Braving the Flamesby Peter A. Micheels
They are the men who fight the fires -- face to face, day to day, life or death. And this is their story. A powerful collection of in-depth interviews with the firefighters of New York City -- a city where eleven fires are reported every hour. Dramatic, intense, and often terrifying, here is an honest, unflinching look at real-life heroism, told by the men who live it.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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- 7.00(w) x 5.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
There is nothing more formidable than fire. Its destructive power is awesome. Fire out of control is terrifying. And burns are the worst trauma a person can suffer. In the next hour there will be eleven fires in the city of New York. They may range from food burning on a stove to several city blocks going up in flames. The fires might be deep below ground or more than eighty-five stories above the street. But whatever their magnitude or location, the members of the Fire Department of New York -- the FDNY -- will be there to fight them.
These fires kill. In 1966 twelve firemen were thrust into their own funeral pyre when the floor they were standing on collapsed. Their bodies were carried out by their brother fire fighters. In 1980 two hundred eighty-nine civilians lost their lives in fire, and their bodies, too, were carried out by fire fighters.
If you are a fire fighter in the FDNY you have almost a fifty percent chance that within the next year you will become unable to complete your tour of duty because you have been hospitalized or sent home by the department's physician for an illness or an injury you sustained on the job. Fire fighting is the most hazardous peacetime occupation.
In 1985 the twelve thousand fire fighters in New York City battled 97,535 fires. They made a total of 311,551 runs, of which 132,494 were false alarms. The remaining 81,522 runs were in response to incidents ranging from gas leaks to rescuing a pilot trapped underwater in a helicopter. The FDNY is the busiest department in the world.
Like the city it serves, the FDNY has seen many changes over the past thirty years. In the 1950s the two busiestcompanies were Ladder 26 and Engine 58 in Harlem, each of which did about two thousand runs a year. In the late 1960s and 1970s this dubious honor was given to companies in the South Bronx and Brooklyn as the wave of poor immigrants from the rural South and the Caribbean swelled the ghettos of these boroughs. During this same time some companies were reaching ten thousand runs a year level.
As the number of fires and runs escalated, new fire fighting strategies were developed, new equipment was introduced, and the members of the FDNY rose to the challenge.
Although the people of the city of New York consistently give the fire department the highest marks for performance, the municipal government takes a punitive attitude against its fire fighters. In July 1975 the city began laying off its fire fighters -- something that didn't happen even during the Great Depression. Though demoralized, those men who were still on the job continued to give their all in responding to the alarms. But the worst was yet to come: 1976 was the busiest year for fires -- 153,263 of them. The high point for runs -- 472,405 -- was reached in 1978. The toll on men and equipment was enormous.
This was an incredible time to be a fire fighter. The majority of fire fighters love their work, and if there is a fire they want to fight it. In their own parlance "to go to work" or "to catch a job" means only one thing -- to fight a fire. Despite the hazards, there are numerous rewards to being a fire fighter. Though no one ever made a fortune putting out fires, many have achieved richness in an existential sense. Simply put, for these men fire fighting is not just a job, it is a vocation.
But the world of the New York City fire fighter is one that few people outside of the fire service know very much about. The next time a news story about some heroic action by a member of the FDNY airs on television, take a good look. You will notice that most of the time the camera must be content with filming only the victim, the Emergency Medical Service personnel, or the cops who are present. On those rare occasions when a reporter manages to corner a fire fighter, you can see by the look on the fireman's face that he can't wait for the interview to be over. The fire department has a public relations department, run by Assistant Commissioner John Mulligan and his two aides, that is smaller than the Brooklyn district attorney's. The code of the firehouse dictates that you don't blow your own horn, at least not too loud. We all know of the aura of bravery and romance surrounding fire fighters, but when it comes to understanding what they experience, the public probably has a better knowledge of the ways of the Eskimos.
The world of these fire fighters is closed, but it is not inaccessible. It is a place where strong bonds are formed out of mutual dependence in life-or-death situations. It is a world of high drama, an emotional roller coaster that hurls you from deep tragedy to lofty excitement, then spins you through the spiral of terror into the loops of comedy.
When you get to know fire fighters you find out that their reasons for being "on the job" are varied, and in many ways they are just like us, but they do extraordinary things.
