￼￼Baptism by Fire
A New York Firefighter Confronts His First Test
By N. R. KLEINFIELD JUNE 20, 2014
￼Footage from a New York Fire Department training exercise.
I N THE HUSHED DARKNESS of a chilly night, a fire truck carrying six men rolled toward its Brooklyn firehouse. They had just finished up at a women’s shelter, where steam wisping from
an iron had set off an alarm. Not much to it. There had been a few other runs for Ladder Company 105 — a gas leak, a stuck elevator — but for Jordan Sullivan, another 15-hour shift was unspooling without what he so eagerly awaited.
In his 96 days in the field as a firefighter, a probie out of the Fire Academy — the Rock, as it’s familiarly known — it had not happened. Around the firehouse, the veterans continually swapped fire stories. That was how they both taught and regaled one another, and the stories were good ones. He could not contribute. He hadn’t had a fire.
Sometimes a probie goes on the maiden run of his career and, bam, a fire. Usually, in New York, it happens during the first few tours. Maybe it takes a week or even a month. But 96 days — nearly triple digits! That was ridiculous.
￼Probies take a lot of ribbing, part of the subculture of being a probationary firefighter, and it was a running joke about how Jordan Sullivan could not catch a fire. The others would say drolly, “Well, I know I’m not going to a fire tonight, Jordan’s here.”
The Rookie Firefighter Jordan Sullivan at his station in Brooklyn. Damon Winter/The New York Times
Fires happen all the time in New York. On average, the Fire Department responds to 68 structural fires a day, most of them minor, but usually eight to 10 that qualify as serious. Fires everywhere, and yet after 96 days Firefighter Sullivan kept wondering, “When’s it my turn?”
Adding insult, another probie had done a 90-day rotation with Ladder 105 and had caught 10 fires. His gear stank of smoke. The other firefighters would needle Jordan Sullivan: “Hey, probie, you smelling his gear again?”
￼Everyone knew he had this pent-up itch. He would never say it this way, but the others couldn’t help but sense that Jordan Sullivan was wishing for a fire.
At the firehouse’s annual dinner dance several weeks earlier on Staten Island, everyone decked out in jacket and tie, Christopher Paolicelli, the captain of 105, saw the need to settle him down. “You don’t want to wish for fire,” Captain Paolicelli told him. And he solemnly filled him in on a job in which a firefighter had been killed and the captain himself was burned and laid up for two weeks in the burn unit. The point, of course, was to remind him of the malevolence of fire. These were not games they played.
The “ticket” popped up on the screen as the truck pounded down Dean Street. It was 2:15 a.m. on Sunday, March 16. A resident reported smoke at an apartment building at 130 Third Avenue in Boerum Hill.
Assuming it wasn’t one more false alarm, and there were always plenty of them, then maybe this was finally it.
Y OU NEVER FORGET IT. Not your first fire. To a firefighter, the first fire is like a police officer’s first collar, a lawyer’s first jury trial, a fisherman’s first tuna. It becomes chiseled into your
memory in big block letters, rolled out and dusted off for a lifetime of reminiscence.
Ask a firefighter about his first fire. Details pour out. It was at 78th and York, in the ductwork of a Chinese restaurant. It was on Woodhaven Boulevard in Elmhurst, a man fell asleep with his cigarette burning. It was a chemistry lab of a school, a pizza parlor, a laundromat. It was Macon Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, top floor of a brownstone, backup man on the hose. The captain took a picture, probie at his first fire, and it sits in a frame at home.
It could have been 10 years ago, 20, 30, 50. There is only one first fire.
Fires, in their own ways, evolve as unscripted dramas. Some make headlines. Most you never hear about. Between the first report of smoke and when the flames are put out, countless decisions occur in the space of mere minutes. Go right? Go left? How many lengths of hose? Is my air good? Is everyone out?
Fires can end in tragedy. But occasionally, something extraordinary happens, something that every firefighter aspires to but few experience. It can happen when you least expect it. Even at a probie’s first fire.
