So Others Might Live: A History of New York's Bravest: The NYFD from 1700 to the Presentby Terry Golway
Fighting Fire in New York City has always been one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Yet from the city's earliest days, New Yorkers have wanted to be firefighters, and even today the list of men and women waiting to take the firefighters' exam numbers in the thousands. What makes the FDNY so special that people clamor for the chance to risk their lives on the… See more details below
Fighting Fire in New York City has always been one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Yet from the city's earliest days, New Yorkers have wanted to be firefighters, and even today the list of men and women waiting to take the firefighters' exam numbers in the thousands. What makes the FDNY so special that people clamor for the chance to risk their lives on the job? In So Others Might Live, Terry Golway -- son, godson, and in-law of the FDNY -- chronicles the unique history of "New York's Bravest." From the volunteers of colonial times to the "fire laddies" who raced each other to put out blazes in the 1840s, from the professional corps that gave job security to so many immigrants, especially the Irish, after the 1860s, to the highly-trained force of today, the FDNY has always had a distinct culture born of the bonds that firefighters share with each other. Golway traces the amazing history of these unique civil servants who have worked so hard to protect the city. Fires may reflect the dangers of their time, whether it is lack of water supply or crowded tenement buildings, but it is the firefighters who save lives -- while creating safety reforms such as water towers, fire escapes, and scaling ladders -- who make the future possible.
As only a great Irish storyteller could do, Golway interweaves the stories of real life characters, famous and unknown, with the dramatic history of a city on the rise. Through his gripping narrative we see how fire looms as a threat to commerce, public safety, and prosperity at every stage in New York's history, from the Great Fire of 1835 that destroyed Wall Street to the famous Triangle Shirt Waist Fire to the arson epidemic of the 1970s. We also learn about the great firefighters who have challenged politicians, tycoons, and the status quo: James Gulick, the popular ex-Chief who was voted to elective office over Tammany Hall competition; Hugh Bonner, the great reformer for fire prevention and safety who was the first Irish immigrant named Chief of Department; Smoky Joe Martin, the legendary firefighter who would enter burning buildings against his own captain's orders; Wesley Williams, the first African-American officer and founder of the Vulcan Society; Lorraine Cziko, one of the first women to make it through the tough trials of the seventies and join the force; Peter Ganci, the beloved Chief of Department who died on September 11, 2001.
With narrative verve and an eye for dramatic detail, Golway has given us the first comprehensive history of the FDNY in over sixty years. A moving and original history of the city and the firefighting vocation as seen through the eyes of "New York's Bravest," his gripping chronicle also offers us a new understanding of American cities and the people who made them great.
- Basic Books
- Publication date:
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- 7.70(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)
Read an Excerpt
We cannot finally understand firemen; they have risen to some place among the inexplicable beauties of life.
Murray Kempton, New York Post, August 3, 1978
A quarter century after the New York Times photographed her eagerly filling out an application to join the Fire Department of New York, retired Firefighter Lorraine Cziko is a regular visitor at her local firehouse on Metropolitan Avenue in the Ridgewood section of Queens. Cziko ripped up her left knee twice while on the job, developed arthritis in her right knee, and then put in her papers in 2001 after working nearly twenty years. The knees still hurt; so do the psychological wounds inflicted two decades ago, when she suffered through inexcusable hazing and harassment. But these days, it's the knee, not the bad memories, that she finds disabling.
The walk to the firehouse, which serves as quarters for Engine Co. 291 and Ladder Co. 140, isn't long, but Cziko takes her car because she may never take a painless step again. She brings along some Entemann's cakes or Italian pastries, respecting firehouse tradition that demands such offerings from firefighters reporting for the day tour. She gets hugs and kisses when she visits, and not just because she comes bearing gifts. She worked at Engine Co. 291 for the last two and a half years of her career, and she developed warm friendships with the men in her company and in Ladder Co. 140.
Even before September 11, she had been noticing new faces, younger faces, faces of probies who weren't born when she confidently told the New York Times, "[I]f men want to try this job, I might as well, too." As the Department rebuilt after its losses on September 11, there seemed to be no end of fresh-faced firefighters right out of the training academy. She counted seven or eight of them at one time, in a house with a full complement of about forty-eight officers and rank-and-file firefighters.
