“I have done this hundreds of times, and each time I said the smallest of prayers: I thank God I am not alone,” writes retired firefighter Dennis Smith.
I never prayed to be a fireman, in the same way I never prayed to be President — revered jobs, but there was no reason to believe either would be mine, a dropout street kid from the city’s cold-water flats. But, somehow, I was blessed.
I ran into a man from my street, 56th St., that 1962 morning I took the exam for FIREMAN — FDNY. His name was Jack O’Keefe, one son a cop, another a priest. He worked in a downtown firehouse. He wished me luck, adding, “There is not a job like it — it molds you into something good.” As I walked into the subway he called out, “When in doubt, pick ‘C’.”
Like 1,142 firefighters, Jack was destined to die in the line of duty. It happened just five years later.
I did pick “C” on a lot of questions and was appointed and given a badge in 1963. I worked in slow companies and in busy companies, and I learned it doesn’t matter how slow or busy a fire company is when the ceiling falls or the floor gives.
What I found matters more than any story, and mythology, and any rule or regulation is: Can you trust the person next to you, or the one in the street wearing the white helmet? Will they find a way to get you out when you find yourself, as you surely will, in an untenable situation? Fire often doubles itself every minute, and so you know there will not be much time. I found myself with others in my company in such situations more than a few times, and we never gave a second’s thought about finding a ladder suddenly appearing at a window’s ledge or a hose line crashing through a wall.
In some countries a burning building is surrounded by water streams and saturated until the fire darkens. In most cases in America we do interior firefighting, to save lives and the nearby structures. A burning building deteriorates and weakens quickly, and so the interior is a dangerous place to be. But, there also could be someone still breathing and not yet burned trapped in the vicinity of the heat.
I wish people could see the interior firefighting action, to be there in the middle of the chaos of chemical reactions, to feel the smoke rushing past you, to realize that the temperature is getting higher by the second, to experience the total blackness. There is also an unexpected quiet as firefighters are alone with their thoughts. Ninety percent of the danger of the job resides in not knowing in real time, ever, the full consequence of a fire. But you know that the chief out in the street knows what is happening, and what could happen, on all four sides of the building. And so, on your stomach with your hand on a hose line or a forcible entry tool, you listen to the quiet in between the crackling of the flames and the occasional supportive voice, “That’s it. Get in there. Good job.”
The only other consuming sound besides the flames eating away all of everything around, is the eerie and strangely human sound of the air being sucked out of the canister strapped to your back.
Beyond, toward the fire, we look for early signs of collapse. It is frightening because you realize you have separated yourself from the smoke and heat with your mask and protective clothing. You are alone and contained within yourself.
But, still the others are there.
I have done this hundreds of times, and each time I said the smallest of prayers: I thank God I am not alone. Many organizations depend on a team effort to accomplish a mission, but in firefighting it is the team that will save your life, it is the team that will convey to you within the deadly environments in which we work, the spirit and courage that it takes to mold a firefighter’s character. This, I learned, is what Jack O’Keefe meant by “something good.”
The uniform we wear, whether the protective gear inside of a job or the wave of blue serge you see lined up at a parade or a funeral, is not for nothing. It comes with a history. Elisha Kingsland was our first chief and Dan Nigro is now in command. It is a tough job to run such a big organization, but it is the firefighters inside of those dark and uncertain rooms that gives Nigro reason and inspiration. No one knows how many lives were saved by firefighters in the last 150 years. No one asks. It is a rhetorical