While awaiting a fire, Jordan Sullivan had not been idle for 96 days. He had easily done a couple of
￼hundred runs, almost always in the junior position on the truck, the one called the “can man,” who lugged a fire extinguisher. Ladder companies like his tackled the entry work and the search for survivors. Engine companies had the hoses that put out fires.
The vast majority of what a New York firefighter does, though, has nothing to do with fire. Last spring, firefighters in Queens had to retrieve a police officer who got stuck in a tree trying to save a cat. Firefighter Sullivan had not had tree calls, but his tours were a litany of balky elevators, car accidents, chirping carbon monoxide detectors, frozen pipes, blown sprinkler heads, gas leaks, smoking manholes, scaffolding emergencies, the cascade of false alarms that fate tossed his way.
He had even been to the scenes of fires, but always in a supplementary role, after the blazes were under control, or else assigned to a truck that shows up in case a firefighter needs rescuing (none had on his calls). He had been to uncountable 10-26s, code for “food on stove.” They happened all the time. Someone calls in a burning odor from a neighboring apartment, and you get there and it is someone’s baked ziti that has become burnt ziti.
But he had not had what firefighters regard as their true first fire. It’s when their truck is the “first due” — the one first to arrive — and therefore they are the ones who go in first. And it has to be to fight a consequential fire. No one is going to say his first fire is when he doused some embers in a trash can or he rescued an overcooked meatloaf. When you go into a bona fide fire as the first due, that’s when a firefighter crosses a threshold.
On the run to 130 Third Avenue, Firefighter Sullivan rode a ladder truck that was the first due.
S IREN FRACTURING THE AIR, Ladder 105 flickered through the slumbering streets. Mike Kehoe, 15 years a firefighter, was behind the wheel.
Assigned to the fire were two ladders (first and second due), three engines and a battalion chief, the customary response.
Dispatch squawked further details: that it was Apartment 5F (“five Frank on the fifth floor”), that there was a report of children inside but not “trapped or anything.” What did that mean? The senior men, including Lt. John LaBarbera, the officer on the truck, swapped puzzled looks. For his part, this early in his 18-month probation, Firefighter Sullivan did not know enough to know whether to be puzzled.
John Crowley, a 10-year veteran, chewed over the cryptic dispatch and thought, all right, we’ve got some food on stove.
Then came: “We got above four phone calls on this. We loaded it up.” That meant dispatch was assigning additional units, including a fourth engine, and Squad and Rescue companies.
One of the men on the rig said: “Multiple reports. This sounds like something.”
The others bunched on the truck showed a studied cool. You would think they were on their way to buy groceries. Firefighter Sullivan was tense. He had never been on a call like this one, what firefighters call an I.D.L.H. situation (immediately dangerous to life or health), and his mind galloped.
￼‘Am I Going to Let People Down?’
￼He would later describe it as a “good nervous, a keyed-up type of nervous like before a sporting event.” He wanted his first fire so he could prove what he was made of, demonstrate that he had the guts and ability to go to a fire and not falter, prove that especially to himself. At the same time, he knew that one thing you didn’t want to do on the fire you would always remember and tell a million people about was something really stupid.
In particular, he was concerned about putting his mask on. He always had qualms about this task, even though he practiced it every day. You mask up slow, and you hold up the others. It takes seconds, but lost seconds in a fire can mean someone’s life. You mask up wrong, don’t get that airtight seal, and you inhale smoke and its poisons and maybe you die.
The others would wait until they got there to turn on their air cylinder, their “bottle.” Given his anxiety, Firefighter Sullivan said, “I’m going to turn on my cylinder.” Might save him at best a hiccup of time, but the small gesture rewarded him with a smidgen of comfort.
￼Lt. John LaBarbera A 14-year veteran.
￼Firefighter John Crowley A 10-year veteran.
￼Firefighter Jordan Sullivan Became a probationary firefighter in 2013. Damon Winter/The New York Times
F IREFIGHTER SULLIVAN had wanted to become a wrestling coach. This was after growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and wrestling in high school and a bit in college. Circumstances, though,
took him other ways. In 2001, the year the terms of his life changed, he was working as a legislative aide for City Councilwoman Mary Pinkett.