She made a point of introducing herself to each probie, explaining that she had once worked in the house. They shook her hand, asked her about the job, about fire service, about what it's like to go into a building and see nothing but smoke and fire-they treated her no differently than they would treat any other retiree who stopped by for a cup of coffee and a rekindling of the camaraderie of the firehouse kitchen. One afternoon in the spring of 2002, Cziko was leaving a neighborhood drug store as Engine 291's rig came barreling down the street. The chauffeur spotted her and blasted the pumper's horn, and the young men in the cab waved and yelled, "Hey, Lorraine!"
"You have no idea," she said, "how good that made me feel."
The next time she stopped by to say hello and raise the firehouse's collective cholesterol level, she was invited to the company's annual summer picnic. That long-ago day of humiliation and physical assault-on and by her-was part of another era.
The post-9/11 rebuilding started on September 16, when Daniel Nigro was promoted to chief of department, replacing Peter Ganci, and 170 other firefighters received the equivalent of battlefield commissions to replace the lieutenants, captains, and chiefs who died at the World Trade Center. (Five of those promotions were awarded to firefighters who were missing in the ruins.) Nigro's appointment had special significance because he had overseen the merger of the city's emergency medical services with the FDNY before becoming Chief Ganci's chief of operations. The integration of the two services, which had very different cultures and workforces, had become even more pressing as the city prepared for several years of austerity and budget cuts. In November 2001, construction began on a combined firehouse-EMS station on the west shore of Staten Island, offering a glimpse of the firehouse of the future. Several months later, the new administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans for another firehouse-EMS station in the Far Rockaway section of Queens.
Eighty firefighters were recruited to rebuild the FDNY's devastated rescue and squad companies. They were given forty-five hours of haz-mat training and eighty hours of special rescue training, but it would take years to develop the experience and expertise lost on September 11. In March 2002, Captain Philip Ruvolo of Brooklyn's Rescue Co. 2 told the Wall Street Journal that he "could never bring back or equal the talent that I lost." Seven members of Rescue 2 died at the World Trade Center.
The Department lost not only irreplaceable lives and knowledge on September 11 but also millions of dollars in rigs and equipment. Eighteen pumpers, fifteen ladder trucks, and two rescue company vehicles were destroyed, along with several specialized units. Rescue companies lost their Halligan tools and their scuba gear, ladder companies lost their Hurst tools. The city's two specialized high-rise units were out of service. Cities, towns, and civic organizations across the country raised money to buy new equipment for the Fire Department of New York, the nation's symbol of sorrow and of courage in an age without precedent.
Less than two months after the attacks, on November 1, 2001, 240 probies graduated from the training academy and were assigned to the first firehouses. During an emotional ceremony in an auditorium at Brooklyn College, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told them, "You've grown up faster than firefighters have had to grow up in the past." As the mayor looked out at the young faces in dress uniforms, he could see a row of six chairs, vacant except for a covering of purple and black bunting. Six members of the probie class, Richard Allen, Calixto Anaya, Andrew Brunn, Michael Cammarata, Michael D'Auria, and Anthony Rodriguez, had been ordered to report for duty on September 11. It was their first and last fire.
Hundreds more probies would be on their way in the next nine months as the Department sought to replace head count, if not the centuries of experience it lost on September 11. A new probie class began training at the end of October, and two more classes had started by spring 2002. To help with recruitment, the Department reduced its requirement of thirty college credits to fifteen. In the eyes of one of the Department's most-revered veterans, retired Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn, the turnover was certain to have at least one good effect: no longer could a company's old buffalo-the veteran of thirty or forty years who often set the tone in individual firehouses-talk down to FDNY's new generation about the war years of the 1970s. "I got sick of the old guys saying that the kids don't remember the war years," said Dunn, who retired on August 12, 1999. "These kids today have more technical skills than they ever had. The only good thing that will come out of September 11 is that the old guys have to stop talking about the war years. If a firefighter was at the World Trade Center and saw that sixteen-acre rubble field, no old-timer can talk to him about the old days."
