"Faces of Honor"
-- Pete Hamill - City Beat - NY Daily News
He would see them on summer afternoons, big and brawny or wiry
and tough, standing outside the firehouses all over the city. Their
denim shirts were often stained with sweat. They had the ease of
men who did not need to brag about the work they did. It seemed
that they were always laughing.
We would see them when the city leaves turned yellow with autumn,
standing in the open doors of those firehouses. Inside, the red
fire trucks and engines glistened with the pride of craftsmen who
respected their tools. They seemed to love talking with small children.
They were all, it seemed, fond of dogs. They sometimes paused and
breathed deeply of the crisp air of October, for no men understood
better the special beauty of a cleansing breeze. It seemed that
they were always laughing.
We would see them inside the closed doors of the New York winter,
waiting casually, almost indolently for the sounds of alarms. Upstairs,
they talked with passion about food, for they cooked for themselves,
and the menu was a kind of democratic choice.
In all the places that we ever visited, the job of chef seemed
to fall upon the Italian-Americans among them. Lasagna, homemade,
with fresh loaves of Italian bread seemed to be the favorite food
of Irish-American firemen, and Latinos, and the tough children of
the Eastern European Jews, and those whose ancestors went all the
way back to Africa. Too often the food went cold as they raced off
to practice their dangerous craft. It seemed that they were always
We would see them in the springtime, the overcoats of winter gone,
ballgames playing now on radios, as young women walked by the firehouses
to the subways, objects of their admiring collective gaze. They
made no rude noises, no crude remarks. Their admiration was always
aesthetic, like visitors to museums shocked into silence by the
sight of beauty. And after all, most of them were young themselves,
their lives filled with the infinite possibilities of youth. They
celebrated the multiple beauties of this world because their craft
so often took them into horror. And always, always, it seemed that
they were laughing.
Now 343 of those firemen are gone. Sept. 11, 2001, was a calamity
for thousands of New Yorkers, for its citizens, police, EMS workers.
We have all suffered unacceptable losses. But it was also the single
worst day in the long history of the New York Fire Department. No
other day has even come close.
The firemen were organized as a single unit in 1865 at the command
of Albany and became in 1870, at the urgings of an old fireman named
Boss Tweed, the Fire Department of New York. That is why the caps
and insignias say FDNY, not NYFD. They began when 86th St. was a
distant suburb. They began before the five boroughs were joined
into one city in 1898. They have been fighting fires and saving
lives ever since, day after day, night after night, in all seasons.
They have summoned their Celtic pipe band to bury too many of their
Until Sept. 11, the worst single day for the FDNY took place in
October 1966, when a floor collapsed in a burning building on 23d
St. That day 12 firemen were killed. That week, New York was shocked
and numbed. None of us then alive could have imagined a day when
almost 30 times that number would perish in smoke, fire and exploded
steel. No firemen could have been prepared to deal with such murderous
It seems to be no accident, in a city of such widespread valor,
that in the numbered shorthand of our most terrible day the first
three numbers were 911.
Entire fire companies have now disappeared from the landscape of
New York. Every living fireman has lost friends or relatives. Even
now, the bodies of hundreds of firemen remain entombed under the
smoking rubble of Ground Zero. Much of the top brass vanished while
serving at the front.
But the heaviest casualties were among the infantry of the FDNY,
those who would never pause when asked to take that hill or that
town. Men just like them died at Anzio and Omaha Beach, in the Hurtgen
Forest and Monte Cassino, on Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa and too
many other godforsaken places from the Yalu Reservoir to Anh Khe.
In all those places, and in the towers of lower Manhattan, decent
men became young forever.
Many were married, with wives and children now scattered all over
the metropolitan area, orphaned by the heartless storm of fanaticism.
Many were single, in the first sweet stages of maturity. Some were
veterans, gnarled but not hardened by repeated exposure to human
suffering, bearers of the department's memory, teachers of their
dangerous craft. Many were the children of firemen, or had their
own children assigned to our firehouses. Not one of them woke up
that morning thinking it might be their last.
An old reporter visiting the site on the night of the disaster
said to a middle-aged policeman: "Thank you. You guys are real heroes."
"No, no, we're not," he said, heavy with exhaustion and sorrow.
"We're here, two blocks away. The cops on the scene, they're heroes.
The ambulance guys, heroes." Then he shook his head and smothered
a sob. "But those firemen, those crazy goddamned firemen ..."
Those crazy goddamned firemen were all part of the same band of
brothers, transcending the petty differences of race or religion.
Such differences were most often dissolved in jokes and laughter.
The fraternity itself, like that of combat soldiers, was forged
in shared adversity.
Some could trace their FDNY lineage back through the generations.
Sons honored fathers and grandfathers by taking their own places
in the fire companies of New York. Some, of course, were the first
in their families to lug hose into burning buildings. But Irishness
was there from the beginning, when the children of the Irish devastated
by the famine climbed upon horse-drawn trucks to race to the rescue.
In some old FDNY families, where Mayo and Galway were the countries
of origin, one son was a cop, one was a fireman, and the third was
a priest. In firehouses, there were jokes about the new recruits,
whose names were transformed into O'Morales or McLevin. Nobody at
Ground Zero on Sept. 11 can ever forget that black fireman weeping
for "my brothers" — who were, of course, the bearers of Irish, Italian,
Hispanic and Jewish names.
Nor should anybody ever forget the multiple images of firemen in
helmets and rubbery raincoats, carrying equipment into the towers
while frantic civilians moved past them in the direction of open
streets, cobalt skies and breathable air. At an improvised firehouse
altar on Lafayette St., one sign, hand-lettered by a citizen, said:
"You ran in when we ran out. We are grateful forever." That firehouse
lost 14 men.
Everyone in the city seemed to understand that the primary mission
of those firemen was to save human life. That is the job. Life first,
property second. Firemen don't pack guns. They are not asked to
face criminals or madmen. They don't ever confront fellow citizens
the way police officers sometimes must: to impose order on chaos.
They don't make arrests. They don't need to make split-second judgments
about innocence or guilt. They are simply there to save human life.
In the pages that follow, we give you their faces. In the days
and years to come, their lives will be memorialized by historians.
We hope they will emerge as complete individuals, who lived dense,
rounded lives. We hope they will flower as human beings full of
hopes, ambitions, desires, and the usual human imperfections. But
look at these faces. Note the obvious pride. Note individuality
of style. Note, in many of them, the twinkle in the eyes. And remember:
these men ennobled our race, which is, of course, the human race.
Remember, too, that these men — the firemen of Sept. 11 — were extraordinary
human beings. They went where most human beings never go. They kept
climbing and climbing and climbing, into the smoke-fouled air, looking
for living human beings. They went toward the fire, which so terrified
the trapped people of the upper floors that they preferred leaping
to their deaths. These firemen died while climbing toward the fearful
sky. Now, and in all the days to come, for all of us who remain
among the living, we must honor them each time we pass a firehouse.
With a tip of a hat. A nod. A word of thanks. We must honor what
they did, and what their brothers keep on doing. They will, of course,
honor us in the coming days with their courage, their tenacity,
and their laughter