He is soft-spoken with alert eyes and an engaging smile. He is proprietary about his private life, averse to discussing his family, none of whom had tangled with fire. He is cautious with strangers. Encountering people at parties, he identifies himself by a fake name: He is Jack or Tony. Only later, if he allows them to step into his space, does he become Jordan.
￼He enjoyed his work. Then Sept. 11 happened, and soon after that incoherent day, he decided he wanted to become a firefighter. It was something he had never before contemplated, and he could not explain his reasoning. He knew he had stood on a Brooklyn rooftop and watched in disbelief as the towers fell. And he knew it felt right to want this.
He took the next Fire Department entrance exam, in 2002, receiving an 89. Seemed decent. Then he got his call number, where he stood among the 17,850 who took the test: 6,048.
Firefighters he spoke to told him it was a dead number, try again. He checked. The next test was in January 2007. He would be 29, and by department age limits too old to apply. Ultimately, the wounded department reached deep — its ranks thinned by the loss of 343 firefighters who died on Sept. 11 and the stampede of retirements in ensuing years — yet they still hit only 5,646 on the call list.
So that was that. He was disappointed, but moved on, didn’t just carry around the dream. Soon after, he got a job with the city comptroller, starting as a clerk and working up to claims investigator. He was not unhappy.
In 2007, he heard on the news about the lawsuit. The Justice Department had sued the Fire Department after the Vulcan Society, an association of black firefighters, complained that the entrance exam was biased against minority applicants. At the time, the department was 90 percent white.
He hadn’t personally felt the exam was unfair to him as a black man. He found the suit curious but irrelevant to him, figuring, “I’ll be 50-something years old before it’s resolved.”
Things went quicker. In July 2009, a federal judge ruled that the 1999 and 2002 exams discriminated against black and Hispanic applicants. Under court-ordered reforms, promising black and Hispanic candidates not appointed from those tests could take a newly created one, regardless of their age, and would receive priority in being hired.
At the beginning of 2012, a full decade since he had that first urge, he was among hundreds of black and Latino candidates who heard from the Fire Department that they could sit for the new exam. He was amazed and unabashedly grateful at this stroke of providence.
He had an immediate worry. He always kept himself in top shape, working out daily to maintain hard-plated muscle. A few months earlier, though, he had broken his right foot while running and it was still in a plastic boot, so he had halted his workouts. He consulted his doctor and told him, “I’ve got to get back on the road.” He shed the boot and ran in pain.
He took the new exam and physical and was accepted as a priority hire, one of 76 who would emerge from the most diverse class in the department’s history. In July 2013, at age 36, Jordan
￼Sullivan, who thought he could never be a firefighter, entered the Rock.
I T TOOK TWO MINUTES for the fire truck to cover the distance to the Wyckoff Gardens housing project. It was a pallid, hulking building, 21 stories high.
As they slid in, Engine 226, the first due engine, was parking and unloading hoses.
The six Ladder 105 members clambered off the blinking truck, and to Firefighter Sullivan time seemed to accelerate. He would later remember it as “some kind of out-of-body experience.” At the front door, a resident jerked his head upward and said, “It’s on the fifth floor.”
￼The Building The Wyckoff Gardens housing project in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Marc A. Hermann/Polaris
Everyone has a function in the choreography of firefighting. Three of them made up the inside team that would find the fire for the engine and look for victims. It was led by Lieutenant LaBarbera and included Firefighter Crowley, the “irons man,” who carried the tools to force open doors, and Firefighter Sullivan, the can man.
He had a 2 1/2-gallon water extinguisher slung over his shoulder and held a 6-foot hook, a wooden stick with a spiked metal end for probing and ripping through walls. Strapped to his helmet were a chock and seven nails for propping open doors. He is 5-foot-9, 155 pounds. Swaddled in gear, he was 100 pounds heavier. The front of his helmet bore the “pumpkin patch,” the orange emblem
￼etched with PROB that advertised his novice standing.
The other three were the outside team. Patrick Hayden was the O.V., outside vent position, who would assess the perimeter, then assist the inside team. Michael Dunbar was the roof man. He would go to the apartment above to check conditions there and see if the wind dictated dropping a fire-resistant curtain over the windows of the burning apartment to prevent them from being blown in, which would allow air to feed the fire. Mike Kehoe, the chauffeur, would help survey the exterior and then climb to the roof, so he could open the bulkhead doors to ventilate the building once water went on the fire.