Even though he is retired, Dunn is still the FDNY's expert in building collapses, and he contributed to the Department's intense evaluation of what happened and why on September 11. Even before the release of a government study analyzing the effect of intense heat on the Twin Towers' steel beams and trusses, Dunn wrote a report on the larger issue: the high-rise builder's cost-driven preference for lightweight, steel-supported towers over heavier, more expensive concrete. The concrete-supported Empire State Building, Dunn said, is a firefighter's idea of a skyscraper, not the World Trade Center. But rarely is a fire chief asked for an opinion when master architects plan their great works of art.
Vincent Dunn was a survivor of the FDNY's worst disaster until September 11, the Wonder Drugs fire and collapse in 1966 that killed twelve firefighters. As an officer, he became known around the country as an authority on collapses. In retirement, he has his own Web site, where firefighters can order his training videos. The Fire Department of New York has been a part of his life since the day he reported for work on February 1, 1957.
But the years, and September 11, have led him to wonder whether he should have done something else with his life. He was a part of an organization called "The Bravest," but he insists that he was not particularly brave at all. "I probably should have been an accountant," he said several months after September 11. "Maybe I shouldn't have been a firefighter. I think about that a lot. I'm in good shape, I run all the time, but I'm not a man of action. I'm not a brave guy. I worked with some tremendously brave risk takers. They didn't think about themselves. I thought about myself. That's why I'm not a risk taker. That's why I write about safety."
On May 11, 2002, Chief Dunn wrote a letter to Tom Ridge, President Bush's director of homeland security, explaining the safety needs of the Fire Department of New York in the new age of terrorism and noting that the FDNY received no federal money for its enhanced role in civil defense. The Department needed fire boats, firefighting robots, early-warning systems for building collapses, better breathing apparatus, minimum manning of five firefighters and one officer in high-rise engine companies, and better radios. "We can no longer ask our firefighters to be the 'miner's canary,' that is, the first to take casualties at fires, haz-mat emergencies and acts of terrorism," he wrote. "We can do better for the fire service of America."
Even as a cash-strapped City Hall prepared firefighters for a new round of spending cuts to help close a $5 billion budget gap, it couldn't ignore at least a part of Chief Dunn's list of urgent needs. After years of warnings and complaints about the Fire Department's balky, unreliable radios, the city allocated $14 million in the spring of 2002 to replace the system that failed so miserably not only on September 11, but at the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
On the morning of May 2, 2002, a wet and miserable spring day, the Fire Department of New York's family gathered in a small auditorium in the FDNY's headquarters building in downtown Brooklyn. The hall filled up quickly as civilians and firefighters alike scrambled for good seats to watch their children, their parents, their friends, and their comrades receive a salute from Chief Nigro and a promotion from Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, who replaced Tom Von Essen in January.
It was the second scheduled promotion ceremony since the battlefield commissions awarded on September 16. The earlier event had been held in a bigger hall in New York Technical College, just around the corner from FDNY headquarters. As late-arriving family members were forced to stand in the aisles-nobody dared mention anything about fire-code violations-a firefighter pressed against a back wall grumbled, "Why didn't we have this ceremony in the college? I'll tell you why: The big shots didn't want to walk outside and get wet." Firehouse cynicism had not been among the casualties of September 11.
Babies in strollers made happy noises, gray-haired men and women posed for pictures with their beaming middle-aged children, and friends from the civil service towns outside the city exchanged notes on traffic conditions for the journey home. The event's master of ceremonies, Battalion Chief Brian W. Dixon, demanded order. "All personnel being promoted," he announced, "if you don't find your seats, we'll fill them with somebody else off the list." The firefighters laughed and continued their conversations.
Eventually the plea for order was obeyed, and the crowd stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and the invocation. Reverend John Delendick, one of the FDNY's chaplains, asked God to bless "our brothers and sisters" assembled for their promotions. The inclusive language seemed startling, for in the aftermath of September 11, the FDNY invariably was described as a "brotherhood" or a "band of brothers." But in the assembly this day was a sister, Brenda Berkman of Ladder Co. 12, who was about to become the Fire Department of New York's second female captain. She was wearing a gold lieutenant's ring given to her in 1994 by a friend at Ladder 105, Henry Miller. He was among the fallen heroes of September 11.
