Cigar Aficionado

The Bravest

For firefighters, putting their lives on the line is just part of the job.

Jack Crowe thought he had that Tuesday off. The Thursday before, Crowe, formerly a lieutenant at a firehouse in Brooklyn and today a captain at Manhattan's Engine 28, had been promoted. So, on September 11, he was at home in Staten Island, awaiting his next assignment.

That assignment came earlier than expected and no one had to tell him what it was. "When I heard the news, I got dressed and came in," says Crowe, who took the long ferry ride across New York harbor. He helplessly watched the towers of the World Trade Center burn as he arrived at Ground Zero after the buildings had collapsed. "You do what you have to do to be there. That's the only thing that goes through your mind."

Crowe felt that he arrived too late to be a hero -- for the ultimate heroics that claimed so many of his brethren. Yet Jack Crowe's heroism that day, like that of a thousand other firefighters, lay not in whether he risked his life, but in his willingness to do so. The unquestioned devotion to duty, to drop all else and face all manner of danger, is the common thread that has always linked the courageous souls of the fire department that the city likes to call "New York's Bravest."

That kind of second nature about duty came through in the tone of every firefighter who attended the special "Big Smoke" in November, which Cigar Aficionado hosted to say thank you to the fire and police departments and emergency workers of New York. You could hear it in the nonchalance of Jeff Borkowski, whose Hazardous Materials team lost 14 members that day: "We go to any emergency. It's just a job. We do it because it's something we love to do." Or Evan King, of Ladder 140, who shrugged, "Everybody was there. There was a job that had to be done." Or Lt. John Driscoll, of Haz Mats Special Ops, who similarly discounted his appearance there: "Yeah, I went to Ground Zero. Everybody did." Or Chris Childs, of Engine 283, who vaguely considered danger but ignored it: "I was thinking there might be some kind of biological warfare and of trying to get through to my family. But, of course, others needed help."

If the firefighters themselves downplay their heroism, few outside their ranks now do. After repeatedly watching the buildings collapse on video with the knowledge that rescuers had waded in of their own volition, after seeing the tangled wreckage of fire trucks on the streets where the catastrophe occurred, after months of the mind-numbing spectacle of firefighter funeral after firefighter funeral, after hearing the accounts of individual heroism such as the volunteer chaplain who came to help but was killed himself, it is hard not to appreciate those who serve in the Fire Department of New York. If any good can be said to have come from the horror that was September 11, it is that the "Bravest" are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

It was a long time in coming. Firefighting has been a profession at least since the first century b.c., when Augustus established a fire department in Rome. Stories of the bravery of firefighters date at least to the Middle Ages, when crusaders encountered the use of fire as a weapon. The fierce Saracens poured naphtha on them and lit it. The Knights of St. John distinguished themselves by risking their lives to save other soldiers torched in the blazes. The familiar shield of the FDNY -- and many other fire departments -- is modeled on the Maltese Cross, which was the knights' standard.

Fire has been part of New York City's history from its very beginning. In 1613, Dutch explorer Adrien Block established the first white settlement there after his ship burned at anchor near the site where the World Trade Center would later stand. The city of New Amsterdam grew up there, and by 1648 fire was such a problem that the imperious governor Peter Stuyvesant appointed the first fire wardens in the New World. They levied fines for such violations as improper chimney maintenance. By 1658, "prowlers" patrolled the streets at night looking for fire. Citizens were expected to keep leather buckets and respond when an alarm was sounded. Much of the city's early history concerns the establishment of ready sources of water for fighting fires.

The British, who wrested control of the city in 1664, maintained the Dutch fervor for controlling fires, and by 1731 were importing crude fire engines -- hand-pumped and filled by buckets -- from England. The Brits, who had experienced the 1666 Fire of London, one of history's worst conflagrations, were the pioneers of water-pumping fire equipment. The first fire engine made in America was built in New York in 1743, six years after the establishment of a volunteer fire department.

Volunteers would do the bulk of the city's firefighting for more than a century, and as the department grew so did competition between the resulting fire companies. It was considered sport to watch the resulting horse races as firemen drove their teams down the avenue in response to alarms. New Yorkers were even known to turn in false alarms to enliven an otherwise dull Sunday afternoon. Another unseemly practice sprung up from the volunteer era -- embezzlement of funds meant for widows and orphans. The notorious political boss William M. Tweed got his start as a member of a volunteer fire department.

The steam-powered fire engine would hail the end of New York's volunteer era. The advancement meant that significantly fewer men could fight a fire as efficiently. Firemen bridled against the new equipment, but political reformers and insurance companies lobbied for it, and by 1865 the steam fire engine was in and volunteerism was out. With professionalism came new discipline, standards of conduct and training for the firefighters. Damages from fire dropped precipitously. By 1883, a fire academy was established; today, inductees receive 10 weeks of training; all firefighters also receive further instruction continually.

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