Firefighters are modestly paid, highly trained public servants who work under frighteningly dangerous conditions. Until recently, they were largely anonymous firehouses are commonplace, and most city dwellers passed them without a second thought about the people who work there.
But the deaths of 343 New York City firefighters on Sept. 11 changed that forever. Indeed, it's hard to imagine another occupation whose status and visibility has changed so quickly and dramatically and at such steep cost.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam's latest book tells us a great deal about firefighters by studying the men of Engine 40 and Ladder 35 who answered the call on Sept. 11. This upper West Side station located six miles from ground zero was, quite simply, wiped out. Of the 13 men on duty that morning, 12 perished.
Halberstam introduces us to the men of Engine 40 and Ladder 35, or 40/35 in firemen's parlance, by analyzing the culture and values of the firehouse and firefighters. It is a brotherhood that demands discipline, trust, and loyalty. Their overarching value is a deep and abiding commitment to one another.
Halberstam writes: "In the firehouse, the men not only live and eat with each other, they play sports together, go off to drink together, help repair one another's houses and, most important, share terrifying risks; their loyalties to each other must, by the demands of the dangers they face, be instinctive and absolute."
It is a world that many of the 40/35 firefighters grew up in. Most were second- and even third-generation firemen who eagerly sought this career. Even fathers who advised looking elsewhere found their sons drawn almost irresistibly to it. "I watched you come home from work happy," says one firefighter in explaining his decision to pursue his father's occupation.
Like many of Halberstam's other bestselling books, "Firehouse" weaves a bigger story around biographies of the key participants. We learn where the men were from, what their parents did, why they became firemen, how they met their wives, and how they got to 40/35.
The men have much in common: They are physically strong and emotionally balanced; love their jobs; have extremely high standards for performance; take impeccable care of their equipment; understand and perpetuate the rituals of the firehouse; and trust each other with their lives.
Even though he never met them, it's clear that Halberstam likes them, and we do too. Of the 13 men who left the station on Sept. 11, only Kevin Shea survived. He had joined 40/35 in early July 2001 and already established himself as someone who "worked maniacally hard." He had just been relieved and was getting into his car when the call came. Even though his replacement was already on duty, Shea jumped on the other truck to lend a hand.
He remembers the strangely quiet ride to the site and recalls the utter chaos once they arrived. But he remembers nothing else. He was found unconscious with a severe concussion, amnesia, a broken neck, and missing fingers on one hand. But he was alive.
Later, as Shea slowly recovered, he began to worry about what he had done at ground zero and felt guilty about being the only survivor. He discussed his fears and confusion with a reporter. Bad idea: The New York Times Magazine cover story about his experience was titled "Amnesia at Ground Zero: Was the Firefighter a Hero or a Coward?" His colleagues thought the story unfair, but Shea's doubts and depression only deepened after being labeled a potential coward.
Equally moving are the stories of the firefighters' families: how they learned of the fire, the hurried last calls from the men before they left the station, the fear and desperation that set in after the buildings collapsed, and, ultimately, the realization that the men had died. One father, himself a former battalion chief, eventually got through to someone 18 hours later and asked about Truck 35, his son's vehicle. He was told it was missing. "What the hell does that mean?" he asked. "Is the whole company missing?"
"Yes," came the reply, "the whole company is missing."
Indeed, with one exception, the men of 40/35 were all "missing." But thanks to Halberstam's graceful, insightful, and deeply moving book, we know them and can appreciate their bravery. Of course, they demonstrated that same bravery every time they rushed out of the firehouse. We just never thought about it.
Terry W. Hartle is a senior vice president of the American Council on Education.