Plan of Attack
Kehoe would climb to the roof to create ventilation once there was water on the fire.
On the sixth floor, Dunbar would assess whether a fire-resistant curtain would be needed to protect the windows of the burning apartment.
Hayden would assess the perimeter, then assist the inside team.
Sullivan, Crowley and LaBarbera would find the fire and look for victims.
The inside team clomped up the smudged stairwell, Firefighter Sullivan at the rear. In a high rise, one stairwell becomes the attack stairs that the hose and inside team advance through, while the other is for evacuation. On the list of shoulds and shouldn’ts: Always use the stairs on a fire up through the seventh floor. And only take an elevator to two stories below a fire, to avoid getting trapped above it.
Lieutenant LaBarbera had 14 years on the job to Firefighter Sullivan’s 96 days. Going in with a probie, he knew to keep him closely tethered. It’s true they drilled every day in the firehouse, but who knew how a probie would behave when it was the real thing?
Smoke was in the stairwell. Flight by flight, it thickened. On the fifth-floor landing, a man pressing his shirt to his face and pointing said, “It’s down there.” And a panicked woman, Gloria Meadows, 64, was screaming: “Oh God, my babies are inside! Oh God, my babies are inside!”
Ms. Meadows had escaped with two children, a 1-year-old and a 14-year-old, but two others were inside, a 5-month-old boy and an 8-year-old girl. So there were children who weren’t trapped. But there were children who were.
Lieutenant LaBarbera radioed to the chauffeur to punch in a 10-75, code for a working fire. It had been 3 minutes 47 seconds since the 911 call.
They masked up. This is supposed to be done in the stairwell, but Firefighter Sullivan didn’t want to get in the way of the others, so he did it in the hallway. It was marbled with smoke, but you could see. He was slowest but got it done right.
Battalion Chief Matthew Ferris, who would run the fire, arrived and encountered Ms. Meadows in the lobby, shrieking about her trapped babies. He asked, “Who are your babies?” He knew of instances when “babies” were pets. He wanted to be certain she meant people. As he would put it: “You’re sending firefighters into a dangerous situation. How far am I going to push for a dog?”
He radioed confirmation to the inside team: Two children were in a burning apartment.
The man at the stairwell steered them to the door — 5D, not the 5F originally reported. The three of them knelt down. Firefighters normally fight fire and search buildings on their knees. Sometimes, they’re on their stomachs. Down low, the heat is less intense and the visibility is better.
￼Curls of smoke spilled from beneath the door. Lieutenant LaBarbera tried the knob. It was unlocked. He shoved open the door, looked in and then shut it. The interior was utterly obscured by smoke.
The engine men had carried three hose pieces to the stairwell of the floor below and were still assembling them and connecting the hose to the standpipe. Firefighter Dunbar woke up the woman who lived in 6D, checked the wind and radioed that there was no need for a curtain.
Should they go in without water? Wait? There were no flames snapping at them. Children were inside. This was the job. You went into unthinkable places that others ran out of.
Lieutenant LaBarbera made the call. He pushed open the door and on hands and knees the three of them crawled in.
F IREFIGHTER SCHOOL happens at the Fire Academy on Randalls Island, the Rock, in the East River. A sign on the wall reads: “Let No Man’s Ghost Come Back to Say My Training Let Me
￼Across 18 weeks, the probies learn the profundity and vagaries of fire and the ways to outwit it. About building construction to understand how fire moves. About the science of fire. The credo repeated at the academy is, “Everyone goes home,” and haunting stories are told of men who didn’t. Probies hear from a firefighter injured on Black Sunday, the winter day in 2005 when three firefighters died in dual tragedies, so the probies never forget that they are not invincible. You hope to defeat every fire. But fires win too.
Jordan Sullivan listened and it sank in “how you can be in an apartment and how quickly it can get bad.”
“It’s a great job,” he continued, “but when it gets bad, it’s bad.”
