ROGER ROSENBLATT: In a period of less than six weeks this past winter, three New York City firefighters died doing what firefighters do--put out the fires. The roof of a burning building collapsed on Louis Valentino in the Flatland section of Brooklyn. Not long before his death, Valentino had attended the funeral of James Brian Williams, another firefighter who was killed in a Rockaway, Queens fire. And both Valentino and Williams had paid their respects at the funeral of Lt. John M. Clancy, who died in a Jamaica, Queens fire less than a month before that.
(bagpipe music in background) The deaths of the three men make a total of eleven firefighters killed on duty since March 1994, when a fire in the Soho section of Manhattan killed three in one blow. New Yorkers take in these deaths in news stories with antipodal tones. There is the scene of the fire with its terrible hypnotic frenzy, and there is the scene of the funeral, heavy and darkly ceremonial, like an ancient rite for an ancient hero. (bagpipe music in background)
Between the scenes of the battle and the consequence lies the question: Why do they do it? After the most recent New York deaths, people began to suggest that firefighters are getting unnecessarily aggressive. To risk one's life to rescue a baby from a burning building is one thing, but why risk your life for a pile of bricks?
The Brooklyn structure that fell in was used as a chop shop for stolen cars. It was in violation of the building codes and the fire codes too. But the firefighters respond that there is no way not to do their jobs aggressively. Society asks them to put out its fires, so they do.
The risk involved is the same size as the task. Think of it. There is no other job which by its nature automatically entails the risk of one's life. Even police and soldiers can have quiet patrols and still be said to do policing and soldiering. But a firefighter, to be a firefighter goes into fires.
Until last summer, people in the Northeast knew little of forest fires, other than pictures shown of professionals and volunteers in places like California. Then a forest fire that began the parched woods of Eastern Long Island brought the enormity of the event home. Breathtaking, literally, the fire devours the oxygen and rolls like a deadly sea where the wind takes it. Firefighters rush to one location; the fire lurches to another.
The scorched trees, like scorched buildings, are black beyond black. There comes a moment when watching the fire's relentless, capricious progress that one thinks they'll never stop it; the fire will eat the world. And then it is stopped. The fighters stand around in their oversized outfits, sweating, red in the face. The heat is off. The enemy, the beast, as in a story of ancient heroes, lies in a heap and smolders.
I think it is the cognizance of fear that drives firefighters to put their lives on the line, not their fear, ours. They protect life. They keep the fires away. That is what they do. That is all they do. Until one of them dies, people may forget how exceptional they are. But when the worst comes, we know who these people are and when one of them is killed, we remember who they were in the world.
"When I grow up, I want to be a fireman." Do kids still say that? If they do and if they mean it, they will grow taller, stronger, and more impressive than any building or any tree.
I'm Roger Rosenblatt.