Every year on this day, we are reminded of that most dark chapter of the fire service, and our nation; I’ve written more than a few essays on a fireman’s point of view on 9/11. When it happened I was a 26 year old side pocket, ladder-truck fireman, who’s only responsibilities at work included cleaning the toilets, raising & lowering the flag and, on that most cherished occasion, holding the nozzle or pike pole in my hands, dancing into the unknown with that most lethal of partners. That day, I stared at the tv as events unfolded, all the boys in my station unusually silent as we struggled to comprehend the enormity of death playing out before our eyes. We wondered, wordlessly, if we would have it within us to march to a certain death, knowing that others needed us in that moment. I am loathe to use the word “hero”; in fact I hate that term, but to this day, those men & women of the FDNY are some of the few to whom I can assign it without irony.
This will never happen in our City, right? We are a mid-size fire department in the middle of the middle of America, and the only reason terrorists would consider a stopover in Springfield, Missouri would be to sample our fried chicken in gravy and green onions we church up, labelling it “Cashew Chicken”, or to visit the much-ballyhooed Bass Pro Headquarters. Outside of being the meth capital of the country or the Buckle of The Bible Belt (depending on whom you ask), we are most unremarkable from other mid-size towns that dot our nation. We are the home of the homeless and the hard-working, humidity and and the kind of home-grown kindness that is scarce on the coasts. So 9/11 is a distant cousin, the firefighters of that great city like mythical badasses of firehouse lore, facing down life’s greatest threats on the regular, fueled by testosterone and the gasoline of urban plight. And every year on September 11th, kind strangers and church groups bring us cookies and treats, which we accept awkwardly, always with an embarrassed admission that we are not really worthy of this sort of treatment. We are doing nothing outside of the ordinary and the Taliban has yet to target the greater Springfield Metropolitan Area.
Yet this last week, our department had what’s called in the business a “near-miss”. I won’t speculate on what occurred, nor can I violate confidences of those involved. What I can say is that some of my brothers and a sister on my very own department were trapped inside a burning house, and the shit was hitting the proverbial fan. To be, in the words of someone who was there, surrounded by fire and lose your water was incomprehensibly terrifying. To conceptualize your own death in the home of strangers, to anticipate burning up in the immediate future is a thought no less harrowing than that which must have crossed the minds of the 343 members of the FDNY heading up stairwells to their own certain doom 14 years ago. I saw in his eyes the fear, a day later, as my colleague described the helpless feeling that engulfed him as surely as the flames, to know he had to bail out through that most hellish of circumstances, praying the crew made it out as one. Your own mortality does not discriminate between a raging high rise fire & collapse and a two story home in the 417 area code that is weaving its own particular web of death around you.
We are human, all of us. We live with fear. We don’t want to die like this. We are scared and yet we push forward, for if not us, then who? THIS is what they pay us for, these moments of risk. When a smartass citizen in the grocery store wants to verbally assault us as to what his tax dollars are funding, we close our eyes and imagine these moments, imagine that this angry man can’t himself imagine what we’re willing to risk for him. We know we need to be ready to find HIM in that burning house, even if he chooses to spend his free time berating us publicly to satisfy his own political beliefs. It’s okay. It’s what we signed up for, and we know it, so we smile and nod and give him the phone number to headquarters where he can direct his righteously furious rage towards those in the know. And we collect the groceries we’ve purchased ourselves and head back to our safe haven of a fire station, ready for those alarms to be struck at any hour, summoning us back to you.
Now I’m an Officer on my department, and I can no longer free-wheel into the fire scene with only my own safety in mind. There are three wives and three sets of kids who are counting on me to direct their husbands and fathers safely in the most dangerous of situations, and I owe them that. My own ex-wife recently remarked how much more grey my hair was getting these days. I shouldn’t expect any less, for I am likely worth far more to her on the other side of dirt than among the upright, and I chose to ignore the glee in her tone. But my children need me and I need to do right by them and by the families of those who ride my rig. So, like I deal with the irate citizen who loudly proclaims his tax dollars are being wasted on my cup of coffee (not accurate), I just nod in her direction and focus on just how good aforementioned cup of coffee is going to taste when I get back to my beloved firehouse, back to the comfortable chaos I know.
So today I raise my cup in honor of those who perished in service to others that terrible day. I raise it to my coworkers who found themselves in the lethal embrace of fire, and came out on the other side, burned and bruised but here. I raise it to the boys on my own rig, to their bravery in the face of an unknown future. Long may our bonds be forged in a dance that most will never know. And may we never forget that ours is journey of service, that we are fortunate to be called upon in a moment of need, and that, even when we falter, we push on forward, not resting until our obligation is fulfilled.
Cheers to the 343. Cheers to those who have fallen before us. May their sacrifice be remembered and honored, always.