That’s what WE do!”
Now New York City has lost three hundred and forty-three of its bravest, men whose first thought as thousands of civilians were heading down and out of the burning World Trade towers was to get into the buildings and up to the floors where the fires were burning.
One of the men I play softball with, Byron Bodine, is a firefighter assigned to a house in the Bowery in lower Manhattan. His company was one of the first on the scene. A number of his friends were killed.
Although he had spent much of the past week and a half at “Ground Zero” helping with the rescue operation and had to be running on sheer adrenaline, he played in Friday night’s game.
Afterwards, he recounted to his teammates about how people have been bringing food and clean clothing to the firehouse. People make donations for the families of the firefighters who have been lost. [“There are some,” Byron said, “they don’t even speak English, but they come and give us money to tell us how they feel and show their support.”]
Like all his brethren in the department today – and all those like my father who served before him – Byron appreciates the respect, encouragement and admiration the New York City firefighters are receiving. Charging into hell when everyone else is running for their lives shows bravery that many of us could never muster. But with the barest of shrugs, Byron says, “That’s what we do.”
My father is gone now, gone a year this summer. His spirit lives on in people like Byron Bodine and the thousands of other firefighters, police officers, and rescue personnel in New York and around this great country.
Had he lived to see this, to witness the sacrifice of so many, I know he would be proud, proud of the firefighters he knew and just as proud of the ones he never met.
And of one thing I am certain. If asked why they had put their lives on the line, my father would reply, “That’s what we do.”
Copyright ? 2000 to 2003 by Bob Rozakis. All Rights Reserved.