The president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, Peter Gorman, was the first to speak, and he told the crowd that he wished to single out two members of the promotion class for a special tribute. Firefighter Joseph J. Ginley of Ladder Co. 19, shortly to be promoted to lieutenant, had lost his brother, Lieutenant John Ginley of Engine Co. 40, on September 11. Gorman talked about the family's pain, and its courage. Gorman had been a member of the honor guard that removed Lieutenant Ginley's remains from the site.
Then Gorman singled out Brenda Berkman. Her name, he conceded, inspired "mixed reviews" in the firehouse, but he praised her for being "committed to bringing more women to the fire service" while "maintaining high standards."
"I commend her for the work she has done over the last twenty years," he said.
It was a moment of vindication she could not have anticipated twenty years ago, or perhaps even the day before, her last day as a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 12. It was one thing for Gorman to cite her work in bringing women to the department, but quite another altogether to praise her for maintaining standards-it would be hard to imagine more meaningful words. A group of women firefighters gathered in the back of the room silently nudged each other. They had been vindicated, too.
More than two centuries have passed since Benjamin Franklin wrote of the love firefighters have for each other. In the ruins of the Twin Towers, in the memorials for the fallen, in the embraces and salutes of unchanged rituals, the world saw the power of that love. An act of barbarism had instantly separated time and memory into before and after, but it did not have the power to destroy a tradition of courage and a legacy of sacrifice. Nobody who saw New York's firefighters running toward the burning towers, or advancing on the ruins, or picking their way through the rubble field, will ever forget the triumph of simple heroism over unspeakable evil.
New York's firefighters became a symbol of defiance in the face of terror, an inspiration in a world that has become immensely more frightening and complicated. The world saw how much they loved each other, how much they loved helping others, how much they loved their job. And the light of that love traced a path through the darkness of hatred.
It never wavered, that love for each other, that love for the job. The firefighters of New York experienced firsthand the dangers of a new century on September 11, dangers that added to the burdens of risk they carried into burning buildings every day. But even after the loss of so many friends, even after so many final salutes, even after hearing "Going Home" more times than they could bear, they loved the job, and they loved each other.
Like his higher-ranking brother, Reginald, Captain Vincent Julius has been retired since the mid-1980s, but both of them remain active in the Department's Vulcan Society and as unofficial and extremely energetic ambassadors of the Fire Department of New York. They wear FDNY hats and jackets; they talk about fires and firehouses; they go to conventions not just to reminisce but to plan for the future. The captain is seventy-five years old, three years younger than the chief.
In late May 2002, as firefighters gathered on Long Island for the funeral of Ray Downey, the Julius brothers told fire stories over pints of Guinness in an Irish pub in New Jersey. They talked a little about the racism they faced a half century ago, but most of the conversation was about the joys of the job. They laughed a lot. "It's all about ordinary people who have found a calling over and above what the average person does," Vincent Julius said. "You go into a burning building, down a hallway, you see what we call the red demon, and that red demon's fingers are reaching out for you, and they're saying, 'C'mon. C'mon. I've got something for you. C'mon.' And you put your head down and you keep moving."
Just outside the pub was a landmark firehouse with rigs parked on the apron, and because the Julius brothers are firefighters, they couldn't resist a visit. They looked over the pumper with a professional's eye, noting the differences between the rigs in New York and this one in the suburban township of South Orange, New Jersey. They lit cigarettes, and then walked to Reggie Julius's car. In the trunk were his old boots, turnout coat, and white chief's helmet, the equipment he wore when he worked the pile that was the World Trade Center. Two of his successors as chief of the Twelfth Battalion, Joseph Marchbanks, Jr., and Fred Scheffold, were wearing better coats and better boots but virtually the same helmet when they died under the Twin Towers.
His brother crushed the butt of his cigarette.
"You know," Vincent said, "I'm seventy-five years old. I've had a good life, and a good career. I could die tomorrow. But if I do, I'm coming back as a firefighter for the city of New York."
He'd have to wait a while. There's a list for that job, and it's always long.
Meet the Author
Terry Golway, columnist and City Editor of The New York Observer, is a frequent contributor to the Irish Echo, American Heritage, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. He is the co-author of The Irish in America, and the author of For the Cause of Liberty: A Thousand Years of Ireland's Heroes, and Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America's Fight for Ireland's Freedom. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.
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