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The Bravest

For firefighters, putting their lives on the line is just part of the job.
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

(continued from page 1)

As buildings enlarged and climbed farther into the sky, new equipment was necessary: better hoses, ladder trucks, etc. The firefighter was increasingly put into harm's way as he was forced to go deeper and deeper into buildings to make rescues. Bravery was accepted as an occupational necessity, prompting Ed Croker, chief of the department from 1899 to 1911, to remark: "Firemen do not regard themselves as heroes, because they do what the job requires."

A fire protection bureau was established in 1912 as a result of the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, which took 146 lives, many of them young female garment workers. This nearly invisible arm of the fire department provides a sort of silent heroism, preventing fires and lessening their effect when they occur. As the estimated death toll at the World Trade Center slowly dropped from 6,000 to 3,000 lives, it became clear that fire protection efforts instituted after the terrorist bombing of the complex in 1993 had lessened a tragedy that might easily have claimed 25,000 or 30,000.

The FDNY made its way through the twentieth century beset by constant problems, such as world wars that tapped its ranks and a depression that drained its funds. In the 1960s and 1970s, a new woe touched the fire department, a social unrest that caused its members to be viewed not as heroes, but as the enemy. For the first time, the department covered the cabs on fire trucks as protection against attacks.

September 11 changed that -- at least for the time being. Firefighters spoke of the outpouring of gratitude arising after the tragedy: people stopping into station houses to thank them, kissing them on the street, cheering as they returned from digging at Ground Zero. It doesn't go unmentioned in their comments. Jim Rahill, of Ladder 22, lit a cigar at the Big Smoke and said, "It's nice to know that there really are people that appreciate us." Chris Donovan, also of Ladder 22, concurred that the attention was overwhelming, but was more circumspect: "It'll go away. It's a shame 343 guys had to lose their lives for it to be realized."

John Whaler, of Engine 291 in Queens, put the way we treat true heroes into pointed perspective: "It's strange the way our society treats athletes and celebrities. What are they doing? Hitting a baseball for a living. And every year they demand more millions. We will die for you without even thinking about it, and for us to get a three-percent raise is like pulling teeth."

Photo by A. Perry Heller


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