NEW YORK – Firefighters are the new American heroes, but balancing superhuman status with crushing grief has the nation's bravest coping with wrenching emotional extremes.
Since Sept. 11, an outpouring of public admiration has bestowed unprecedented perks on these civil servants. Pro athletes, President Bush and even Playboy playmates have visited Ground Zero to lift spirits.
Miss America made an appearance, actor Robert DeNiro came to an informal meet-and-greet and comedian Denis Leary organized a fundraiser. And of course, regular New Yorkers have flooded their local firehouses to help their heroes heal.
"The neighbors have been incredible," said Danny Lopez, a firefighter for Engine Co. 205 and Ladder Co.118 in Brooklyn, a station that lost eight men in the disaster.
"The dry cleaner around the corner cleans our Class A uniforms for free, which has been really helpful since we've been wearing them often, to funerals and memorials," he said.
And the neighborhood association is refinishing the station's basement, where the men relax between calls. "They couldn't believe what shabby shape it was in. They are sending a contractor over to fix it up and install a bathroom," Lopez, a 20-year FDNY veteran, said.
Rejuvenated respect for firefighters has even reverberated nationally. "People finally appreciate what firemen do for them — that on any given day our lives could be at risk," said Mike Salzano, a fireman-paramedic in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., who rushed to New York City to help with the rescue effort.
"When we came back home, everyone was so thankful," he said. "People now come up to us and say, 'good job' and 'thanks for being here.'"
But the firefighters get much more than just kind words from their new fans. Musical displays of appreciation have been a favorite for Lt. Tom Skeados of Ladder Co. 25 in Manhattan. "Once, at 2 a.m., a professional singer and a cellist were walking by the station and they stopped and played for us. It was very relaxing."
But VIP visitors are a mixed bag. While some famous New Yorkers act like just another friendly neighbor, others are seen as opportunists.
"Some celebrities have stopped by the firehouse, they live in the area and they want to help out and tell us they are thankful," said Skeados. "But a lot of it seems like self-promotion, some just jump out of a car, get a photo taken with us and leave."
Celebrities may not always impress, but what about local women with sudden firemen fetishes?
"A group of women from the neighborhood came by and sang risqué songs to us like 'You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.' They sang and swayed kind of erotically," said Skeados. "The firemen loved it."
However, just because women suddenly find manly firemen more irresistible than ever, not every hero has legions of ladies around him.
"I've heard available men are having a remarkably good time," said Skeados. "But my wife treats me just the same as always. Young guys are having a blast, riding the wave of all these good feelings."
But the emotional highs of all the attention, benefit concerts and star sightings are countered by the lows of remembering the firefighters who have been lost.
"The whole experience has been such an emotional roller-coaster ride," said Joe Tisbe of Engine Co. 40. "It's not so much about feeling guilty being out at a bar or a benefit concert. People feel guilty just being alive. The guilt is always with you."
Inner conflict and the drive they have to find all 343 of their fallen brothers is a trauma most people could never imagine, Kathleen Tierney, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, said.
"These firefighters are looking for the remains of their dear friends. It doesn't get any harder than this, and on their days off they go to funerals," she said. "Yes, it's nice that they are valorized, it really helps them a lot, but what they're really interested in is doing the right things as they see it and finishing the job that they are there for."
Skeados acknowledged that the up and down sometimes feels jarring. "I find it very unusual that people can mix the two — going to a wake then the next moment they're at a benefit party. It wears on the soul to go to so many fireman funerals."
And while Lopez said all the positive attention helps the firefighters, it sometimes feels awkward. "It is a little much because you're still thinking about the guys who are missing, and you're still here," he said. "But we are not heroes, this is our job."
Still, the public's appreciation for the firefighters helps get them through the long days and hard work.
"Social support is very important for anybody who has gone through this kind of stress and loss," said Tierney. "All the praise may be awkward, but it really does help."