A NYC firefighter, and his engine

By Caitlin Kelly

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In every city I know, firefighters remain somewhat mythical beasts, people you typically only see — or hope to see! — on television or racing to help someone in distress or trying to save a burning building.

Socially, you might run into many different people, but in 20+ years in New York, I’ve only known one firefighter, married to a friend who was then, like me, a magazine editor.

They’re known as New York’s Bravest.

They also have truly legendary status here because so many of these men — 343 — died in the attacks of September 11, running into the Twin Towers to try to save those trapped within.

This week I happened to pass by Ladder Company 3, on East 13th street, on my way to a store next door.

It’s so often like that here, that I accidentally stumble onto a serious piece of the city’s long and complex history.

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Ladder Company Three was one of the worst-hit of  the city’s battalions, losing most of its men. Ironically, it’s one of the city’s oldest, founded — of course — on September 11, 1865. They lost 11 men, and the front of their firehouse is covered in plaques naming the men. Just inside the door is an elegant wooden wall with gallery lighting honoring them, and there’s a comfortable wooden bench in front, where grateful passersby like me can sit for a moment.

Like many people, I’m in awe of the work firefighters do: terrifying, dangerous, often lethal. They run, by choice and by profession, into the worst situations imaginable.

I stared into the firehouse’s open door, mesmerized by the enormity of its ladder truck parked within. I could see a coat rack, with each firefighter’s coat, his name on its back in huge reflective letters and a uniform, with its boots, ready to step into.

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A firefighter came to the doorway with two small portable bright orange chainsaws — one with serrated teeth, one with a smooth metal wheel. He fired them up to full strength, a task, he said, he does twice every day. Because so many people here live in apartments, they often need to cut through security gates.

I learned the difference between an engine (whose primary function is to spray water) and a ladder, needed, obviously, to reach the upper stories of taller buildings.

I also learned a new word — “taxpayer” — which refers to a small one or two-storey building in the city, both a real estate term and one used by firefighters.

Then — oh, beating heart keep still! — another truck pulled up, giving me a chance to see it up close. I got into conversation with a young, new firefighter, whose name was Middle Eastern, (many here, traditionally, are Irish), who’d previously served in the British military.

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He was super-nice and answered my torrent of questions: the truck carries only enough water to last three (!) minutes, so quick and ready access to a hydrant is essential; the truck carries a crew of five, including a commanding officer and driver; and they have a special set of tools to allow them access to people trapped in a subway tunnel.

I scrambled to take as many photos as I could, knowing the odds of being that close to a New York City firetruck again were slim.

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I essentially started my interviewing career — at the age of 12 — when I had to do an oral presentation for school and went to our local firehouse, in Toronto, to ask them about those little red boxes in the wall and all the drills we did, (this was a boarding school.)

I suspect everyone not wearing that uniform is as in awe and wonder as I am at their skill and bravery.

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7 thoughts on “A NYC firefighter, and his engine

  1. Mary DiBiase Blaich

    Caitlin, nice story! My husband was a chief in the house for several years. One memory I have of Ladder 3 was Christmas time when the truck backed out, and the ladder was extended to their roof to get Santa and a reindeer down for the company party. My two boys were given gifts from a firefighter playing santa who was lost on 9/11. Regards to Jose.

  2. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Sunday links | A Bit More Detail

  3. You chose the firehouse of Captain Patrick Brown, whose last words to the dispatcher have become legendary: “This is Three Truck, and we’re still heading up!” (One thing Pat hated was being “idle” 🙂 He was a very close friend of mine, and the reason I am now writing— first to help me heal, and now as a major creative outlet in my life. I collected people’s remembrances of him for several years after 9/11 into a book “Miss You, Pat.” I have to say, you got closer to the truck interior than I ever did! Thank you for devoting a post to New York’s Bravest!

    1. Wow. Thank you so much for reading — and sharing this connection. It must be very hard to read anything about him and that day. I was very struck by all the memorials at that firehouse and how real it is for them all, even this long afterwward.

      So good to hear from you again! 🙂

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