The academy resembles a movie set, with mock structures in which to fight simulated fires and save mannequins. Imitative high-rise and low-rise buildings. A subway tunnel with real train cars, sound effects from a disaster movie. Crumpled autos from junkyards. And the latest addition — a fake boat to master water rescues.
In some buildings, propane-fed tubes create fire. In others, fires are lit in pods stuffed with hay or wood. Drills also get done without “heat,” using smoke machines.
Battalion Chief Stephen Sullivan, chief of probationary firefighter school, does not acquaint himself with every probie, but he did come to know Jordan Sullivan, as he would with a probie sharing his last name. He would tease him, “You’re my long-lost nephew.” He would remind him: “I set the bar high. You have to live up to the Sullivan name.”
He felt good about Jordan Sullivan. He liked his hard-charging attitude. Beyond required class time, the academy offered after-hours instruction for those so inclined. Jordan Sullivan always was, soaking up all he could.
￼￼! Training Exercises at the Rock
Arguably the most challenging segment of the training is search and rescue. Threading through a burning building to locate the fire — or, as firefighters say, the “seat of the fire” — and find life and bring it out.
Trainers know that probies plunging into their first searches are a lost cause. For instance, they are taught to stay on the wall, to keep a hand or foot touching a wall as they crawl so they don’t get lost. Moving left, you keep your left hand on the wall and search with your right hand or a tool, and vice versa. Left-hand search. Right-hand search. Don’t lose that wall!
They lose the wall.
They are taught to find reference points if they have to leave the wall to search or rescue someone. Through their thick gloves objects feel alike. Clues and repetition teach them to unscramble their identities. Narrow, tapered leg? That’s a crib.
A grave mistake is not to check behind a door you just opened. People fumble to an exit and pass out there. Find a bed? Check if it’s a bunk bed. Someone may be unconscious on top. Reach under
￼beds. Children hide there, thinking the fire cannot find them.
Children also hide in closets. Open all doors. Enter all closets. Repeatedly, trainers watch with amusement as a probie finds a door handle, pulls it and tries to climb inside. It’s a refrigerator.
Firefighter Sullivan loved search. At first, he would hear he was too thorough and slow, that haste mattered too. “Hey, Sullivan,” he would be reminded, “work smarter, not harder.” And he would be told, “Look, you’re not too likely to find a body lying on top of a dresser.”
Yes, you did things wrong until you did them right. Everyone made mistakes. Midway through his training, Firefighter Sullivan made a bad one. You had to reach up as well as outward as you inched along, because you might miss a doorknob and skip an entire room. This time he crawled right under the knob of a closed bedroom door. After the drill, he was horrified to see what lay inside — a baby. Sure, it was a dummy baby. Yet that failure stuck fast in his memory.
I T WAS QUICKLY DARK. Black smoke pervaded the apartment. He couldn’t see. Inside an apartment on fire, you are robbed of key senses. He had to pick his way with those gardenerlike
Noise was absent. No cries for help.
In his bunker gear, Firefighter Sullivan didn’t sense the heat.
Firefighter Crowley told Firefighter Sullivan to check behind the front door. Stuff was wedged there, maybe clothing, but not children. Firefighter Crowley stayed to “control the door” until someone from the engine got there. He didn’t want it open, letting smoke escape and air flow to the fire, or for it to lock behind him, preventing the ladder men from getting out and the engine men from entering. Lt. James Long, the engine officer, arrived to spell him, and since Lieutenant LaBarbera, trailed by Firefighter Sullivan, went left, Firefighter Crowley went right.
￼Lieutenant LaBarbera had a hand-held thermal-imaging camera to help locate the fire, and they all had lights, but these were of limited help in the dense smoke.
Glimpsing what he took to be a baby carriage and mattress leaning against the wall, Lieutenant LaBarbera searched them. Nothing.
Firefighter Sullivan crawled catlike behind him on the worn linoleum, close enough to touch his ankles but not to see him. His left hand was on the wall, and he advanced as if fighting a wind in some macabre fun house maze. With his right hand, he waved his pole like a baton, searching. Don’t lose the wall. Don’t lose the wall.