Unlike cops, who dream of retiring, most fire fighters fantasize about "going to work."
To do that work the FDNY fields 210 engines (also known as pumpers), 141 ladder trucks, 5 heavy rescues, 4 fireboats, and hundreds of support vehicles. The crew of each engine, truck, rescue, and fireboat constitutes one company. These companies are organized into fifty-four battalions and twelve divisions, which cover the five boroughs of the city.
Within the 312 square miles of this city there are over 825,000 buildings, more than 1,000 of which are high-rises, with new ones going up all the time. The high-rise structures have added a whole new dimension to the complexities of fire fighting.
On February 27, 1975, a fire started in a high-rise building filled with switching equipment for the telephone company. When that fire was extinguished, fifteen hours later, the loss was put at $70 million, and phone service for 170,000 New Yorkers was cut off. Within this building were miles and miles of electrical wiring. The smoke from the burning insulation on those wires contained deadly PVC (polyvinyl chloride). One hundred sixty fire fighters and civilians were hurt at that fire. The number of fire fighters who will subsequently develop cancer as a result of this operation remains to be tallied. But the fact remains that fire fighters love their work, and if there is a fire they want to battle it.
The hallmark of New York City is diversity. Each borough, for example, has its own character. The Bronx, which is the only part of the city that is on the mainland, is a mix of private homes, two and three-story row houses, six-story tenements, and H-type buildings -- two tenements connected by a third, with courtyards in front and back -- and one to six-story factories. It was the South Bronx that the nation saw burning down in the seventies, when TV cameras at Yankee Stadium would pan the surrounding neighborhood during televised games and catch the tenements blazing away.
Manhattan is the heart of the city. On the granite island that this borough occupies is a forest of high-rises surrounded by tenements. It is in Manhattan that the commuter rail lines terminate. It is where the poverty of Harlem and the Lower East Side coexists with the wealth of Wall Street and the glitter of Madison Avenue.
Brooklyn is known as the Borough of Churches. It was an independent city until 1898, when it became a part of New York. Situated on Long Island, along with the borough of Queens, Brooklyn covers an area of 70.2 square miles. Brooklyn is home to over two and a half million people, most of whom live in three-story wood-frame row houses and brownstones. In terms of population it is larger than Philadelphia. The many factories that once flourished along the waterfront from Red Hook to Williamsburg and Greenpoint are now in a state of decline as the New York economy shifts from manufacturing to service.
Death was no stranger in the ghettos of Brooklyn during the sixties and seventies. Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Brownsville, and East New York were neighborhoods where children and adults died. But many more were saved here, and in the other ghettos of the city, only because of the heroic actions of the fire fighters -- who bled and sometimes died themselves.
In area, Queens is the largest of the five boroughs, encompassing 118.6 square miles. Considered the Bedroom Borough, it has 300,000 one-and two-family homes. It is the sixth most populous county in the United States. Queens is also considered the air crossroads of the world, with over 30 million passengers passing through Kennedy and La Guardia airports annually.
Staten Island is the least populous borough, with some 360,000 residents. Until the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge linked it to Brooklyn, most of the island was covered with woods and marshlands. Recently it has seen an overdevelopment of private homes, and many civil servants have found it an affordable place to raise their families. In terms of structural fires -- that is, fires in buildings -- Staten Island has been on the bottom of the activity list. But it does lead the other boroughs in the number of cars that are torched for insurance fraud.
The diversity and complexity of the city are reflected in the demands placed upon its fire department. But along with these demands comes an opportunity for real adventure, not some contrived Hollywood or television nonsense. When you go to work as a fire fighter you do not know what catastrophe is waiting for you, nor do you know how it will turn out. But fire fighters love their work, and if some disaster occurs they want to be there.
When I started writing this book, I made the decision to interview only seasoned fire fighters. Because of that decision, no women fire fighters are included here. Being new to the fire service, the women were all on probation at the time and were still relatively inexperienced. What follows is the result of a series of in-depth interviews with some of the best fire fighters in the city of New York. Because they knew that their stories would be accurately told, these men opened themselves up to provide a rare look into their world. They have allowed us to vicariously experience their triumphs and their defeats, their joys and their sorrows, their anger and their fears so that, in the end, we can be richer for knowing these heroic, but self-effacing men.
Copyright © 1989 by Peter Micheels
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