Friday, September 9, 2011

Those Guys, That Day, This Heart

 As 9/11 Tenth Anniversary approaches I reprint my piece on "the boys in blue" with whom I worked in FDNY:
 Once I had a key that opened every firehouse in New York City. I went into a burning building in Bedford Stuyvesant. I rode with an arson squad in the Bronx. I had a scanner and knew the 10-code: 10-4 “acknowledge”; 10-9 “off the air”; 10-76 “fire in a high rise building.” I went to Medal Day parties and firefighters’ funerals, which had the same menus as the parties and where the same  stories flowed like beer.

 Those Guys
Jack pulled up to a house in Queens just as a firefighter came bursting through a third floor window, his turnout coat in flames. “Not a good way to start the day,” Jack said.
John knew of three young firemen who got trapped in a cellar and stopped communicating on the radio. Just stopped. “They could have been saved,” John said. “They could have been saved, if they had kept on talking.” Their silence still rang in his ears.
 Tommy told about waking up in the bunkroom on Great Jones Street to see the moon in the window, full-fisted, irresistible, calling him. He said, “I’m not afraid of dying in a fire; I’m afraid of dying alone in a chair in the dark.” 
Joey was at 23rd Street where 12 guys died. “We come up to the scene at the same time as another company and the chief says to us, ‘Go there,’” Joey said. “So we go around the building this way. The chief tells the other company, ‘Go there.’ They go into the store, where, unknown to everyone, the fire’s spread. It’s right under where they go in. They move forward a few feet. The floor drops and they fall into the fire.
“We arrived the same time they did. It could have been us down there instead of those guys.”
That Day
That day 343 New York firefighters died. One of them was my friend, Lincoln Quappe. Linc always wanted to be where the action was—the busiest company, biggest fire, trickiest rescue. With Rescue 2 that day, he was in the heart of the heart of the action. People who knew him said later, “If he had a choice, he would do it again.”

 After Linc’s funeral in October, the local Long Island fire department had a spread. The sun shone, trucks gleamed, grills smoked, and beer flowed like stories. Firefighters from FDNY, from Long Island, and from out of state ate and drank and talked. That day, they talked about funerals and those guys still missing.

This Heart
        This heart is a burned-out building, steam rising from its blackened skeleton. This heart is a silent radio.
       Those guys. That day. This broken heart.