We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. We band of firemen. That’s my paraphrase of the famous battle oration from William Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
Unfortunately, I’m no Shakespeare. And I’m certainly no fireman. But I am a witness. And so I will tell you some of what I heard and saw in Manhattan these past few days.
I was in Washington D.C. on Tuesday. The Pentagon is visible from my window, so I saw the smoke from that plane-crash fire first-hand. But otherwise, I saw the same horrible, memorable, indelible images of the World Trade Center towers collapsing on TV that just about everyone else on the planet has seen by now.
So when the news reported that thousands of people were missing and quite likely dead--including 200, then 300, then maybe 400 firemen, I had the same thought as most Americans: this is war.
Of course the casualty totals already dwarf those from many famous battles in U.S. history; in the whole of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for example, those killed in action totaled 148. Even the death toll at Pearl Harbor was about 2300.
But while we all mourn those who were killed, I couldn’t help but think mostly of those firefighters and other rescue workers, the men and women who put on the gear and ran to the fire when everyone else was running away, who ran up the stairs when everyone else was running down.
Arriving in New York on Friday, I went straight to the National Guard Armory at 26th Street and Lexington Avenue, to the place where the families of all the victims were invited to come and hear the latest information about their loved ones. They didn’t let me in, of course,
but as I stood outside, with all the others who were part of an unstated vigil, I looked at the imposing gray building and saw inscribed on the high walls, “Gettysburg,” “St. Mihiel,” and other battles of the past. I thought that some day, maybe, “World Trade Center” would be on that wall, too.
But all the while, on that corner, and every corner, I could overhear voiced bits of conversation: “the firemen” ; “what about the firemen?” ; “how ‘bout those guys?”
I met the brother of one, Christopher Suarez Franklin; he was passing out flyers bearing the name of his brother, Benjamin, NYFD, Ladder Company 21. Missing. I look at his picture: a muscular looking fellow in his mid-30s, with a child on his knee. If you have any information about Ben, the flyer reads, call his wife, Sally, or his kids, Christian and Angela.
There’s a firehouse on the corner of 48th Street and 8th Avenue, just north of Times Square. It’s drab brown block of a building, but the words on the walls mean more now; they sing with gallant eloquence: Engine Company 54, Ladder Company 4, Battalion 9. And on the sidewalk, in bunches and bushels, six feet high in places, are flowers. They’re
eloquent, too; they speak to the admiration of ordinary New Yorkers—old, young, black, white, straight, gay, square, punk--who have come to drop off these laurels, to light candles, to relight candles that have guttered out, and to just stand there, in mournful and appreciative
silence. David Letterman sent over a truckfull of supplies; the actresses Valerie Harper and Michelle Lee, playing in a Broadway show just around the corner, came by earlier to pay their quiet respects.
But most eloquent of all is a big frame picture frame, with 15 photographs on it. Joe Angelini. Carl Asaro. Mike Brennan. Al Feinberg. Ed Geraghty. Jose Guadalupe. John Gill. Mike Haub. Mike Lynch. Dan O’Callaghan. Sam Oitice. Lou Ragaglia. Chris
Santora. John Tipping. Dave Wooley.
Signs are everywhere. Most are general: “Thanks.” “You’re in our prayers.” “This great nation will not falter.” But some are specific: a big poster dedicated to “Uncle Mike.” Another reads: “Dear Lt. Callaghan. I hope you are safe + thank you for hanging out with me at the station.”
The firemen—New York’s Bravest, they call them—are there, too, mingling with the crowd, answering questions, accepting hugs. They’ve all been down to the World Trade Center for duty, but somebody has to stay back to be ready to deal with other fires and emergencies—other occasions to risk their lives.
Joe Maresca, 32, has the swarthy handsomeness of George Clooney, although he’s thinner—or maybe he’s just more gaunt after the last few days. He passed the fireman’s exam in 1992, but had to wait seven years to get on the force; he took a pay cut when he took the job.
Why did he want this work? “I like to help people. If I weren’t doing this, I’d like to be a school teacher, or a child psychologist.”
Where was he on Tuesday morning? “I had just finished a shift; I was in the shower when the call came. The truck left without me."
So it was an accident that he wasn’t on the first wave—and that’s why he was there to
talk to me. Having just finished a 15-hour shift, he got on the next truck and then put in another 15-hour tour of duty. Since then, he’s had 24 hours on, 24 hours off.
I ask him how he feels about the loss of his comrades. “They’re missing,” he corrects me, and notes that one of the wives is just a few feet away. But of course, he knows that his “brothers” —that’s what all firemen call each other---are most likely missing forever. After all, a whole firetruck—a 50-footer—is missing from their firehouse. That’s how much debris and rubble came raining down on those men and machines that first got to the site, before the Twin Towers collapsed.
Changing the subject, I ask him what he thinks should happen to the World Trade Center site. “Build it back up. America is about progression and perfection. We’re about doing better, living longer, curing cancer, going to the moon. Build it back.”
I’m not sure I agree. I think that maybe we should leave the demolished zone as a permanent memorial, so that people from this day forth to the end of the world, as Shakespeare’s Henry V said, will know what happened on that day, and who died, and why.
All Americans, indirectly, will get some say about those acres in lower Manhattan, where thousands perished. But not so many Americans—certainly not me—can get inside the head and the hearts of those who fought so heroically on Tuesday, those who went valiantly to
When I asked Moresca what he thought now about being a fireman, after Tuesday, he answered without hesitation: “Best job on the planet.”
I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand how Joe came to that
conclusion, but I know this: I’ll remember his words for as long as I
live, and I want you to remember them, too. That band of
brothers--fewer than they once were, but still happy to do their
duty--deserve at least that much from the rest of us.