New firefighters groping through a burning apartment have the sensation of an immense labyrinth. Then, afterward, once the smoke clears, they find there’s nothing to it. The apartment felt vast to Firefighter Sullivan. It measured less than 600 square feet.
He was still pumping with adrenaline. His bottle held what was estimated at 45 minutes of compressed air, but that would be if you were, say, weeding the garden. In its testing, the Fire Department has determined that a firefighter working a fire has on average 17 1/2 minutes of air. An anxious probie is apt to have far less — maybe 10 minutes. In training, probies are lectured to
￼regulate their breathing: Don’t “suck your air,” don’t “blow through your bottle.”
Well, sure, but how does a probie on a first fire stay calm? Firefighter Sullivan had learned tips like clenching teeth. It was hard. He was sucking air.
He heard a crisp voice behind him in the dark: “Jordan, come here with that can.” He thought it was Lieutenant LaBarbera, but that couldn’t be, he was in front of him. He realized it was Firefighter Crowley. He had found what seemed to be the seat of the fire. In the hallway a shelving unit laden with clothing and bins was on fire, flames dancing four or five feet high.
He wheeled around, putting his right hand on the wall and scuttled toward Firefighter Crowley. Don’t lose the wall. He saw the robust flames lapping up. He hit them with the can. They tell you not to exhaust the whole can, save some in case you need it to get out. But the fire kept flaring up. Children were somewhere. So he used it up.
“Sir, I emptied the can,” he told Firefighter Crowley.
The fire still burned, but it had been tamed enough for Firefighter Crowley to clear a passage for them to slide past.
￼To their left was an open door. They wriggled in and were swallowed by the smoke.
W HEN HE REPORTED for his first day at Ladder 105, he brought two Junior’s cheesecakes. At the Rock, an unwritten rule Firefighter Sullivan heard was, don’t show up empty-
handed. “Always come knocking with your elbows” was the expression.
Everyone dug in, except him. Another law of the probie universe is that the probie does not eat what he bestows.
The probie also does not speak unnecessarily. He was unsure how many days to bring treats. Probies should ask plenty of pertinent questions, but he did not have the temerity to inquire about cake duration. Erring on the side of caution, he delivered Junior’s cheesecakes for seven days, until the others told him, enough already, stop with the cakes.
In the firehouse hierarchy, of course, he stood at the bottom. He was the sole probie in Ladder 105, though five others were assigned to Engine 219, which shared the house.
At a firehouse, the tasks are inexhaustible. Everyone pitches in, but none more so than the probie. Sweep and mop the floors. Test the tools. Check the rig. Lock the parking lot. Take out the garbage. The probie, well, he’s the last line of defense against dirt. And Jordan Sullivan was determined to
￼Earning Your Respect
￼outclean everyone. The other designated probie province? The sink, scrubbing dishes.
“Probie, the pots need washing.” “Probie, I need an ax.” “Probie, I see a gum wrapper on the floor.” If anything goes wrong, whose fault is it? Exactly.
Naturally there were goofy traditions. One fine evening, at a Manhattan bar, he and the engine probies had to check their egos and sing a song for the veterans. They went with “My Girl,” confirming the lyrics on their cellphones.
In the end, it was about acquiring acceptance, because a firehouse is a stitched-together family. For him, there was an added burden. He was a priority hire. His age alone signaled that. (He was one of two black firefighters among the 23 members of Ladder 105; there were four among the 18 in Engine 219.) The idea of firefighters getting in as priority hires was controversial and did not sit well with some department members. They saw it as undeserving firefighters leapfrogging deserving candidates, not getting in the “right way.”
Others felt O.K. if the hires could do the job. Firefighter Sullivan did not sense any animosity. His colleagues in Ladder 105 played it down. As Firefighter Crowley put it, “We’ll give anyone the shot to make your own bed.”
Still, there was no escaping that a priority hire faced greater scrutiny, extra pressure to prove he belonged.
Firehouse mischief persists, too, and you should take it and not get pouty. Leave your clothes or equipment out? Expect to find them hung from the ceiling like meat.
Firefighter Sullivan discovered his jacket dangling there once. Another time he left his laundry unattended. He found his towels taped to his locker. A scribbled sign addressed to “Junior Guy” reminded him in vivid language to complete his chores.
He freed the towels without objection. Fitting in. Making them see you belong.
T HE DRESSER IN THE BEDROOM was on fire, flames licking the ceiling. They had nothing to put it out with. Firefighter Crowley went left, using his left foot to stay in touch with the wall.
Firefighter Sullivan went right, his right hand grazing the wall, navigating through the whorls of smoke. Don’t lose the wall.
￼Time ticked by. They had been inside a burning apartment for several minutes, the hose not on it yet. Where were the children? How long could they live?
It might be 500 or 600 degrees in there. The apartment was encumbered with the flammable miscellany of a family, which could ignite and make the fire more vehement. Firefighters are taught that no two fires burn alike, but that the rule of thumb is an unhindered building fire tends to double in size every 30 seconds. In time, the windows might explode.
Firefighter Crowley felt a bed but no child.
By now, Firefighter Hayden was in the apartment too, following Lieutenant LaBarbera, actually brushing into him. The lieutenant, in the kitchen, found a burner lit on the stove, something he couldn’t explain. He shut it off. They circled toward the bedrooms.
Doing his right-hand search, Firefighter Sullivan reached forward with his left hand, feeling something. The skinny leg of a piece of furniture. He groped higher. Slats. He knew what it was. A crib.
He stood up, reached inside and gingerly fingered through what he took to be blankets and toys or
￼who knows what, he couldn’t see.
His light was clipped to his shoulder and he leaned over and it shone on something. It was white and felt squishy. He knew what that was too. It was a diaper.
T HE THING ABOUT the vast majority of first fires is they are both memorable and unmemorable. For the firefighter, the memory is permanent. But to the outside world, they
tend to be ordinary fires. They are not likely to be evening news fires, history book fires. Not scores of terrified people saved, an entire block of buildings ignited. They’re just fires.
In most fires, people get out on their own. Or the endings are unhappy ones. Indeed, for all the fires that New York firefighters respond to, few involve a rescue, what’s called a “grab” in firefighter talk.
Battalion Chief Sullivan, 22 years a firefighter, had a grab in 1995, his third year on the job. He never had another one. In 14 years, Captain Paolicelli, the captain of Ladder 105, had never had a grab. The two other members of the inside team, Lieutenant LaBarbera, with 14 years on the job, and Firefighter Crowley, with 10 years, had not had one. Firefighters go decades on the job without a rescue to call their own.
What about a probie going to his very first fire and making a grab? Now that just doesn’t happen.
A S SOON AS HE SAW the diaper, then felt the softness of the body, he knew it was the baby. He scooped him up.
Your training tells you to stay calm. Convey information in clear, pithy phrases. He was not calm, not even close. When he felt the infant, he shouted, “Sir, I’ve got a baby.”
Firefighter Crowley radioed a 10-45, signifying a victim was found. He could not help but chuckle that even in these harried circumstances, Firefighter Sullivan kept adorning everything with “sir,” still the proper probie. It had been 9 minutes 49 seconds since the 911 call.
Cradling the limp child against his shoulder, he sped out of the apartment. In the hallway, he encountered Dale Ford, a firefighter from Ladder 110, who told him, “Give me the baby and go back inside.” He handed over the infant and returned to the apartment to hunt for the other child.
Firefighter Ford got the baby to the smoky stairwell. He saw the boy’s eyes were wide open but still.
￼He put his mask on the baby and rushed down the stairs. Soon, the ambulance crew took over.
The rest happened quickly. The engine men stretched the hose into the apartment and, on their knees, sprayed the fire with water at 240 gallons a minute, knocking it down.
Firefighter Sullivan entered the second bedroom. Oddly, discovering the baby had calmed him down. A minute and a half had passed since he had found the baby. He heard someone bark a 10- 45. Bryan Kelly, a firefighter from Squad 1, had located the 8-year-old girl splayed unconscious on the floor.
Firefighter Kelly dragged her out beneath him. In nine years in the department, it was his first grab.
￼The Rescues Left, Firefighter Bryan Kelly carried an 8-year-old girl from the fire. Right, Firefighter Dale Ford put an air mask on the infant boy who was rescued. Marc A. Hermann/Polaris
Inside the first bedroom, the engine men heard a muted mewling sound, perhaps a children’s toy. Beneath the bed frame was a tiny dog, alive and soaked.
In the next 10 minutes, the engine men had the fire tamed. New firefighters arrived to perform a secondary search, a fresh set of eyes. By now, the number of responding firefighters had swollen to
The others from Ladder 105 had their masks off. Lieutenant LaBarbera noticed Firefighter Sullivan still wore his and told him it was fine to remove it. He had air. The low-air alarm never sounded.
The smoke dissipated and the darkness lifted. The drenched and charred apartment looked like it had been in a huge storm.
D OWNSTAIRS, as the moon crept over the sky, the firefighters debriefed Battalion Chief Ferris, recapitulating the facts. He congratulated Firefighter Sullivan, who was still going nonstop
with the deferential “sirs.” The chief told him, “Calm down, no need for sirs here.”
Lieutenant Long from Engine 229 was not alone in marveling: “That’s a first for me — a probie brings out someone.”
In the casual back and forth, Firefighter Sullivan’s ladder mates worked in their teasing: Did he know that for a grab you get a bonus in your next paycheck? Days later, when he received a check for $22 as reimbursement for tolls incurred during training, the others said, well there you go, there’s that bonus.
At that moment, the children, snug in hospital beds, were being treated. They would recuperate and be released.
The next day the police would arrest Thaddeus Boone, 22, of Newark, and he would be charged with multiple counts of attempted murder and arson. According to the police, Ms. Meadows’s daughter was seeing Mr. Boone. On Saturday, the police said, they fought over infidelity. He stole her cellphone and keys. When she happened to be out on Saturday night, he showed up and set the apartment on fire, the police said, using a lighter. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment.
It would be another four days before some of the firefighters would visit the family at a neighborhood school. Firefighter Sullivan would hold the baby again. The boy would fuss a bit. As a thank-you, the Fire Department press office would pass along 50 donated tickets to a Yankees game for the firehouse.
￼Life at the Station Firefighter Sullivan, center, enjoying lunch with his colleagues. Damon Winter/The New York Times
D ONE WITH THE DEBRIEFING, the firefighters hoisted themselves onto the rig, smoke and water on their clothes. In the solace of the firehouse, in the shadow of the Barclays Center,
they peeled off their sopping gear and washed up. Firefighter Sullivan was tired.
He knew that he remained a green firefighter who had much to learn. Replaying the night in his mind, he felt he could have been more alert. He had been hazy at times about who was where. But he felt baptized. And he felt elated and humbled by the staggering thing that had happened inside that building, how he had held a child and given him back his life.
Among the injunctions that probies live under is they are not to use their cellphones at work. This once, Firefighter Sullivan violated the rule. At somewhere past 4, in the witching hours of the morning, he called his father.
“I found a baby,” he said. “I got an infant. I can’t talk now. I’m at the firehouse.”
His father, a stoic man, just said, “O.K., we’ll talk later.”
The rest of the tour was quiet. One of the other men printed out the ticket for the run and gave it to Firefighter Sullivan. After the shift, he went to the firehouse gym and worked out, then drove to his Brooklyn apartment, where he lives alone. He was too jumpy to sleep, and he didn’t.
He had only a few hours and then it was time to report for his next shift. Unbeknown to him, the Fire Department public affairs people had arranged for some TV stations to interview him outside the firehouse.
Once they had departed, he got the broom and began sweeping the firehouse floor. Soon he was at the sink, probie territory, doing the dishes.
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￼￼￼￼This article is based on interviews with 10 of the firefighters who fought the blaze in Brooklyn, and on reviews of the Fire Department’s incident reports and audio tapes of the radio transmissions made during the fire. Reporting was also done during visits to the Fire Academy and Ladder Company 105.
Videos by Kassie Bracken, David Frank, Kriston Lewis and Bedel Saget. Produced by Tom Giratikanon, Graham Roberts, Bedel Saget and Jeremy White.
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